Take it apart day

. March 7, 2013.

I have to tell you about an amazing experience I had volunteering in my daughter’s fifth-grade classroom. Molly’s teacher, Mrs. Gerhart, had organized
a “Take it Apart Day.” This was a day devoted to disassembling all sorts of toys, appliances, and other gadgets. We opened them up to take a peek inside, to see what made them tick. In the process, we learned more from this hands-on experience than we ever could from a textbook.

First of all, you have to classify this day as “one of those cool things that teachers do.” What a great idea! Haven’t you always wanted to peel apart the layers of a clock to look at the gears inside? Or, when your phone started making that hissing noise, wasn’t there some small part of you that wanted to bust it open and not worry about voiding the warranty? Essentially, Mrs. Gerhart had given us a license to do just that.

Thanks to the generous donations of electronics and appliances from the kids’ parents, we had a waiting room of patients at our disposal. My office had recently upgraded its phone system, leaving us with a half dozen old-tech phones. I had been meaning to take them down to the Recycle Ann Arbor Center. But then Molly brought the note home from school asking for donations. Perfect. I’ve had too many conversations over the last
fifteen years with these phones to simply give them to strangers. I’d much rather let Molly and her friends lovingly smash them to bits.

The secrets of a CD player 

When the other parents and I arrived at the classroom, the kids were already raring to go. We had brought our toolboxes, safety goggles, and technical knowhow (or at least a burning curiosity). Mrs. Gerhart had assembled thestudents into small groups and assigned a parent to each. My crew began takingapart an old CD player. Every one of  these fifth-graders had used one before, but none had ever thought much about how it worked.

“What’s this part, Mr. Keen?” one of them asked. 

“That’s the laser,” I replied. “Laser! Coooool. What’s it do?” “It reads the little pock marks in the CD that tell your speakers what sounds to play.” That was as far as I was going with my rudimentary knowledge.


Next, we turned our attention to one of my old phones. After prying the different plastic sections apart with flathead screwdrivers, we were astonished
to find very little inside. A couple of wires, a speaker, a chip, and not much else. The group next to us had been disassembling an old home phone.

They were stunned to find even less inside than our office phone. In fact, 90 percent of their phone’s weight was from a metal plate screwed into the
bottom to make it feel heavier and more substantial.

Looking elsewhere around the classroom, I saw kids taking apart radios, clocks, robotic toys, and other broken down objects. One dad had taken a cooling fan from one appliance, a double A battery from another, and wired the two together to show the kids how it worked. This demonstration also showed how simple some things really are.

Behold, the motherboard! My crew’s next victim was our piece de resistance. I had an obsolete Macintosh tower computer collecting dust at home and had decided to donate it in the name of science. The kids went to work on it with vim. First they opened the case. Inside, was much more than those barren phones allowed us to explore.

“There’s the CD drive, there’s the speaker, there’s the motherboard, there’s the RAM,” I pointed out, explaining what function each part played.

“Ohhh. Cooool. What’s that?”

“That’s the hard drive. Come to think of it, let me have that.” (I don’t like leaving old drives around. I don’t need the shadow government discovering my secret plans to rule the world.)

After about a half hour, my crew had gutted the old Mac to where it was just a metal frame — a skeleton. They were like lions devouring a zebra on the savanna. When they were through, all we had was a Macintosh carcass.

As we wound down our Take it Apart Day, the students began collecting and categorizing all of the pieces they had extracted. The next day, they were to build something of their own creation — mad scientist training, so to speak. 

What an amazing learning day it was! The students had gained extremely valuable knowledge. Once you’ve taken a few objects apart, you begin to understand how they work, and technology becomes a lot less daunting. Throughout the day, every five minutes or so, one of the students would exclaim, “Whoaaaa,” or “Cooooool.” You gotta love hearing those sounds in a classroom. On Take it Apart Day, Mrs. Gerhart had struck gold.

Jim Keen is a free-lance writer and life-long Ann Arborite. He lives in town with his wife, Bonnie, and daughters, Gabbi (13) and Molly (10). He is the author of Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He can be reached at mya2@annarborfamily.com