January 1, 2022

January 1, 2022

The New Year has arrived and for some, it is time to talk about days of old.  So here is a tale from nearly sixty years ago that has been drawn from my academic files.  Stay with this one even though there is some technical material in it.  You might find it interesting.  At least, I hope you do.

This is a tale that occurred late in 1960 that may or may not serve to justify the value of an open-ended approach to a relatively simple engineering/science problem.  That story, as recanted by an engineering educator, is presented below.

            Some time ago, I received a call from a colleague named Lou Theodore who asked if I would be willing to serve as the referee on the grading of an examination question.  He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a heat transfer question involving a mercury thermometer, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would if the system were not set up against the student.

            I went to my dear colleague’s office and read the examination question: “As part of a QA/QC (quality assurance/quality control) test, outline how one can ascertain the readings on this long stem mercury thermometer employed in the department’s lab is correct.”

            The student had answered: “Place several other thermometers along the one of concern and check the readings.  If all the readings are in close agreement with one another, one can conclude that the lab thermometer reading is correct.”

During discussions with my colleague, who was completing his first year as a chemical engineering professor, it became apparent that he felt the student was a “loser and a liability, and would ultimately serve as an embarrassment to the department in later years.  He complained that the student was Irish, often showed up late for class, was occasionally inebriated, with many of his lectures serving as a sleeping pill.” My colleague also felt that the student should have provided an answer that reflected the lecture material.  For example, the mercury in the narrow tube expands as it gets hotter due to its coefficient of expansion.  In effect, the mercury expands by an amount that linearly depends on the temperature so that a rise of 10 degrees produces twice the expansion than a 5-degree increase.  In any event, Dr. Theodore and the student agreed to submit this to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

            I pointed out to Dr. Theodore that the student really had a strong case for full credit since he had answered the question completely and correctly.  On the other hand, if full credit was given, it could well contribute to a high grade for the student in his heat transfer course.  A high grade is supposed to certify competence in the subject of concern, but the answer did not confirm this.  I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question.  I was not surprised that Dr. Theodore agreed, but I was even more surprised that the student did.

            I gave the student ten minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of heat transfer.  At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything.  I asked if he wished to give up, but he said no.  He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one.  I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on.  In the next minute, he dashed off his answer which read:

            “Call the local airport and weather bureau and inquire about the ambient temperature.  Then take the thermometer outside.  If the reading is in close proximity to that reported by the two agencies, one can conclude that the reading is correct.”

            At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up.  He conceded and I gave the student almost full credit.

            In leaving Dr. Theodore’s office, I recalled that the student had said he had many other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were.  “Oh yes,” said the student. “There are a great many ways of checking the validity of the thermometer readings.  For example, you could mail the thermometer back to the vendor and request that it be recalibrated to reassure the reading is valid.

            “Fine,” I asked. “And the others?”

            “Yes,” said the student. “There is a very basic measurement method that you will like.  In this method you take the thermometer and place it in running tap water.  Since the tap water in the lab is in the 62-64°F range, a temperature reading of the lab thermometer in that range would signify validity. 

            “Of course, if you want an even simpler method, you can take the thermometer to the lab technician. Speak to him as follows: “Mr. Technician, here I have a fine thermometer.  If you tell me if the thermometer is properly calibrated, I will give you this thermometer”.”

            Finally, he concluded there are a host of other ways of solving the problem.  “Probably the best but perhaps a somewhat unorthodox way is to take the thermometer, along with Dr. Theodore, to the bathroom.  You ask Dr. Theodore to drop his pants and bend over.  You then stick the long stem thermometer as far as it will go up Dr. Theodore’s ass.  If the thermometer registers something in the 98.6°F area, it must be in working order.”

            At this point I asked the student if he really did know the conventional answer to this question.  He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with traditional education and college professors trying to teach him how to think using the “scientific method”, i.e., to explore the deep inner logic of the subject in a pedantic way, as is often done in the new curricula, rather than teaching him the structure of the subject.

            Interestingly, the student did manage to graduate despite the efforts of my dear colleague.  The student married soon after graduation, and his two children – Michelle and Mark – later served as babysitters for my colleague’s children (Dr. Theodore married a beautiful woman of Irish decent later in life).  The student?  John McKenna, who went on to earn a law degree and a PhD.  He is currently President and CEO of ETS International in Roanoke, VA. 

            So much for the decision-making capabilities of some of our educators.