Thinking outside the box

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself." -- Lloyd Alexander, author

Many innovations that have occurred over the years have been a direct result of people looking for the answer to a totally different question. But the quest often reveals more than was originally planned.

That's one of the things that makes learning so important. A practical demonstration of this was given on Sunday at the Plymouth County Historical Museum by a group of local young people. David, Ruth and Jonathan Temme, Dominic Loutsch, David Barker and Derek Probst, who wear Jedi robes and call themselves the Lightsavers (play on the "Star Wars" theme) are set to compete at Iowa State against about 70 other teams in an engineering competition.

Each year, kids around the world compete in the competition under a new theme. This year's was energy. The challenge was twofold: design and build a Lego robot that can accomplish a specific set of tasks, and study a public building and give recommendations on how energy conservation could be increased there.

Their robot, about half the size of a shoebox, can do 14 tasks in required 2.5 minutes, things like put a Lego hydroelectric dam in place on a miniature river, attach a Lego solar panel to a Lego house, and move "coal" and "uranium" to a Lego power plant.

Their recommendations for the museum ranged from practical, common sense solutions: weatherstripping and insulation, replacing furnaces with heat pumps to the futuristic and cutting edge: replacing lighting with solar powered fiber-optic lights, adding ceramic microspheres to housepaint to insulate for heat and soundproof rooms.

One of the energy generating proposals involved putting pressure on an atom within a molecule. With this kind of technology built into a person's shoes, they could power two 60-watt bulbs for a fraction of a second with one step.

The museum got some advice that they could use to help cut energy consumption, the students learned how to apply concepts in the real world and got some experience speaking in front of the public, something they will have to do a week from Saturday when their competition is held in Ames.

A very practical education for all.