A Curriculum for a Year of Technology

I wrote this ten years ago as a letter to be sent to educators of influence--a project I later dropped.

Dear Sir:

First, I wish to make absolutely clear that I am not asking for anything and have no plans to make any money from this. I chose you for my mailing list because my study indicates that you are someone who can hear me out and generate discussion and enthusiasm around these concepts. I would appreciate your reading this and, of course, would appreciate any feedback you might have.

I need to tell you how I got to this.

My interest in science and technology extends as far back a I can recall. I was doing electronics and attempting to learn computer science by age eleven. I was told, however, repeatedly by teachers and family members that I could never do science or engineering unless I shaped up. I heard the "never" and opted for liberal arts. Three quarters of grad school in education exposed my childhood educational trauma, but didn't assuage it, and I left school. For the last twelve years, I have worked as an electronics technician, doing repairs and engineering projects--some of them requiring a lot of fairly sophisticated programming and engineering. I have also taught electronics and computer science courses at the local college.

At various times during the last twenty-five years, my thinking has repeatedly turned to science and technical education and the sad lack of understanding in people I met. Even sadder was the number of engineers who couldn't do simple calculus six months after getting their EIT certificates.

I had no solutions, but the whole thing pained me, and I couldn't leave it alone.

The germ of a solution has begun to present itself.

One part of the solution is to generate maximal enthusiasm.

The other part of the solution is to teach only what is really useful.

Ideas on Maximal Enthusiasm

The most important way to create enthusiasm is to get the student building and doing with things the student owns and understands. There should be minimal paper and maximal stuff. If the student can concievably do a thing, that student should be allowed to try it. My proposal uses prebuilt patterns and canned computer programs to help students over the tricky parts with no paper and no text book. Using recycled plastic, glass and aluminum and simple hand tools,interesting technical equipment can be built so cheaply that each student can own it.

Nothing creates interest like being able to say, "I built this thing myself, I understand it, it works and its mine."

Expensive equipment has to be protected, and, usually, is too complex to clearly explicate the principle on which it is based. Students can rarely tell the difference between a twenty dollar microscope and a thousand dollar one. A one hundred dollar oscilloscope can be explained to an eight year old, while a four thousand dollar one confuses professionals.

As a child, I was given a set of kits manufactured by American Basic Science Club. Each month, a new box of stuff would arrive, and I would build something. The stuff was cheap, but I built oscillators, meters, telescopes, microscopes, spectroscopes, weather monitors, photographic equipment--the list was staggering. I played with it for years. I've seen nothing like it since. It could be re-created today with a few cans, bottles, and transistors for pennies.

Ideas on What is Really Useful

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine ( who has traveled the world stirring up her fellow educators) challenged me to put the basic concepts of western civilization on a page of paper. I haven't succeeded, but I am convinced that it is possible to do.

Such a page, easily memorized, would serve as a roadmap to the universe. All the things learned after that could be referred to this schema. One example will show how it might work: one primary concept is that of the equation: Something equals something.

If I change one side of the equation, and I change the other side in the same way, I still have an equation. In geometry, the equation is congruency of figures; in algebra, it's the formula; in chemistry, it's a description of chemical reactions; in mechanical engineering, it's the free body diagram; in electronics, it's Kirchoff's laws.

The sad fact is that most students of geometry never realize they are dealing with equations. The roadmap is missing.

I have built my career by knowing a small set of very useful skills which I apply successfully to situation after situation. Everybody does this. The skills are the parts of what we've learned which are the easiest and most useful. All of technology is accomplished by the repeated application of a few tools and techniques to new situations. The older I get, the shorter the real list of useful stuff becomes. When I am old, I hope to get the list on a single page, after all.

A short list can be taught over and over in different ways and formats until every bit of it is understood. Once this curriculum is understood, it becomes the roadmap for understanding everything else.

Other Thoughts

My feeling is that this could be presented in a year or so as a general science course for thirteen to fifteen year olds.

Everyone has some subject which should be added to this list, and many additions can be defended quite well. I wish to note two deliberate omissions: biology and organic chemistry.

Biology, by the nature of its subject, is complex. It is a wonderful study, but provides few tools of general applicability. The equipment which it uses is provided by the disciplines on the list ( electronics, statistics, and optics, for example). Beyond this concern is the fact that television has saturated the educational environment with the pseudo-biology of the nature show, making every child know more "biology" than they actually do.

Organic chemistry is also complex and, almost from the first experiment, dangerous.

I would be willing to assist in any way I can to spark more discussion, and I hope you enjoy my offering.

Sincerely, Ted Crook

Notes for a General Science and Technology Curriculum

  • A maximally fruitful course should incorporate two fundamental principles:

    1. Work always to generate as much enthusiasm and love for the subjects as possible.

    2. Teach only those things which are really neccesary.

  • It is always better to learn one thing well than a million things badly. Depth is provided by using the most valuable tools and techniques over and over again in many different contexts.

