Adam Orth, Recorder StaffGreenfield, MA (December 23, 2003)
In stark contrast to the people milling aimlessly around the room, eighth-grader Ruby Reiser’s movements had undeniable precision and purpose.
Soon a panel of judges would weigh in on her independent project. It had taken her two months, and she wanted those judges to be happy.
Recorder photographer, Peter MacDonald
So, naturally, she was making them dessert.
A tall and lanky 14-year-old from Shelburne Falls, Reiser attends Greenfield Center School. When it came to doing an independent project, she didn’t hesitate: cooking.
The result was a cookbook and the meal she was getting ready to serve up: Thai barbecue chicken, teriyaki rice, and — of course — dessert.
“I’ve always had a passion and stuff for cooking,” she said. “If it was a person, I’d marry it.”
Reiser and 14 other eighth-graders had been given free rein when it came to organizing their independent projects.
They could do whatever they wanted.
But, there was a catch.
It had to be challenging.
This is how their teacher, Bob Strachota of Colrain, says he laid it out for the students: “You’ve got to aim really high here. You need to make sure this is ambitious, that it really stretches you.”
On a recent evening, around 70 parents and community members gathered at the independent elementary and middle school to see just how far these youths could reach.
Each student made a presentation on their project and got some immediate feedback from a group of community judges assigned their project. Some examples:
* Jonny Cochran of Guilford, Vt., taught himself with his father s help to roll a kayak and documented it on video.
* Querita Jones of Greenfield researched poet and black activist June Jordan and brought her back to life with a passionate reading that stunned those listening.
* Emma Sweitzer of Montague learned to be a blacksmith. She didn’t particularly like it, but now she knows how to hammer hot metal into useful objects. There s not a lot of things I’m passionate about, she said. And, I learned blacksmithing isn’t one of them.
* Jake Sweet of Northfield said he both disliked and liked his project, which involved making a movie about a middle-aged rabid guinea pig on steroids.
As was typical of the students, Sweet was up front about the challenges he faced. One of them was getting people to trust him with a camera. Sweet has a poor reputation around breakable equipment.
His guinea pig, which appeared in the film to be about the size of the Goodyear blimp, needed a town to eat. Sweet picked Aspen, Colo., because people there are living under bridges and begging for food while others nearby live in luxury six-story homes.
“I don’t like that, so I think a couple of them should be eaten,” he said.
Filming a six-minute movie turned out to be tough. There’s a lot of stuff to coordinate. “The funny part about it was that, while I was doing it, it wasn’t very fun,” he said.
The payoff was in the editing, in finishing the movie. “You get to make your own world, just the way you want it,” he said. “That was nice.”
Will Bander of Turners Falls and Harlin Glovacki of Greenfield |couldn’t claim to have finished their project.
“We’re so close, but we haven’t quite done it,” Glovacki said.
In fact, they even forgot the outline they needed to make their presentation.
They’d also planned to bring a propane torch and some bread to demonstrate how they’d learned to make toast.
Where was all that?
“In the rush to get down here, we forgot that,” Glovacki said.
“Along with our outline,” Bander said.
Nevertheless, these guys were a hit. They’d spent hours trying to revive a 1930 Model A that hadn’t actually run in 50 years.
Glovacki was born 13 years ago, which is when his father bought the Model A for $75. It’s been sitting in a garage ever since. Just moving the stuff packed around it took days.
Only two of its tires held air and one of those exploded when the boys started to pull the car out of the garage.
Actually, calling it a car is a bit of a stretch. The main frame was there, so was the engine, a steering wheel, the drive shaft. It had most of the parts that few people see, and few of the parts that most people see.
“The guy before used it as a tractor. And, before that, it was a truck or a roadster,” Glovacki said.
“We can’t really tell,” Bander said.
“We can’t really tell because there’s no body to it,” Glovacki said.
Working in borrowed shop space, the boys starting taking things off, inspecting and cleaning as they went. They developed a system to keep track of all the parts.
A scratch was found inside a cylinder wall that had to be dealt with. Also, it turns out Model A’s have something called Babbitt bearings that are formed by pouring melted metal by hand.
Finding the money, and somebody to do this specialized work, took a while.
Once that was done, the boys reassembled the parts, now clean and painted. Cranking the engine over by hand, they went through the tedious process of adjusting its eight valves. That took hours.
They even got off school early the day of their presentation in hopes of getting things finished. You see, everything was back together, but the dang thing wouldn’t start. The engine turned over — they had a short video clip to prove that — but it wouldn’t fire up.
Neither the judges nor anyone in the audience could have cared less.
One of the judges, a young man himself, summed up the general reaction. “I think it’s a wicked cool project,” he said.
By this time, only about half the presentations had been made. Hours had passed, but nobody seemed to have noticed. More hours were ahead, but nobody seemed to care.
Next was Jesse Sobek-Rosnick of Conway. Dressed all in black, a baseball cap pulled low to his ears, he addressed the audience.
“For my independent project,” he said. “I chose to make a computer.”