Engineering with Dad: What Could This Be?

This weekend, while making small inroads into the clutter in our basement, I ran across something I’d thought was lost. It is a piece of acrylic, curved on one end and straight on the other, perhaps ten inches long. What is it? I believe it may be one of the earliest acrylic ice scrapers—at least the earliest I’d ever seen. Why do I have it? My dad.

My father was trained as a chemical engineer and began his career when plastics were new and exciting. When I was young and I asked him to explain his job, he said that his work was to match materials and problems. People would bring him a problem, and it was his job to find a material they might use for a solution. Other people would bring him materials and he would figure out what they could do with them.  His experiments with new materials led to interesting happenings in our basement, including a homemade fiberglass boat so unstable it was only good for lifeguard practice, and clear paperweights with all manner of things embedded in them. In this context, during one upstate New York winter, it isn’t surprising that he looked at the scrap of clear plastic on this desk and thought, “I’ll bet I could scrape the ice off my windshield with this.” As it turns out, that piece of acrylic made the best, most durable, ice scraper any of us had ever seen.  When I got my first car, the scraper came to me as a marker of my father’s concern for my safety. I’m not sure when it disappeared, but somehow over the years it vanished, only to reappear this weekend. It feels a bit like buried treasure.

But, of course, it also makes me think about the design thinking involved in my father’s work, and the creativity involved in thinking, “What could this be used to do?” One of the key SCAMPER questions is “How could this be put to other uses?” In schools, such design questions can be used as inspiration for technical challenges, writing prompts, or art projects. In our city, SCRAP Reuse provides all manner of industrial and other scrap materials that can be used for creative projects, but it can all start at home—or in your imagination. For example:

  • What school or household problem could be solved using Amazon shipping materials?
  • In just a few weeks my lawn will be covered with leaves. If I have too many to compost, what could I do with them to solve some problem? What about the branches that constantly fall off my lovely but “self-pruning” river birch?
  • Imagine that our recycling stopped accepting plastic gallon jugs or some other common material. What might we do with them to solve rather than create a problem?
  • Remember the book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs? Imagine that it rained something else, perhaps a food, perhaps paper clips or pencils or any other material you can imagine. What might you do with all the “rain?”

We know that generating less scrap is an important challenge, but once the material is here, what do we do with it? Budding engineers, authors, and artists may be anxious to take on such a challenge, and I’d love to hear what they create.

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