  • Learning is always enhanced with a little theory conjoined to a lot of practice.

  • Things are always more interesting when they are attached to something you personally own and have built. The more actively involved one can be in the whole process, the more will be retained. A large part--the major part-- of science has always been the construction of new tools. Flamsteed and Herschel's telescopes, Van Leewonhoeck's microscope, Tycho Brahe's setting circles, Galileo's pendulae--all scientists have toys.Giving a true picture of science without building apparatus is impossible and the attempt has a great deal to do with the failure of science teaching.

  • All work should start with something concrete and tangible--maybe even visceral. Practical first, theory second.

  • A Curriculum Embodying these Principles

    I.Preparatory work.
       A.  Chemistry  (1 week)
            1. Acid-base and oxidation-reduction.
                    a. No complicated ideas here--just that an acid + a base = a 
                       salt, and that metals can be reduced from their ores.
            2. A brief look at the periodic table.
                    a. atomic number, atomic wt., simple valence.
            3. A brief look at some equations and the concept of equation.
        B.  Math   (6 weeks)
            1. Geometry
                    a. Triangles
                            (1) Types: equilateral, isoceles, right.
                            (2) congruency.
                            (3) Pythagorean theorem.
                            (4) Rigidity of the triangle.
                    b. Other figures
                            (1) square,rectangle,pentagon,hexagon,octagon.
                            (2) constructing triangles within other figures
                    c. Ruler and compass constructions.
                            (1) bisections.
                            (2) measuring.
                            (3) making figures.
            2. Number Theory.
                    a. Reasons for the number types
                            (1) natural,whole,rational,real,complex.
                                    (a) fractions as equations
                                           (i) cross multiplication and dividing 
                                                and multiplying fractions
                            (2) Decimal arithmetic.
                                    (a) making fractions into decimals.
                    b. Numbers used in computers
                             (1) Binary,Octal,and Hexidecimal.
                             (2) ASCII code
            3. Algebra.
                    a. the concept of a formula
                            (1) evaluating formulae
                    b. the concept of an equation
                            (1) manipulating simple equations and formulae.
                    c. The quadratic formula.
                            (1) exponents.
                    d. The concept of a function.
                            (1) functions as tables of values.
                    e. The logarithmic functions.
                            (1) the two bases.
                            (2) the logarithmic table and its uses with 
                                multiplication and exponentiation.
                    f. Logical (Boolean) algebra.
                            (1) IF-THEN,AND, OR, and NOT.
                            (2) Truth tables.
            4. Analytical Geometry.
                    a. The equation of a line ( the y = mx + b form)
                            (1) the slope of a line.
                    b. The equations for circles, ellipses,parabolas and 
            5. Trigonometry.
                    a. "Chief SOH CAH TOA" ( the 3 formulas for sin,cos,and tan).
                    b. the sine and cosine laws.
                    c. simple vectors and stress analysis.
            6. Calculus.
                    a. The slope of a tangent.
                            (1) Nx to the n-1
                            (2) the trig results
                            (3) the natural log result
                    b. The area under a curve
                            (1) The fundamental theorem
            7. statistics.
                    a. Mean and standard deviation.
                    b. correlation coefficient
                    c. significance tests
            8. Probability.
                    a. permutations
                    b. simple probability.
            All math should be taught concretely first, then formally.
    II.  Technology studies.
         ( There are five areas in the development of technology: High temperature 
    processes, high precision processes, high vacuum processes, high pressure 
    processes, chemical processes, and electronics.)   
            A. High Temperature Processes
                    1. Safety procedures and equipment
                            a. High temperatures are unforgiving.  The absolute 
                               nature of the the safety requirement is useful in
                               teaching the safe use of all materials.  The 
                               importance of safety in High temperature cannot
                               be questioned by anyone.
                                    (1) The use of aprons, foot guards,gloves,
                                         goggles, dark face sheilds, and proper
                                        crucible handling.
                    2. Ore Baking and reduction
                            a. The chemical processes in various common ores.
                                    (1) Simple mineralogy
                    3. Glass making
                            a. Simple glassblowing and casting
                    4. Casting
                            a. green sand casting
                                    (1) patternmaking and design
                                    (2) handling the cope and flask
                            b. Lost wax and plaster
            B. High Precision
                    1. Building a surface plate (students in groups of three)
                            a. Mechanical and optical plates and testing.
    {Once the first 3 plates are built, the teacher should hold one up 
    dramatically, and, hopefully with tears in his eyes, say,
            "I wonder how many millions of humans had to suffer in darkness, how 
    many tears were shed, before the first surface plate came into existence.  
    This is the start--this is the touchstone--of all technology.  This little 
    plate is an example of the finest work humanity can do."}
                    2. Building a lathe.
                            a.Building the bed and ways
                                (1) Drilling,filing and scraping a box tubing bed 
