by Frances Edstrom, columnist
My grandson, Harry, and I went to college together. Actually, it was Grandparents University at Winona State University (WSU). We took physics. Really! The other choices were trees, or robotics. It is a two-day event that included the classes, meals, a mini-class on Shakespeare, Frisbee golf, or a ride on the Mississippi, a movie, and an hour at the Aquatic Center, which impressed everyone.
On the first day, we got to Haake Hall bright and early and registered. We weren’t staying in the dorm, so we didn’t have to check in and take luggage to our room like the others. People started to stroll into the room where we would have an orientation by Jessica Kaphusman, who is the director of the Retiree Center at WSU.
While we waited, there was fruit and pastries, juice and coffee available, and we watched a slide show of the events of years past. This was our first year, so it was interesting to see. Harry and I wondered what the class could have been that had people balancing Oreo cookies on their foreheads. We figured it wasn’t physics, so stopped worrying. I said maybe it was dog training.
My friends Bruce and Margaret Johnson came in with their grandson, Tae, son of their son Hans and his wife, another Margaret. Tae and Harry hit it off immediately, which was good and bad. Good because they each found a new friend, bad because they are both extroverts with a ton of energy. We found ourselves having to remind them to stop twirling their seats around and stop talking so much.
We got to our class in the beautiful newish science complex, and met our teacher, retired physics professor Richard Shields. He was helped by his son, also a WSU physics instructor, Gary. One of the grandparents taking the class was physicist Ormsin Gardiner. Her husband, also a retired professor, is from Ayer, Mass., where my father grew up, and he knew my uncle.
We sat at long tables, on chairs that went round and round and up and down. A lot.
While the wiggle worms were fidgeting their way through class, we learned about the origins of physics, and the scientists who came up with the theories that still hold today — Galileo, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and Einstein among them. We did experiments with gravity and shot our homemade rockets (made from a straw, paper, and Play-Doh) into the air. We learned that they don’t really need fins unless they go into outer space, a hard belief to give up.
Then we studied sound, which, for some reason, seemed to encourage the 10 or so kids to make more sound. We created our own sound waves with a string, which we could see created more or fewer waves as we adjusted the frequency. We also recreated sonic booms. Then Richard brought out all sorts of instruments that made sounds, which the kids loved when free time came and they were allowed to play with them.
By the time the session on sound was over, I needed to lock myself in a stall in the ladies’ room just to have some quiet. It all came back to me why I had dropped out of elementary education classes in college.
At the end of the first day, Harry lost his little backpack with his Grandparents University T-shirt in it, so the next morning I asked Ron Stevens, whose brainchild the university is, if there was possibly another one. He brought one to the classroom, and then a cute little girl walked over to us, asking if the backpack she had found could possibly be ours.
“I was going to look at the name inside, but when I opened it, it smelled like stinky socks,” she said. Of course it was Harry’s backpack, and Harry’s socks, but he said, “Oh, those are my grandma’s!”
Light was next, and we learned about light waves, which was fun, and at about half the decibel level of sound waves. The kids couldn’t believe that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, even if it was Einstein who discovered it.
Gary Shields conducted most of the experiments in the next segment, which was on electromagnetic waves. Richard is not supposed to get near large magnets. At one point, Richard was holding a huge magnet, and a buzzing sound started. Gary, puzzled, said, “What’s that?” “That means I’m too close to the magnets,” Richard replied, rather calmly, I thought, since it was his pacemaker that was doing the buzzing.
Gary demonstrated electromagnetism by making sparks that the kids could see. This they found enormously exciting. When it came time for them to be able to play with the equipment, they all tried to get shocks and learned that they themselves could conduct electricity by standing in a circle, holding hands. They could also get light bulbs to light up when they were near an electromagnetic source.
I’ve probably explained this all wrong, but it was an amazing couple days. It’s a great way to spend time with grandchildren who may not live in town. They got to take a class, have fun, eat in a college cafeteria (way different from the cafeterias of my youth, where you had no choices!), and meet new friends. Harry immediately announced he wants to go next year, too.
There was a commencement, and we all received certificates from our professors. Jessica asked that someone from each class come up to the front and tell the others what they learned. Harry’s hand shot up. Now, what Jessica didn’t know is that Harry loves to speak in front of an audience. He took the microphone as though it was as natural as breathing. Then he launched into a description of the physics class, ending with “electromagnetics, which was shocking, literally and figuratively!”
That night it didn’t take us long to fall asleep. In fact, I was dozing in my chair before making myself say, “OK kiddo, off to bed.” The next day, I drove Harry to Northfield, Minn., where Harry’s mother, my daughter Cassidy, was at her college reunion at Carleton College. And Harry got a chance to stay in a college dorm. Pretty good for a nine year old. His first college campus tours!