The Van Wert County Courthouse

Wednesday, May. 22, 2024

Science County, USA — Part 1

“You can make something big when young that will carry you through life. Look at all the big startups like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. They were all started by very young people who stumbled on something of unseen value.” – Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple.

Steve Jobs is widely considered the genius of the Apple Inc. and of the modern computer. His genius was really in design and in creating the experience of using a personal computer. The genius in making a personal computer work belonged to his partner in Apple, Steve Wozniak.

By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum
By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum

In fact, all of the companies referenced above by Wozniak were not only founded by very young people, they were founded by partners. They were all the result of a conversation put into application by young minds. It could be argued that technology has advanced to such a point that the days of the individual innovator are, if not over, past their prime. Innovation today seems to demand collaboration.

This fact is not missed by See the Change USA, the non-profit company that is helping implement a physics program in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades of our county schools. Van Wert, Lincolnview, Crestview and Delphos Jefferson will begin teaching middle school physics this year. Some are teaching it in just the sixth grade and some are implementing the program instantly and full-blown in all three grades. Delphos St. John’s, a private school not located in our county, caught wind of our doings and paid its own separate fee to join in.

See the Change is based out of Colorado Springs. Currently, its program is in a handful of schools in Colorado and New Mexico. We are the first place east of the Mississippi to adopt the program and we are doing it immediately and countywide. Being unique will be a subject of next week’s column, but it is certainly worth noting here that no one anywhere near us is doing anything like this.

The founder of See the Change is a physicist from the Ukraine who, while teaching at a Colorado university, couldn’t believe what little aptitude college freshmen here had for physics. In Europe and in Asia, physics is a prominent middle school subject but in America, besides some cursory reviews of gravity and the motions of planets, it is not taught until late in high school. At that time, the math of physics is thrown into the mix making the entire subject, especially to the generation that grew up on video games and smart phones, off-putting.

I’m not holier-than-thou on the subject of being off-put by difficult math. Perhaps, like me, you’ve read a Stephen Hawking book or two and maybe throw a science book into your reading list on occasion. The first three chapters, where it is explained in broad terms how things work, are always engaging and make you feel smart to follow along. Then, there’s no way to get to the complex ideas later in the book without some extreme abstract thinking. Even though you might struggle through the last half of the book, you’re just going through the motions. No mind can hold it all in short term memory and there isn’t enough time to really learn it all.

Kids have time. Middle school physics is the first three chapters of those books presented in ways that engage and captivate kids and draw them into collaborative exercises. I sat through most of the introduction at Lincolnview for the teachers this week. It would take another column to explain how it works, but I can tell you, this is something different and it will fascinate kids of that age.

The idea is to start learning the principles of physics when young enough to apply it in an already over-active imagination and without the complicated math. If you are already thinking about how light travels or electrons flow and find it of interest, then the math is just the math, something you get through to think more fully on the subject. It’s like studying all the chords after learning the first few songs on an electric guitar — it’s not work as long as you learn to play a new song or two along the way.

Physics is, after all, how everything works. On our radio show, “The Commissioners Corner”, Chris Roberts has pointed out that there is a Physics Day at Cedar Point and that all of the rides there are physics exhibits if you understand the engineering behind them. Think of it: your kids pondering the magnets and propulsion of the Top Thrill Dragster during that hour wait instead of watching those stupid music videos they now play in the mazes. They will, too, because once it’s in their heads and they begin to notice all of the real world applications around them, it will never leave.

This seems like an educational effort but it is really economic development. There is no shortage of engineering jobs locally but the kids who are currently interested generally seek higher pay in the big cities. We simply need more interested high school graduates.

More importantly, we could be creating a generation of innovators, and it only takes a few. We’re never going to be Silicon Valley, but we can be the closest thing that a rural Midwestern community can be to it. Steve Jobs, if he grew up in Van Wert County, would likely have been an interesting character, but he never would have created the experience of the modern computer. Steve Wozniak would have been a tech guy in a back room somewhere — everybody knows one.

Is it a miracle that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, or Bill Gates and Paul Allen, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were in the same places at the same time? Probably not. There were probably a good number of people who could have filled a half of those partnerships had they been there. The miracle isn’t that these partners met, the miracle was the places that created the conditions for these people to have something to talk about and a common language with which to speak.

It’s not too much to think that over the next decade, we can create those conditions here. Innovators don’t have to leave town to innovate, they only need a partner in creation. Google, Apple and Microsoft are all located where the partners met and had the idea. That’s part of what is being attempted here in Science County, USA (copyright to name pending, Todd Wolfrum, 2015).

POSTED: 09/12/15 at 5:50 am. FILED UNDER: Opinions