It started with a beam of light. The shaft pierced the gray, midday sky over Golden, Colorado, shot straight across Highway 6, onto the School of Mines campus, through the open window in room 103, and right into Mitch Campbell’s drooping eyes.
He could have blinked and played it off but like a dork, he jerked awake and yelped. His hand spasmed as he pulled himself back from the chasm of sleep-deprived dreams into the harsh, bright reality of class. He fumbled his tablet, and it clanged to the floor right as Dr. Bische walked past his bench. Bische, mid-lecture, didn’t pause, but he cocked an eye down and frowned. Busted.
The particle potential well that Mitch had plotted just prior to passing out stared up at Bische, plain as day, obviously meant for Quantum Physics and not at all relevant to this class, Electromagnetics. Mitch couldn’t pretend he’d been listening—again. Couldn’t hide that he was studying for his next class—again. And, despite being warned weeks ago to study other classes on his own time, was taking advantage of his and Bische’s relationship—again.
Hastily, Mitch tapped the tablet’s home button with his shoe, closing the image, but Bische’s raised eyebrow declared that the damage was done. He foresaw an uncomfortable conversation in the near future: about time management, program expectations, and whether your faculty advisor could still be your friend. For now, chastened, Mitch picked up his tablet and, opening his ears to listen, panicked.
“…summing up the point of this whole semester. Based upon these fundamental principles, you should see the next logical step.”
Crap! Which principles? What point? The whole semester? Dang! Why’d I fall asleep?
He glanced up at Bische’s smartboard, hoping for a clue, but all it showed was the lab exercise they had just completed. Then he felt a sharp poke in his arm and looking around, spotted a tablet at his elbow. Speckled kittens, button-eyed and adorable, pranced across the screen, chasing a pine cone. With a wink, Maggie Heinz, his benchmate, tapped the screen’s corner revealing page 200 of the laboratory text. “Thank you!” Mitch mouthed, scrolling forward through his tablet to the same page. He pricked up his ears as Bische continued.
“…which is why you all are now prepared to take the leap, shut down your bench simulators, and build your own device.”
Phew! Mitch relaxed. He hadn’t missed a thing. Just more device building, more recipe following, more doing what he was good at and, gloriously, no new thinking. Gods, what a relief to have at least one class where his hands could do all the work while his brain took a break. No formulas to memorize or deep concepts to grasp or massive tomes to read. Just an oscilloscope, a box of parts, and the thrill of making something real. He’d lost track these past months of what he had expected college to be like, but he was sure it hadn’t included so much friggin’ theory. Maybe he imagined it being more like his summers working for Bische. Just the four of them—him, Bische, Wayne, and Dean—locked in the doc’s tool room with parts and ideas, building amazing machines through trial and error, needing few, if any, books. Reality was proving to be craptastic at best and he had to admit he was struggling to keep up. So, yes, Doc, give me a build project for finals. I need at least one easy ‘A’.
He visualized what the contents of page 200 would be as he tapped the scrollbar in the corner of his tablet. “Attach the blue sensor here. Clip the black wire there. Yada, yada…” Perfectly simple. I got this, Mitch thought to himself, feeling a surge of confidence. When page 200 finally scrolled into view, there was only one objective; “Power a machine by any means.” Jackpot! This’ll be easy. There was a brief note about taking a stab at something “original”, but Mitch skipped to the end of that for the list of “Related Labs” looking for the quickest thing to rebuild. Then Bische’s voice cut in…
“Now some of you may be thinking ‘This will be easy!’ Just pull up, say, the chapter on mechanical waves, make a loudspeaker and boom! You’re done.” He paused. “No.”
Mitch stopped. His blood froze. He’d just opened the chapter on waves, then looked up from the text and winced. Bische was staring right at him, with that awful, knowing, half-smile. Dammit! Bische always did that, always caught him taking a shortcut, like he had a fine-tuned “Mitch-dar” that told him exactly when Mitch was about to mess up. It was annoying as hell. He stared back, exasperated, the silent question obvious in his eyes. Why do you do that? How do you always know? Bische looked away, but kept smiling.
“Good engineers can do the bare minimum” he continued, slowly pacing the space between the benches lining each side of the lab. “But we are not training you to be good. We want you to be great. You started the semester here, at the surface.” He slid his hand along the top of one bench to illustrate. “Each week we’ve examined a new tool to help you crack into it.” He emphasized “crack” with a tap of his knuckle. “Now you need to use those tools to dig deeper.”
