Experiment

by Alexa Frisbie (M.T. ’91)

Alexa FrisbieScience education class at the Curry School. Professor Dick Rezba hands us a bag filled with wires, batteries, and lights. He says, “Experiment. I will check back in 10 minutes to learn what you discover.”

Huh? We sit at first. What are we supposed to do exactly? Rezba is silent, looking at us. He says no more. So we start experimenting. We touch wires, get a lightbulb to light. “Hey, does yours do this too? I wonder if it is because . . . let me try this to see . . .” In moments, we were experimenting, forming theories, and testing them.

I write in my notebook, “Sixteen years of schooling and this is the first time I have been allowed to truly experiment.”

Sure, I had completed step-by-step experiments from my text, but let’s be clear—I was following directions—nothing more. Each drop placed was carefully controlled. I couldn’t compare the effect on one drop versus two unless instructed. I was a variable to be controlled, not a designer of experiments.

And yet . . . that one moment, one word, prepared me for life more than any other.

Experiment.

Fast forward: College graduation with my master’s degree, moving to San Francisco in 1991, no job, and no set path for getting one.

Ten resumes a day? Networking? Volunteering?

Experiment and wonder why . . .

“I wonder why you didn’t call me in for an interview,” I asked, voice almost trembling. “Because it looked liked you rushed through your cover letter,” came the reply. Paying by the hour to use a computer, I had. I spent two weeks on my next cover letter and resume and got the job.

Fast forward. Hundreds of problems in teaching. Hundreds of things not working. Experiment anew the next day. Why did it work? Why not? Keep building upon your knowledge.

The most meaningful gift I received in college I felt impelled to share in return—that absolutely silent transfer of trust. You can figure this out. That silence when the path isn’t clear. A precious gift. Three years ago I designed an afterschool enrichment program based on passing this gift along, called Children’s Workshop. I realized that there are three key components imbedded in the word experiment (when you really mean it).

Create. I trust you to create. Face a blank sheet of paper and move forward. Forge a path. Managers the world over are grateful for the person who tries to figure it out instead of rushing in for constant hand holding. Workshop begins with an invitation to create.

When you trust a child to create, by definition, you will not know exactly where a lesson is going. You will be surprised. One day, our challenge at Innovation Workshop was to create a paper plane that could fly the straightest. How would we test that? Eyeball it to see if it flew straight? Fly the planes through a hula hoop? From what distance?

We haggled on particulars of a fair test. As we worked on that, one child proceeded to build the heaviest airplane I had ever seen. Duct tape, so much paper, it looked immense, incapable of overcoming the confines of gravity. I suggested it may be too heavy to fly. He ignored me. Later, during testing, I realized that he had created a perfect replica of Orville and Wilbur’s first plane, and it flew the straightest—time after time. I went home with a smile on my face. And had it not worked . . .?

Perseverance. There is nada, nothing that I have accomplished that hasn’t involved pushing through hurdles that have to be figured out, rethought, redone. Much of it is tedious. How do we prepare children to persevere? If a school day involves identical successful projects or a series of quick activities, children need something more to build this internal resilience. Workshop always contains work time to persevere toward a goal. The dance begins, the dance between building perseverance or building . . . well, tears.

One day at Workshop, we watched a child punch 50 holes around a kite and then tie 50 strings on the holes. The kite would not fly. The child then untied strings and tested. The child eventually untied 46 strings. Four strings were left. The kite flew. During presentations that day the child panted, “If you ever make a kite, you only need 4 strings. You don’t need 50. I am exhausted,” he ended, “but it was worth it.”

Were we cruel not to say so before? Not to have given a set of instructions on how to make a kite? I had, in fact, softly suggested that so many strings might make the kite too heavy. This child pushed on. I let him. He persevered. The more you try, fail, try and succeed, the more you are willing to steal victory from the jaws of defeat the next time. We don’t often, as parents or educators, have time during the day to allow this to happen. We take over. Because the missteps do take time.

Perseverance is implied in this type of experimenting. And when you create, persevere, and discover something for yourself, you have to . . .

Communicate. At the end of each Workshop, children say what they tried, learned, and discovered. They call on classmates and teachers to share strengths we like, and suggestions and questions. By ending this way, the children consolidate their thinking while they work, building on each other’s successes and failures.  Public speaking becomes second nature. The fears dissipate with time and practice. We share at the end of each Workshop.

This focus on creating, persevering, and communicating is imbedded in Rezba’s one instruction: Experiment. Thank you, Mr. Rezba, for your inspiration.

Read more winning entries from the Spring 2012 Alumni Writing Contest.