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  • Writer's pictureErik Herman

We are Stardust...I Mean...We are Pieces of Junk.

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

We are stardust. That might make you feel invincible—it’s one of those inspirational posters that hangs in the counselors office—but if you’re sitting in there in the midst of a real existential crisis, you’ll realize that really what it means is that you are made of a burnt out, discarded star that already used up all its energy. So you’re basically just a piece of junk. So if “you are stardust” is you’re mantra for an interview or a test tomorrow, I hope I didn’t totally burst your bubble.

Hopefully we can figure out what really makes you come alive and build you back up. Actually, that’s what this post is all about--making you one with the universe you're a part of.

There is not a big difference between you and the desk or the chair or the projector. It’s all matter. It’s all just materials put together in some way. There are hard parts and soft parts, parts that bend and flex, there’s even electricity that flows through you that makes you think and move around. If you thought that wasn't literally radiate light.

Everything around us is made from the same stuff we are made of. And once we realize that—and really embrace that idea—that’s the spot where the real magic happens. Ok, not really “magic”—it’s even more mysterious—it’s physics.

The spot right where your body bumps right up against the universe is a nucleation site--a place where really exciting stuff happens. Whether it's plucking strings, throwing a ball, shaping clay, when you spend some more time at this site, in earnest, you begin feeling like you’re hooked into something bigger. Because you are.

My work with Community Science Workshops and Physics Buses is all about creating spaces and times for building a deeper more meaningful relationship to the physical world--that's right, even the printer, the coffeemaker, the toaster. And for the relationship to be meaningful isn't about having an app for these things on your phone—I’m not talking about connecting to the toaster via bluetooth or wifi.

What I’m suggesting is all about physically digging into these common everyday stuff--exploring, experimenting, and even getting creative with these things or their parts. Ok, so maybe we don’t want to take apart a perfectly good printer, but—with the cost of ink often costing nearly as much or more than a new printer, old printers that nobody cares about aren’t difficult to find.

It turns out that these things we “wrote off”, or assigned to the purgatory of our closets, basements, attics, garages, or even a landfill...present a great opportunity for connecting with your world. I'd even argue that dissassembling an old printer is messier, funner, and more educative than a science kit. Science, in it's pure form, doesn't have predetermined outcomes.

Yes, what I’m talking about is doing science (and engineering...and art...and play...) with free stuff that's all around you. Your ancestors did it with dirt, rocks, and wood. You can do with metal, plastic, and glass.

The solid waste facility is a total treasure-trove for exploring physics. And this goes for recyclables too. From cardboard tubes, to plastic bottles, to toasters, TV’s, and old sewing machines--these discarded things were designed—employing physics all the way—to perform some function, perhaps at best to increase our quality of life, or at worst, simply to increase profits. Whether or not the function is still relevant, whether it went out of style, or whether the device stopped performing—I can assure you that these things weren’t thrown away because they suddenly started defying physics.

Physics governs how things behave, whether we’re talking about the ripples we observe when tossing a pebble into a puddle or the sparks we observe when we put a CD in an old microwave.

In a typical pile of electronics waste, you will find lasers, magnets, coils of wire, motors, LED light bulbs, switches, pumps, fans, buttons, the list goes on and on. Again, you can’t stop these things from doing physics. So if you explore these things, the science will speak for itself. If you tune-in, you can't help but learn.

Of all the new STEM education technologies I’ve experienced in my career as a science educator, junk has been the #1 best at engaging kids in a way that gets them figuring stuff out while giving them full ownership in the process.

With a screwdriver and a pair of pliers you could go at one of these artifacts from a few different directions:

- the forensic approach—figure out why it’s broken (if it’s broken),

- the explorer approach--figure out how it works (if it works),

- the cannibal pirate—mine it for discrete elements (switches, motors, lasers),

- the creator--use it or its parts to create something totally new (like make an exhibit for the physics bus!)

Some of the science engagement-inducing elements that are present in this kind of “Scrappy Science” include:

- the discovery of what’s inside is unique to the kid—she is the adventurer paving the way and the outcome is not predetermined;

- the pursuit is driven by something intrinsic to the explorer, not the content-learning objective of a facilitator;

- the artifact and/or its parts can be physically owned by the kid for her own purposes;

- there is little or no fear associated with breaking the object or its parts, and unlike engaging them in expensive STEM instructional resources,

- this is an activity they can easily do at home.

The employment of junk in science engagement has profound implications for both social equity and for environmental sustainability. Using junk levels the playing field with regards to the haves and the have-nots. Whether we’re poor, middle class, or rich, we’re all here examining the trailings of mainstream society—the stuff that’s systematically cast away whether you’re rich or poor. When junk is our medium for exploring and creating, beyond the gains we make in building interest and content knowledge, we can’t help tune in to the relationship we, as a species, have with the matter around us.

Once you are thinking and acting in harmony with your stuff, it doesn’t take long to arrive at the realization that there is an awful lot of material flowing through our culture. Where was it headed before we intercepted it? Is this part of some big system like the food chain or the water cycle—where these things get “digested” and “pooped out” and then they become fertilizer for new things…or is this more like a one-way-road to some big pit somewhere (or maybe it’s more like a hill at this point?) Has anyone seen this place? Why not? There are some great people doing amazing stuff with reduce, reuse, recycle, but I’m afraid that—especially as it pertains to the electro-mechanical stuff or "e-waste"—if we don’t slow the train down—it will become a mountain. A mountain that our children's children may be mining for resources when the train finally runs off the tracks!

So, beyond that junk is an ideal medium for science engagement—its integration into our education system is an important part of a bigger-picture change in mindset—how we relate to our stuff. When done right, stuff will flow in a circular path as we--its movers and shakers--get smarter and happier.

You are stardust. So is your junk. And stardust given the right energy gets back to shining.

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