This was Bische’s standard speech. Mitch had heard him deliver it, with slight variations, before each class assignment. Bische would go on about how engineers aren’t artists, but still need to think creatively to come up with innovations that solved the world’s problems. Then he’d wrap up by explaining that a motor is a motor, and no matter how you slice it…
“…it will always be a motor. The trick is in figuring out what the motor will do. That is the creative part. Creative thinking took us from loudspeakers to microphones; from simple oscillators to electric generators. In each case, someone took that common motor and saw an uncommon way to apply it. This is what you need to do.”
Bische’s pacing had landed him in the center of the lab, and there he paused. His eyes circled the room, locking briefly and intensely with each student until they landed on Mitch, slicing through his confidence like a hot knife through wax. “This is not an assignment. This is a dare. Make your device. Be uncommon. You have four weeks.”
The lab timer in the corner beeped, Bische’s way of signaling the end of class. Bische stood near the door as everyone filed out. Dean, whose bench was on the other side of the room, craned his head over toward Mitch and called “Lunch?” Mitch shushed him with a gesture, then drifted to the center of the group, hoping to sneak out masked by the crowd. He ducked his head down, trying to avoid Bische’s piercing, judgmental eyes. Halfway to the door, he chanced one furtive glance up. Bische was gone. Score! he thought to himself. Guess I’m getting out of here alive.
“Campbell. A word, please.”
The command came from somewhere near his back. Bische had skirted the edges of the classroom and snuck up on him. Crud puppet! Mitch cursed under his breath. Here it comes. Maggie waved at him sympathetically. He watched, forlorn, as the last of his classmates left. Bische closed the door, turned to Mitch, and said “Caught you skating again, didn’t I?”
Mitch blushed and looked away, but noted the good humor in Bische’s tone. Finding his courage, he defiantly met Bische’s knife-like eyes, and said, “Why can’t we just reuse a lab in the book? What’s it there for if we can’t use it?”
“The book is a guide to thinking. Not a substitute for it. Or does using your head take too long? You know that this is about more than the assignment.”
“I know. You’re right,” Mitch conceded. “I’m sorry for working on the other class while you talked, but, Doc… come on. Quantum P and Metallurgy are killing me. I need the extra time. You know I know all your stuff.”
“Oh? How? Because you’ve memorized the table of contents? Because you follow the steps of each exercise? So what? You’ve been doing that since you were 10.”
“So, building power cells and ICs for you last summer doesn’t count for anything?”
“Not today! Building on those skills counts. Resting on your laurels doesn’t.”
“You’ve spent the entire semester blowing off quizzes, racing through labs, and working on other classes. Not one original thought has passed your lips. Not one thing you’ve built has deviated from the expected. I’ve taught you better than that.”
“The Innovators Program deserves better than that.”
“You haven’t analyzed or theorized or extrapolated. You’ve just completed.”
“No. Completing is not learning. Anyone can check a square and hand it in. But does it show insight? Not at all.” Bische paused and leaned in. “You are meeting expectations, son. With your brain, you have the ability to exceed them.”
“As of now, you will get a ‘C’ or worse if you can’t show me real work.”
“What?! My scholarship!”
“It’s not my job to pad your GPA. You said you could do the work, but you have to prove it. I didn’t fight Hubert Wilkins to admit you to this program only to have you give me your warmed-over, high-school-freshman-level work. “
Mitch’s mouth moved, but no other sounds came out. He couldn’t believe Bische had pulled the scholarship card. If anyone knew he needed the scholarship, it would be Bische. Why’d he throw that in my face?
“Ditch the text. Don’t regurgitate. Show me that you can use your head. You’ve got four weeks, Campbell. Scoot.” Bische gestured toward the door. Mitch, glowering at Bische, stomped out of the lab.
His boots banged out a steady rhythm in the hall. One word repeated over and over in his head.
“Jerk, jerk, jerk, jerk…”
Regurgitating? Bullshit! How could Bische even say that? He’d more than proven himself to Bische time and time again.
“Screw him!” Mitch growled. He had ten minutes before Quantum Physics—just enough time to grab a sandwich in the Student Center. “I’ll show Bische who skates,” he mumbled to himself. “And I sure as hell don’t need four weeks.”
Three weeks and six days later, Mitch found himself wishing he had more time. Bische’s lab hummed with activity. It was First Check-In, the day that students with completed projects could present them and call it a semester. It was also the day for struggling students to solicit help. As Mitch’s maker reputation spread over the course of the semester, more often than not his classmates called on him. Today was no different. He floated from one bench to another, soldering a piece here, rebuilding a breadboard there, thoroughly enjoying solving real problems, but completely losing track of time. Three hours later, a host of completed projects flitted, whirred, and glowed on benches thanks to Mitch’s ministrations, but not one device belonged to him.
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Mitch goes for the save, but he’s running out of time as Chapter #2 continues. Can he build it? Does Bische reject it? What crazy thing will Mitch create on the verge of Capital-D Disaster?
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