Monday, January 30, 2012

The Allure of Fire.

Even using conservative archeological evidence, humans have been staring into fires at least 10,000 times as long as humans have been staring into computer screens. So what happened recently in the Materials Science class that I teach shouldn’t really have been a surprise 

I am trying to interest my students in metals. Where do metals come from, how do we get them, why should we care? I started the lesson with where do metals come from. The digital generation that is my students were only moderately engaged; in fact a couple were surreptitiously trying to use their cell phones. One student correctly answered, “From stardust.” Everyone laughed and I had to work to get their attention back. The lesson wasn’t going well; frankly, they didn’t seem very interested. After leading them to the understanding that almost all metals start as ores, I told them the story of how I personally got interested in this question. 

I was home sick one day, hypnotized by my laptop, when I found a video clip on You Tube simply titled “Making Steel from Dirt.” Watching it led me to an epiphany. A fellow who looked like a cast member from Deliverance was explaining the process of smelting iron from iron ore, or dirt. He was doing it essentially the same way it has been done since the beginning of the iron age. You really need just four things: iron ore (the right kind of dirt), charcoal, a furnace, and a source of air.

I then told my students that I had tried to do it myself. In fact I had tried it on three separate occasions. With the absolute certainty that only teenagers possess, several of them were happy to tell me that I had obviously wasted my time. 

By any rational accounting of time and money, I suppose I had. I spent many weekends collecting scrap wood and turning it into charcoal in a filthy process that could have been out of Dickens. Because I didn’t know where to dig for iron ore, I used my credit card and bought 150 pounds of commercial ore that is used for pottery glaze. I scrounged, bought and collected the parts to build three separate furnaces and spent days assembling them. Then, each actual smelting attempt took a complete day from morning to night to fire the furnace. 

I passed around the few bits of iron that was what I had to show from all this work. It wasn’t much, it could easily fit in one hand. My students enjoyed my joke that even if I had only paid myself minimum wage, in an ounce to ounce cost comparison my iron probably approached that of gold, if not platinum. With this revelation several more students joined the chorus that I really had wasted my time. 

After they all had a good laugh, I showed a short video of my own iron smelting adventures. The video is laced with clips of white hot fires, sparks lofting into the dark night, glowing coals and red hot slag pouring out of the furnace like blood. It isn’t a great video. I had pieced it together from clips people at the smelting party had taken, and the fact that people had come to watch this further amused my students. In the end there is a clip of me hammering a bit of white hot iron right out of the furnace and flattening it on the anvil. There were cheers from the people present. It wasn’t a lot, but I had wrestled iron from dirt. 

By the end of the video my room was quiet and I heard one student say, “Could we do that?” Then a couple more joined in. “Could we really do it?” I was surprised and taken aback. I sort of mumbled that we could, but it would have to be outside of the school day. It wasn’t something we could do during a regular class period. And the actual smelting would have to take place on a weekend. After explaining the time commitment, I asked again if they were still interested; they were. Then I asked for a show of hands from the rest of the class and to my surprise two thirds of the class wanted in. 

Two boys immediately offered to bring wood for charcoal. One of the only three girls in the class took it upon herself to schedule a time to start. I suggested she ask me next week as class was nearly over, and with determination she simply asked, “Is there any reason we couldn’t we pick a date now?” So we did. Next week we will start with making charcoal in this long process to recreate a discovery. 

For the ancients it took three of the four elements, earth, air and fire, to wring a new element, iron, out of the earth. For my students I think it was the fire that got them. Humans would not be human without controlling fire. This control changed the world in ways that make modern marvels like airplanes, cell phones and computers pale in comparison. And there is nothing more profoundly simple than staring into the depths of the coals and thinking about nothing and thinking about everything.

I am sure teenagers since the beginning of the human race really aren’t any different than my students, with their fascination with the new and interesting, their tendency to jump to next best thing. By next week, my student’s interest may have moved on so we will see if they show up. I hope they do.