Uknighted* = family
*Every year, my alma mater runs a social media day called “Uknighted”. This is a day to share memories, donations, and photos about Wartburg College. Continuing my annual tradition, here is my piece about my days as a student at Wartburg. Because today is Uknight Day, today is a great day to support Wartburg College! Give via my link and help me win a pair of socks! (Unsure how much to give? Try something related to your graduation year!)
I am a big believer in Liberal Arts colleges. Especially my alma Mater, Wartburg College. People think it weird that I have a BA in Computer Science. They think it even weirder that hubby has a BA in Physics. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Wartburg teaches more than the facts and the science/math. It also teaches how to research, how to experiment, how to learn. In the process, it taught me what a family is — and that may well have been the most important thing I learned while there.
My freshman year was tough. So tough, that I almost dropped out early in the second semester. I had made poor choices about what classes to take and ended up with all science and math classes. That was a big jump from the much easier schedule I had set up for myself in the first semester. I made it through the semester, with the help of a number of people I adore.
But this isn’t as story about that semester. It is a story about the month after that.
Every year, Wartburg does an interim semester of one month. You take one class. You deep dive into that topic, you explore, you learn things you wouldn’t have otherwise learned. During my time at Wartburg, this was called “May Term”.
“Windmills, Waterwheels, and Co-Generation”
How many of you can remember the classes you took your freshman year in college? How many of you can remember the topic? The title?
For me, that first May Term class is burned into my brain. The class was listed as an interactive science class which would investigate alternative energy solutions. Being the daughter of the nuclear energy industry, it was a no brainer for me to pick this class.
We had about 10 people in our class. The first lecture started out with a discussion of what alternative energy was. (This was in 1981, the industry wasn’t as established as it is today.) At the end of that first session of class, the professor informed us that we needed to pick projects to work on during the month related to energy production.
One good friend spent the month researching and building a Tesla Turbine. Three others came together to research and build (improve) the college’s water table. They were looking for new ways to get energy from water. There were a couple of other people who did other individual projects.
But the biggest project was done by a group of 6 of us who decided to prototype a wind portable wind generation system. Two people would work on a kite strong enough to fly a system up to the upper winds. Two people worked on developing a winch and wiring system to bring the generated energy down to the ground to be stored. Me? I joined with one other team member to build the piece that pulled the system together. The two of us worked with one other person to build a windmill that would be carried up by the kite, spin, generate the electricity, and send it down the wire to the winch.
The month was glorious. Mornings were spent listening to the physics prof tell us about the various home energy systems he had tried. These lectures included exercises for the class to do on the physics involved in each of his efforts. Afternoons were spent building and testing our projects.
The kite team built a pyramid shaped kite (also known as a tetrahedral kite). These kites are built of individual small pyramids connected together to make a larger kite. Each pyramid was made of balsa wood and mylar. Then the individual pyramids were glued together to make a larger pyramid, three pyramids on a side.
Testing of the kite was done at each stage of the build. This was part of the pure joy of the class. We had an excuse to go fly kites during the day, gathering data along the way.
The final kite took several people to get aloft. When it did start going aloft, we were all glad to be there. It turned out the kite was strong enough to lift one of the guys off the ground! (I have pictures of that kite here somewhere… If I find them, I will replace the stock photo with one of them.) That kite stayed with us for the rest of our college years — the good friend who did the bulk of the building kept it in her room and at home!
The two of us that built the windmill built it out of plywood. We wanted to create a working prototype, that would handle reasonable wind speeds. We would have loved to have made our prototype out of metal, but that wasn’t an option… we did have a budget…
The final prototype was about four feet long (edge of blade to edge of blade). It turned and it survived low wind speeds. As a final test, we decided to try running it out the back of a station wagon. The non-driving members of the group sat in the back of the car with the tailgate down. We held the windmill out behind the car to see how fast it would spin. (Necessary data if we were going to ever get this project past the prototype stage, you know.)
We drove out to a dirt road outside of town. As I remember it, the windmill held together at the lower speeds. But there was a catastrophic failure during the 20–30 mph test. One of the blades flew off its arm and flew out behind us. Once that had happened, the windmill started to fly further apart and further testing was abandoned, but the results were recorded for “historical purposes.” (The report at the end of the month… )
The guys who built the winch got it most of the way working. They didn’t get far enough along to figure out how to send the wires up with the turbine. We discussed braiding it with the kite string for extra strength, sending up a separate wire to the turbine (less complex, but more working parts), and a few other equally brilliant ideas.
As you might have guessed, the reports at the end of May term were full of laughter, photos, demos, and data. The Tesla turbine worked beautifully. The water table experiments did too. The other projects didn’t stick in my brain… Our report? Took about 10 or 15 minutes to present. Data on the chalkboard, pictures passed around, project pieces (or what was left of them) shown off.
As far as I know, almost everyone got an A out of the class. It turned out to be the only physics class I enjoyed (or got an A in, for that matter).
Why the class sticks in my memory
The friends I made that month became my Wartburg family. The woman who built most of the kite was my roommate the next year. The guy** who almost got lifted off the ground by the kite is married to my best friend. He is also my hubby’s best friend. The guy that made the tesla turbine was my first real crush (his wife knows, she was the one who told me it was doomed to failure). The four of us became the core of my Wartburg family. A family that before we graduated would have a real written tree with well over 30 people in it.
These are my family of choice. We have celebrated together, we have grieved together. Births, deaths, moves, changes in life — Through all of it the core stayed close. Now, thanks to FB we have all connected again — those who stayed close and those who didn’t. I miss the ones I don’t chat with regularly, but I know we will come together again someday.
I wouldn’t have it any other way. “Windmills, Waterwheels, and Cogeneration” did teach me about an alternative energy source: True love, lasting friendships, and caring for each other.
**In a twist of fate, his daughter — our goddaughter — is now working on her masters/doctors. She’s studying wind turbines…