                                    using the surface plate to test for truth.
                                (2) Bolting on cold rolled flat bar for ways and
                                    scraping to truth.
                                (3) Building the headstock, carriage, cross slide,
                                    tailstock, and face plate from supplied
                                    (a) casting in sand.
                                    (b) filing and scraping to truth.
                                    (c) installing cross slide ways.
                                    (d) installing gibs.
                                    (e) boring the head and tailstocks.
                                 (4) Installing bearings, pulleys,tailstock ram,
                                     and mounting the motor or treadle.
                                 (5) Building centers and dogs.
                                 (6) installing an all-thread lead screw.
                    3. Using the lathe to build a high precision optical 
                            a. Choosing the instrument.
                                  (1) Microscopes, telescopes, spectroscopes, 
                                      transits, magnifiers, photo enlargers and 
                            b. Building the optical flat and  grinding tools
                            c. Design and ray tracing ( computer program).
                            d. Casting and machining metal parts (supplied 
                            e. Preparing optical glass.
                            f. Grinding lenses.
                            g. Final installation and setup.
                    4. Building or demonstrating reciprocating piston and cylinder
                            a. Engines.
                            b. Compressors and refrigerators.
                            c. Pumps--liquid and vacuum.
            C. High Vacuum Processes, High Pressure processes,
               and Chemical Processes.
    { Beyond simple demonstrations and lectures, most of these processes are 
    inherently too complex and dangerous for child consumption.}  
                    1. High vacuum.
                            a. Demonstration of the cathode ray tube.
                            b. Discussion of transistor and IC manufacture.
                            c. Demonstration of sputtering.
                    2. High pressure.
                            a. Demonstration of refrigeration and gas liquification.
                            b. Demonstration of gas liquification.
                            c. Hydraulics.
                    3. Chemical processes.
                            a. Protein and Carbohydrates.
                                    (1) Kitchen science.
                                    (2) Simple nutrition.
                            b. Plastics
                                    (1) Types and manufacture.
                            c. Demonstrations with strong acids and bases.
                            d. Fuels.
                            e. Batteries.
            D. Electronics.
    {All work is to be done by the student. Only two formulas are used for 
    this work: ohm's law and the voltage divider formula}
                    1. Batteries, resistors, ohm's law, and the meter.
                    2. Capacitors, coils, and the ocilloscope.
                    3. AC and DC ( and the ocilloscope).
                            a.That capacitors conduct AC, but not DC.
                            b.That resistors and coil conduct both.
                    4. Voltage dividers ( and the ocilloscope and meter).
                            a. Potentiometers.
                    5. Diodes.
                    6. The transistor emitter follower with voltage divider input. 
                    7. The transistor emitter follower with blocking capacitor and
                       AC input.                       
                    8. The common emitter transistor circuit with voltage divider 
                    9. The common emitter transistor with blocking capacitor and
                       AC input.
                    10.The Differential amp.
                    11.The complementary symmetry output stage.
                    12. Building a small stereo system with supplied PC patterns.
                    13. Digital transistor circuits.
                            a. emitter follower and open collector.
                            b. AND, OR, NOT, and comparison circuits
                            c. S-R flipflop
                                    (1) use as computer memory.
                            d. Toggled flipflop
                            e. binary counters and adders.
                    14. Computer I/O
                            a. Shaft encoders and motor drivers.
                            b. Motor principles.
                    15. building a ROBOT or CNC lathe.
                    16. programming the ROBOT or lathe with a LOGO type language.
    III. The Big picture: Environmental and human concerns.
            A. Technology's big offenders.
                    1. Fossil fuels and transportation.
                    2. Agricultural practices and food choices.
                    3. Housing choices.
                    4. Toxic wastes.
                            a. Major offenders.
            B. Technology alternatives.
                    1. Solar heating and generation.
                            a. Tradeoffs and analysis.
                    2. Efficient transportation.
                            a. The electric train and bicycle culture.
                            b. Carnot efficiency and the electric motor.
                    3. Vegetarian lifestyle, and organic multi-culture farming.
                    4. Wood-free housing.
                            a. concrete, steel, and aluminum.
                            b. stress analysis and tension-compression.
                                    (1) B. Fuller, et. al.
                            c. Dirt and rock.
                    5. Recycling
                            a. physical processes.
                            b. chemical processes.
                    6. Space technology.
                            a. Power satellites
                            b. The remote controlled lunar mine.
            C.  Human concerns.
                    1. Automation and human work.
                            a. What stops the Utopia from happening.
                    2. Technology and the human soul.
                            a. The history of technology and religion.
                    3. Science and exploitation.
                            a. Subject-object and I-thou
                            b. Resource exploitation
                            c. Human exploitation