About the Author
Why the bio? I have been very fortunate in having an extremely interesting life. Some of that rubbed off, cross-pollinated, incubated, and grew into projects like this web site.
When my younger brother followed me into our local high school, his English teacher—upon learning that he was my brother—proclaimed, “Slater isn’t mainstream…he isn’t even on the tributary.” I’m going to take that as a compliment!
My name is Slater Harrison. I gather that “Slater” was an old family last name on the maternal side that would be lost if not revived as a first name. By the time I was in my forties, I was quite sure that nobody else in the world had “Slater” as a first name. Then one day I was driving in the small city I live outside. What should I see, but a giant sign in the picture window of a storefront that said, “EXOTIC BODY PIERCING BY SLATER.” It was a bit embarrassing, too, because by then I guess I was a respectable teacher. I was still unconventional, though, so I wonder how many people figured I was moonlighting by stabbing holes in people’s eyebrows, tongues, belly buttons and…
|My BIG family and me. The youngest boys are twins. My wife is from Japan.|
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My adolescence was stormy. It was the 1960’s and new ideas were popping up. I was fortunate to live in a city with an exceptionally wonderful library, and I stumbled across publications like The Whole Earth Catalog. It broadened my horizons. That and another book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, really opened my eyes to the potent combination of technology and imagination. For some reason, I previously thought that creative people stuck with art and theatre, while technology people were conservative corporate drones. Once I realized how interesting creative interaction with technology is, I jumped right in. I enrolled in technical school several times and learned about machining and welding, although I never lasted long enough to graduate. I learned to appreciate “archaic” technology like blacksmithing and old-fashioned woodworking.
I have to hand it to my parents: they encouraged me to follow my dreams. It must have seemed that I had taken the idea a bit far, though. When I was 22, my friends were graduating from college. I, on the other hand, lived under primitive conditions in the woods. Then I read a book called The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka and decided to participate in the Japanese natural farming movement. It took some time to arrange for a long-term visa to Japan, so I enrolled in some Japanese language classes at the University of Minnesota. Although I had made a disastrous attempt at college when I was just out of high school, I guess I needed the maturity of a few more years to appreciate what a wonderful place a university can be. I made friends with foreign students. I met my wife-to-be (from Japan). I became good friends with a roommate named Nathaniel Doku from the African country of Ghana. I ended up staying and getting a degree.
By the time I graduated I was married with a daughter. In fact, when I finally made it to Japan, it was to be married. After college, I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but they do not accept couples with young children. So I hooked up with a Christian relief and development organization called the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
Back then I could not have told you the difference between a Mennonite and a Mormon. Although many people associate Mennonites with the Amish (there are Old Order Mennonites), the American and Canadian Mennonites I got to know in MCC were highly educated and tech savvy. Despite their ability to function in the modern world, they were still people whose faith was at the middle of their lives. Unlike some high-profile Christians, the believers I worked with in MCC were passionately committed to peacemaking, dialogue and social justice. MCC is not a missionary-sending organization (although there are many Mennonite organizations that do support missionaries). Rather, they provide practical technical and agricultural assistance in the spirit of “…teach a man to fish…”
MCC sent my wife, daughter and me to Bangladesh, a poor, small, but densely populated country in South Asia. Bangladesh is mostly surrounded by India and was historically part of colonial India. Living in Bangladesh was truly a life-altering experience. When someone who has grown up in the comfort of a rich country finds themselves in a poor country like Bangladesh, the transition can be jarring. Problems there were blatant. Beggars and mentally ill people roamed the streets. Some poor people still suffered from diseases like leprosy, polio and tuberculosis. Babies died of (what we consider in industrialized countries to be) minor medical conditions like diarrhea. Still, we lived in the countryside, learned the language, made friends, loved the culture and the food. I put together a slide show about rural technology in Bangladesh here.
MCC had about 50 Americans, Canadians and even a couple of Japanese volunteers in Bangladesh when I was there. There were far more Bangladeshis working for the organization. Now that I think about it, it was remarkable: Moslems, Hindus and Christians from different ethnic groups, working together and respecting each other.
MCC had long-standing programs in Bangladesh promoting agriculture extension, job creation and health care. I worked in the job creation program. I researched technology with the intent of setting up small industries in rural areas. For example, water hyacinth is a ubiquitous weed that chokes canals and lakes in Bangladesh. Water hyacinth is so fibrous that even cows and goats won’t eat it. The fibers can be made into paper, however, which was expensive, being imported. It was perfect. We could turn a horrible weed into a valuable product, and create much-needed jobs in the process. I researched paper-making equipment and techniques, trying to adapt them to conditions in rural Bangladesh.
