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Lateral Thinking R.L. Loeffelbein A physics
teacher at The examination problem was: "Show how it is
possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer." The student's answer was, "Take the barometer to the
top of the building, attach a long rope to it, and lower the barometer to the
ground. Then, bring it back up, measuring the length of the rope and
barometer. The lengths of the two together is the
height of the building." I, as arbiter, pointed out that the student really had a
strong case for full credit since he had answered the problem completely and
correctly. On the other hand, of course, full credit would contribute to a
high grade for the student in his physics course, and a high grade is
supposed to certify that the student knows some physics, a fact that his
answer had not confirmed. So it was suggested that the student have another
try at answering the problem. He was given six minutes to answer it, with the warning
this time that the answer should indicate some knowledge of physics. At the
end of five minutes, he had not written anything. Asked if he wished to give
up, he said no, that he had several answers and he was just trying to think
which would be the best. In the next minute he dashed off this answer. "Take the barometer to the top of the building. Lean
over the edge of the roof, drop the barometer,
timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula S=½at^{2},
calculate the height of the building. At this point, I asked my colleague if
he gave up and he conceded. The student got nearly full credit. Recalling that the student had said he had other answers,
I asked him what they were. "Well," he said, "you could take
the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the
length of its shadow, and length of the building's shadow, then use simple
proportion to determine the height of the building. And there is a very basic
measurement method you might like. You take the barometer and begin to walk
up the stairs. As you climb, you mark off lengths of the barometer along the
wall. You then count the number of marks to get the height of the building in
barometer units. "Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method,
you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and
determine the value of 'g.' The height of the building can, in principle, be
calculated from this. "And," he concluded, "if you don't limit
me to physics solutions, you can take the barometer to the basement and knock
on the superintendent's door. When he answers, you say, 'Mr. Superintendent,
I have here a fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of this
building, I will give you this barometer.'" Finally, he admitted that he even knew the correct
textbook answer  measuring the air pressure at the bottom and top of the
building and applying the appropriate formula illustrating that pressure
reduces as height increases  but that he was so fed up with college instructors
trying to teach him how to think instead of showing the structure of the
subject matter, that he had decided to rebel. For my part, I seriously considered changing my grade to
unequivocal full credit. R.L. Loeffelbein has been a
teacher and writer for 20 years. He was an assistant professor aboard the
first voyage of the University of the Seven Seas. 

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