Friday, August 16, 2013

Locally Grown

“We don’t sell yesterday’s corn! ... Our green wagons show up at familiar locations, picked that morning…”

Last weekend was beautiful in northern Indiana.  In fact, Friday and Saturday were the sorts of days that local festival organizers dream, and hope, and pray for all year.  Sunny weather, light breezes, glorious blue skies and 75 degrees.  (We might get lucky again this weekend!)  Lovely days, of course, to consider STEM engagement in small Indiana towns—not the Purdue Day experience at the Indiana State Fair last Friday, but a much more local experience.    For instance, elephant ears are a popular dough pastry, but there seems to be something more… essential… for those who lined up at Old Settler Days in Delphi, gathered around the courthouse square.  It’s not just the subject, but the context and application, that matters for those few days.

Part of this lesson came from an unexpected discussion I had with Vic Lechtenberg over lunch.  (Vic had to leave lunch early, as it turns out, specifically to go down to Indianapolis for the Purdue Day BBQ at the State Fair.)  After many years at Purdue as a professor studying crops, and as Dean of Agriculture, Vice Provost for Engagement,  Acting Provost… Vic connects to people well about the applications of his work.  We were talking about sweet corn (another staple at these local festivals), and why Indiana folks rave about how their corn is better and sweeter than anyone else’s.  Funny, I mentioned, folks in Wisconsin used to say the same thing at their sweet corn festivals.  Vic then explained the science behind this feeling, and the appeal of the green wagons.  The enzymatic reaction in corn that turns sugar to starch means that tasty, succulent eating corn doesn’t travel well.  Locally grown, freshly picked, tastes the best.

It was in that moment that I realized why I think the A in Agriculture is different from the other letters in STEM.  Agriculture is a beautiful way of connecting science and technology, engineering and math, in ways that people care locally.  Normally, I don’t think much about enzymes or sucrose decomposition reactions, the stuff of organic chemistry.  But how can I think about sweet corn anymore, or the signs I see by the roadside, without thinking about Vic and his focused explanation in ways that mattered?

And in that thought was a seed (pardon the pun).  What’s the difference between trying to get someone to be excited about your interest, and trying to get them excited about how your interest links to their interest?  An abstracted discussion about advances in manufacturing seems remote and dry.  However, I got to spend a few minutes at the cruise-in a few blocks from the Taste of Cass festival in Logansport. 

The Taste of Cass Festival, Downtown Logansport

One very proud owner showed off their 1925 Indiana Motor Truck, made in Marion—even providing a brief history of the company.  Across the way sat a 1955 Studebaker. 
Restored 1925 Indiana Motor Truck, Logansport Cruise

Indiana Truck Owner's partial history of the company

1955 Studebaker... Looks like it just came from the South Bend factory.

Although they weren’t at the cruise, Auburns, Stutzes, Subarus, Toyota have all been made in Indiana, all representing milestones in manufacturing.  What cars will be at the cruise-in during Logansport’s 200th or 225th anniversary (and I wish them the very best in achieving those milestones), and what stories will people tell?  Will anyone have the sense to listen?

Round barns were a technological and engineering marvel in the 19th Century.  Space for storage, and showing, and efficient use of materials.  There are two notable round barns in Rochester.  One is the Round Barn golf course, at what used to be a fish hatchery.  (“We didn’t have to create the water hazards, they were already here!”) 

Round Barn Golf Club, Rochester, IN

I didn’t know this when I first stopped in to ask about greens fees, but the conversation brought me back to a challenge at a STEM Action Coalition meeting to show whether NASA had anything to do with fish hatcheries.  I could immediately make the connection to tilapia and enclosed life support systems; geographic information and water quality; and ecological models of system dynamics, including mathematical descriptions of stability and resilience.  I’d just finished writing a paper on resilience that the folks in the golf course might not care about… but they would get a discussion about keeping a lake stocked with healthy fish.

For many aerospace geeks, there are a few names on the pantheon of people whose names are not just aerospace history icons, but whose names represent iconic companies.  Curtiss.  Douglas. Hughes.  Wright.  School children know that Wilbur was born in Indiana.  But do we even remember that another of that pantheon was born in Indiana as well?  Lawrence Bell has a small museum in his hometown of Mentone, the Egg Basket of the Midwest.  Who is Bell?  Ask anyone in helicopters about the Bell UH series (“Hueys”).  Or anyone from the Right Stuff era.  Chuck Yeager’s Glamorous Glennis, in bright orange, breaking the speed of sound over the California desert… the Bell X-1. 

Bell Aircraft Museum... It wasn't Sunday.

Sadly, I’ve not been in the museum.  It’s only open for a few hours per week, on Sunday afternoons.  It’s a small group of devoted volunteers, trying to keep an important memory alive in a warehouse across from the silos and animal feed office, just off Indiana 25.  Mentone’s egg festival is in late May, not August, but any weekend will do. 
Mentone Indiana, Egg Basket of the Midwest.  And home of Lawrence Bell.

Maybe there will be some other glorious Indiana day, when I will get to spend some time connecting to their interest, and savoring another of the locally grown products.