Sunday, August 19, 2012

In the Name of Efficiency

See anything weird about this?

I started college as a Mechanical Engineer major since some college advisor (who knew nothing about me) thought ME (Mechanical Engineering) would be the most fitting major based on some test I completed coupled with my interest in math and science. As I was taking my prerequisite courses in math and science I switched gears to Electrical Engineering because my love for music swayed me into thinking I could design amplifiers and effects pedals (stompboxes) for musicians. I took a couple of EE classes and really didn't enjoy it. I wasn't passionate about it and saw many others in the same boat who kept making comments such as, "I have to finish this [major] now" or "I can't not major in electrical engineering" or "It's what my [insert parent gender] does." As for me, I really enjoyed my introductory Philosophy classes because they allowed me to explore some pretty radical thinkers and we had all these wonderful debates about logic, God, metaphysics, existentialism, human rights, medical rights, law, etc. I became a Philosophy major and the rest is history... I think. My point is, if anyone (me included) knew me well enough, they should have highly suggested I major in Civil Engineering.
Here's why CE:
I'm one of those people who drives by construction (road, building, bridges, pipes, etc.) and is always trying to figure out what is being built, modified, or enhanced in the name of efficiency. I'm also that person that drives by an area and will vocalize how inefficient the lane configurations are, or offramp, or stoplight sequence, etc. That's usually followed by a suggestion on how to improve it. My poor wife gets an earful at times. I'm also that guy that looks at products and either loves and respects an efficiently designed product or will completely be baffled that a company releases a product so poorly engineered and wreaking of inefficiency. Then, I spend the next 30 minutes thinking of ways to make it a better product or design while restraining myself from emailing the company. I know the latter example isn't necessarily classified as CE. However, I could see myself out there designing things to help improve civilian efficiency. Thank goodness I'm not. Instead, I'm in the classroom with normal adolescent  middle schoolers who are always are in a good mood and never have social problems or woes. Right? One can dream. I love my job. I love teaching those wonderful teenagers. There's never a dull moment with middle schoolers. As their teacher, my objective is to strengthen their young impressionable minds and help them be better critical thinkers.
Enough about me, the point of this post [In the Name of Efficiency] is I have an idea for my class this year. Dare I say 'theme'! And if it goes well, could easily become a staple for the remainder of my teaching career. That's how much I value this idea! We look for products that fit one of two categories:
  1. The product is very efficiently designed. We explore everything about it that makes it a superbly designed product. What math is involved? How is math involved?
  2. The product is inefficiently designed in one or more ways. Identify the area(s) of inefficiency and propose a well-thought out modification/enhancement. Again, how would math be involved? 
Here's a simple one for the first category: efficient.
A modern ketchup bottle.
The ketchup bottle that rests on its lid uses gravity to its advantage and you rarely have to shake the dang thing. Plus, your burger, dog, or fries will actually still be warm when you're done getting ketchup out of the bottle. Why did it take someone so long to think if this, right?
Here's an example that fits the second category: inefficient.
A depleted salt container.
Take that salt container at the top of this post. Granted, it took a couple of years to deplete the salt in the container, and maybe there's a new design out there, but I got to the end and there's still salt in it. No matter what angle I hold the container, or shake the cylindrical container, it won't pour out every little grain of salt. My question would be: How could we better design the spout? Should its location change? What would happen if the spout were closer to the rim? What would be the easiest, yet most effective change?
Companies do this all the time (or at least should). They reassess the efficiency of their products. Why can't a classroom full of students do the same? We/they complain about things all the time. I want my students to bring in stuff: pictures, products, construction site pictures, machines, etc. We discuss it for a week. We make a bulletin board of ideas. We split the board in half for efficient vs. inefficient. I want each student to be responsible for at least one contribution throughout the year. They do a brief write-up. Pick from a collection of modifications/enhancements submitted by their peers. Sketch or draw a new design. I'm ranting here because I want to flesh this out... I want this to work!
I want my students to bring things in that drive them bonkers. Fine, if you don't like it, think of something better. How would you design it? What would you want it to do? On the other hand, I want my kids to bring in things that they absolutely adore. Things they couldn't live without. Things that they take for granted on how awesome they are. This might require them to give it more thought. Usually something that is efficient, well-designed, well-made, and awesome can be overseen because of how great it is. The second it stops working, is gone, or replaced with an inferior product we pine. Talk about an opportunity for students to appreciate many of the wonderful, amazing, and unbelievable inventions of our time. I think this would foster a sense of gratitude for some of the cool things we experience every single day. It's not just about complaining and finding things that could be better. 
This is one thing I'll be doing differently this year. Am I off base here? This wouldn't be the foundation of my teaching, but it sure feels naturally appropriate to a math class. Aren't we teaching our kids to be better problem solvers? better critical thinkers? better contributors to society? I always tell them to better problem solvers and not better problem complainers. Don't we have things that drive us nuts? Within reason. I'm not talking about losing your internet in the middle of an airplane ride. Your life will go on without the internet for a few hours. Yes, it will! Don't even start with me. If you got a problem with losing the internet on a plane, read a book, pay attention to your kid for a few minutes, or talk to the person next to you. Everybody has a story to tell. Ask them what their story is. If you're not convinced, talk to my man Louis CK. Tell 'em CK:



  1. That's actually a great idea! To get admin off your back you could use the lens of the common core standards for mathematical practices. An activity like that allows students to "model with mathematics", "reason abstractly and quantitatively," and also "make sense of problems and persevere in solving them." I just glanced at 6th Grade curriculum map and it can definitely be integrated in any one of the units! I love it! Practical problem-solving is what it's all about. If anything this could be a project for the math club, if the scope and sequence proves to be too tight!

    1. Thanks. I was keeping the CCSS in the back of my mind as I was writing this. I think I'll be posting quite frequently about product efficiency here and be sure to attach standards.

  2. This is a great idea, Andrew!(Oh, and everything else Mr. Carby said above. Smart to talk about this idea using CCSS verbiage.)

    As I read your post I'm shaking my head because that's EXACTLY what I do with stuff too! I'm either saying, "This is a piece of crap! How many people it did take to make this lousy apparatus?" Or "Wow, this is cool! The design is ingenious... Somebody was thinking." Lotion bottles with pumps are notorious for not allowing you to get all the stuff out. What's with plastic wraps around CDs/DVDs or the hard plastic around some products? I know it's meant to deter theft, but for crying outloud, I risk stabbing myself to death trying to open one of these. I'm pretty much a clean freak, so anything that makes it difficult to clean is my worst pet peeve. I'll shut up and leave now. Love the video clip!

    1. CCSS to come. I was actually thinking of including the inefficiency of lotion bottles in this post. I've sketched up a few designs over the years, but that's about as far as that has gotten. CDs? DVDs? What are those? Ha, I think my last CD bought was 3 years ago. Speaking of deterring theft, how about all that packaging for some CostCo products?

  3. I don't know if we've had this discussion yet, but I was an EE major (and an engineer for six years). And like an idiot I committed myself to it because I didn't know what else to do. But now! I'm getting paid half as much for twice the work. But it's cool. I like what I do.
    I really like this idea. At first it sounds tough, but I started thinking, "what product is frustrating me right now?" My cell phone. My fingers are too fat to text. I have to use my fingernails or I hit too many letters. Why couldn't I redesign the size to something more appropriate.
    This really sounds like a great way to teach some geometry and measurement. I'm thinking not all students would be able to bring something in that could be redone in a very mathematical way. But the few products that are good to rework could be improved by everyone. You'll need to report back on this.

    1. You know what else needs to be improved. Those stupid letters I have to try to decipher before I can submit my comment on your blog. SO AGGRAVATING!
      I'm guessing I'll have to do it again now. Sigh.

    2. Dude, those cryptic letters for submitting comments are the lamest. I'm right there with ya. I agree that not all students will be able to bring in something inefficient. That's why I think it's extremely valuable to bring in something that is efficient, talk about the positive characteristics, and learn appreciation. What makes it subjectively valuable? I think most students can at least do that.

  4. Love this post...product efficiency is more of an industrial engineering thing I believe, but nevertheless very cool and interesting.

    I have a civil engineering degree and now I teach math. I started as an architecture major and luckily found my way to the assistant dean of engineering who talked me through all the different engineering degrees until we found the one that suited me.

    While I loved school and loved learning everything there was about building things and putting things together...working in the real world was just not as fun and exciting. It's all about budgets, getting new clients and lots and lots of municipal meetings.

    There are only so many Golden Gate bridges that get built at any given time. You have to be in the right place at the right time for those types of jobs, or else you get stuck with run of the mill pipes, grading, drainage, boring DOT bridges, traffic studies, etc. Anyway, teaching math is my true love, and I'm just glad I found my way to it eventually.

    1. Yes, product efficiency is definitely IE, but I was simply illustrating that CE would have been a better engineering route for me. I loved Philosophy. Pipes, grading, drainage, etc isn't all that glamorous, but it truly is invaluable. Sounds a lot like teaching!