I also tried to find an easier way to spin jute and hemp fiber into twine. Women had to walk backward for 100 meters down footpaths between rice fields as they fed fibers into lengthening plies of twine, so it was impossible for them to work during the rainy monsoon season. I tried to add a “flyer mechanism” to their traditional spinning device mechanism that wound up the twine as it lengthened. One of my science projects is inspired by the traditional Bangladesh spinning device. You can see it here .There was also a soap-making project and food preservation projects.
|Here's a picture from when the twins were babies. You can see the calf muscles between my ankles and knees are atrophied.|
Although I had committed to a 3 year term, it was cut short when I became paralyzed from my shoulders down over a period of 3 days, stricken by a condition called Guillain-Barre’ Syndrome (GBS). GBS is sometimes described as an allergic reaction to a virus. I could not lift a finger or wiggle a toe. I was evacuated to a hospital in London until I stabilized because the paralysis had advanced to the point that I was having trouble breathing. After 10 days I went back to Bangladesh to try to carry on my job from a wheelchair. After 6 months my condition did not seem to be improving, so my family and I returned to the USA.
Being paralyzed was devastating. Losing the ability to use my hands was the worst part. One good thing that came out of it was the research I did about how our hands work, and from that I designed one of the most popular projects on the site: a working model of a human hand.
I was able to gain back much of my muscle strength over period of about 3 years. Twice a week my wife would drive me to an indoor swimming pool. Soon I could walk when the water was up to my neck. Each week I could walk in shallower water—to my chest, belly button, waist-- until I could walk on dry land with crutches. I still can’t wiggle my toes, and I wear plastic “mafo” braces on both legs so I can walk.
As I got stronger, I started substitute teaching. Teaching junior high school was trial by fire. Becoming any kind of authority figure was the last thing I ever dreamed I’d ever be. But you cannot have a large number of kids in one room without exercising some control, or weaker kids get bullied, equipment gets damaged, and general chaos ensues. Eventually I became a full time in the Jersey Shore School District—which is land-locked in rural Pennsylvania over a hundred miles away from New Jersey and even farther away from the sea shore, but otherwise well named. I teach at the middle school.
I am a “technology teacher.” We used to be called “shop teachers”, then “industrial arts teachers.” I got my students involved in building science exhibits for our local children’s museum. We constructed a see-through honeybee hive so museum visitors can view the bees making honey, “dancing, coming and going through a chute. It has been installed during the 6 warm months of the year for 15 years in the Children’s Discovery Workshop in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. We also made a giant 6 foot diameter hamster wheel that kids and adults can run in. In honor of the canals that preceded railroads in connecting our region of Pennsylvania, we made a working canal lock—complete with water. In the wind-around stair area we installed a water rocket set up that launched 2-liter water rockets up to the fourth floor. There were many other exhibits—a giant soap-film-maker, giant Cartesian diver, see-through submarine tube, etc—too numerous to name.
|My daughter is running in the 6' diameter "hamster wheel" my 9th grade students and I made for the Children's Discovery Workshop (CDW).||Another exhibit we made for the CDW involving water and submarines. We got some very encouraging publicity from the local newspaper and TV stations.|
When the junior high school switched to a middle school, the schedule and logistics made it impossible to continue making science exhibits. I teach every student in the middle school—some 750 kids—every year, but I only teach them for a few weeks. We still make great projects. Sixth graders make balsa and tissue airplanes from scratch that really fly. Seventh graders solder together transistors, capacitors and resistors to create electronics kits like the lie detector. Eighth graders make the putt putt boat with its real steam engine. Then they can choose to make the model hand or the giant water prism. In the past couple of years all of my students (well over 700 per year) have been learning basic digital video production, including editing movies on computers. Here is my SchoolWires site.
Several years ago I started working with video production. I spend some time teaching it in my middle school. Video is one more way to communicate. My students find that creating video is much more fun than passively consuming TV. Also--and I can't prove it, but--I believe that when they make their own video, they attain a certain resistance to the manipulative nature the commercial visual media they are inundated with. Here is a short music video teaser for a longer documentary I made for the Warrior Run Heritage Days event. If you have a slow connection, right click here and save.
I am starting to make instructional videos of the various sciencetoymaker.org projects. It's a lot easier to show people how to make something than to write how to make something.
As I found my niche teaching, my wife and I enlarged our family to a total of 6 kids—the last two being twins. We stopped having kids when they started coming out two at a time. To sustain this expanding brood, I began building my own house. Everybody warned me a house would take forever, but actually it didn’t take long at all to build…after the first decade. I was a bit of a control freak about it. I made my own kitchen cabinets and furniture. I have strong feelings about relying as little as possible on fossil fuels, so I built a massive northern European-style masonry furnace. Not only do I heat my house 100% with wood thinned out from my land, I also heat some of our domestic hot water (showers, laundry, dishwashing) as well. We finally moved into it in 2001.
I am working to create some flat land on my mountainous hillside homestead for a large garden. We have some chickens. I am improving two ponds for our ducks, geese and many fish and building a traditional “worm fence” to contain grazing sheep.
If you have found the sciencetoymaker.org website helpful or if you can suggest an improvement, I'd be happy to hear from you.
To go back to the sciencetoymaker.org home page, click here.