The We Are Feeling Lucky experience is one of the coolest things to happen in Greenville since I've arrived. The outpouring of support from the government, business, and individuals is something special and pretty unique to Greenville. Our favorite side project was a photo essay of some Google mice falling in love with the Greenville mice. Southside High School's IB Design Technology class, led by Tom Rogers, thought up, created and executed on this vision quickly and with little budget. We were smitten by the idea and the execution and asked Mr. Rogers to tell the story of how a couple Mice found love.
I like to call them popcorn moments—those times when ideas pop into my head seemingly out of nowhere. While I can't say exactly where they come from, they're always triggered by a string of questions.
It was a couple of days before Greenville's Google on Main event in Falls Park and some of my physics students excitedly filled me in about Greenville's efforts to become a test city for Google's ultra high speed network--the first time I'd heard about it. Afterward, they asked if I had any ideas for ways to attract Google's attention. I asked myself a follow-up question inside my head, "what would make a good attraction" and answered out loud, "it needs to be something unique to Greenville, especially something it's famous for". So, what would that be? Pop, a vision of the Mice on Main Street wearing Google t-shirts flashed into my mind. Hmm, I thought, maybe this could be a good student project as well as a good attention-getter.
Unfortunately, it was the end of a grading period and I already had too much to do, so I went home for the weekend to do my part by helping light up the "e" in "Google" on Saturday night. Still, I couldn't get the mice idea out of my head. How in the world could I get my grades done, figure out how to involve my students in a new project, make the t-shirts, take pictures, and post them on the internet all in a few days time. The solution came in another popcorn moment: forget the t-shirts, modify a computer mouse to look like its furry cousins, give it the Google label, then photograph it visiting the Main Street Mice and falling in love with Greenville (which is pretty easy to do, even for a very small person).
I teach a class called IB Design Technology that's perfect for projects like this. The class was an outgrowth of a Lemelson-MIT grant we got several years ago to build a stair climbing robot for carrying firefighting equipment. Once the project was completed and we'd shown off the robot at MIT, we still had some money left over. I decided to use it for creating a class focused on innovation, not just the generation of ideas, but how to take them from a thought inside someone's head to a working prototype. Southside High School (where I teach) is an International Baccalaureate (IB) magnet school and the IB Design Tech curriculum came the closest to fitting the concept I had in mind.
If I'm going to make something a class project, it has to relate to the curriculum, but this was no problem. Aside from designing and fabricating parts, it just so happened that, at the moment, we were studying electrical design. By wiring up LEDs for the mouse's eyes and nose, we could talk about diodes, parallel vs. series circuits, batteries, voltage ratings, and so on--all related to our curriculum.
Canned projects that consist of following a set of directions and making something out of a kit have their place but in a class about innovation, the best projects are one-of-a-kind. On the other hand, classroom time is precious. It's extremely important to keep all the students engaged and I couldn't do this by making just one mouse. We would have to make several.
Although I've had wonderful support in the past from companies like Honeywell, GE, and Lockheed, I have no official budget and my robot money is long gone. Fortunately, however, I never throw anything away. Over the years I have accumulated a drawer full of useless computer mice that were missing their rollers. (In the high school environment, one doesn't use the b-word for describing small spherical components attached to mice.) So, I was able to divide the class into several teams each with their own mouse. Okay, I still had to fund the paint and other parts out of my wallet, but at least the mice were free.
At the beginning of the year I have to explain everything to my students in painful detail&emdash;most have had no previous experience working with tools. However, by this time of year I need only describe a project in general terms and my students go to work. I had no idea how to make the ears but a student quickly solved the problem. I had shown the class a variety of capacitors a few days earlier when discussing them as part of our curriculum. In my engineer's mind (I'd been one for 18 years before teaching) capacitors were electronic components. To my student they were mouse ears. We held a soldering iron against the two wires protruding from a capacitor and melted them into a mouse's head. Presto, it had an ear.
After finishing the drilling and ear installation we needed to spray-paint. We had already cut holes in the bottoms of the mice for access. In addition, one team had disassembled their mouse into a top and bottom. When they began painting the disassembled parts, my right brain (which can't talk) started sending alarm signals. These manifest themselves as gut feelings. Unfortunately, my left brain couldn't figure out how to verbalize what was wrong, so I let the disassembled mouse parts be spray painted--oops. When they dried, we wired up and inserted the nose and eyes, then discovered that in spite of efforts to scrape off the overspray, the mouse parts simply wouldn't go back together. Our best attempts to assemble them left a thin but noticeable unpainted white plastic gap between the mouse halves.
As my engineer's mind struggled for a solution, one would think the student who'd created the "problem" would have been apologetic, but no! She got impatient with me because I hadn't seen that the white gap was actually a benefit. It was the broad smile of the Google mouse that was eventually photographed contemplating the prospects of a Google-Greenville partnership. Sometimes the "problem" is the best solution.
As mentioned earlier, we thought the computer mice needed to be adorned with the Google name and spent a considerable amount of time trying to affix it in a way that looked like it belonged. Finally, it dawned on us that we had forgotten the first principle of design: KISS--keep it simple stupid. Viewers would not just get the point but would get a better laugh if we didn't use the label. The mice were fine just as is.
Still one of our teams (all young women) wasn't satisfied. Their mouse needed to be female. After some experimenting with various possibilities, they achieved their goal by adding an earring and tail bow. This ended up being the only mouse with a Google label on it, but unlike our previous efforts, it worked!
We started the project on Monday and by Wednesday ventured to Main Street after school to take pictures. It might have made sense to write a script and create a storyboard before the photo session, but there wasn't enough time. Besides, we didn't know where all the mice were or exactly what they looked like. As we positioned the Google mice next to the Greenville ones, a story developed. I finished the project Wednesday evening by loading the photographs and story onto my website, and that's where the tale of how the Google Mice discovered the Main Street Mice ended. Hopefully, however, the story will extend into a happily-ever-after-tale with Google selecting Greenville as the site for prototyping its ultra high speed network. My students are already excited about the possibility.