Born in rustic Western Massachusetts, Sarah Wodin-Schwartz spent much of her adventurous youth exploring the woods, kayaking on rivers and gliding down ski slopes. Through these outdoor activities she developed a great love and respect for the earth and all of its marvels.
In her early classroom days, Sarah’s teachers used fruit snacks and chocolate chips to help the students actively learn counting and the multiplication tables. The faster and more accurately the students completed their exercises, the more tasty rewards they earned. Sarah loved her fruit snacks, so she constantly strived to be at the top of her class. Even then she experienced the effectiveness of multi-sensory hands-on-learning.
As school progressed, the experiential learning methods created by her teachers continued. Team based domino challenges became more and more elaborate. At home, Legos became part of her own elaborate experimental mechanics laboratory. She didn’t have much time or interest in TV, but when she did watch she was fascinated by characters like The Professor from Gilligan’s Island.
The Professor (one of seven castaways on a desert island) created several useful inventions during the run of the show, employing only items found on the island. For example, he made a working battery charger using only coconut shells, seawater, metal strips and pennies. He also created a human-powered clothes washing machine, a lie detector, shark repellant, a Geiger counter, nitroglycerine and a hot air balloon. These fanciful creations ignited young Sarah’s imagination as she dreamed that someday she would use her knowledge to help people in need by creating innovations from minimal resources.
She also studied her textbooks and did her homework, partly so she could get back outdoors. While most of her peers participated in traditional after school sports, four days a week she hopped on a bus and headed for the Deerfield River and nature’s laboratory. As soon as she came of age, she took a job with the whitewater company and became a guide herself.
Being a curious observer, her many adventures taught Sarah a great deal about math and physics, and the practical application of their principles. Conquering the height of trees by learning the advantages of ropes and pulleys. Making split second decisions while kayaking–should she avoid the menacing jagged black rock or slide her kayak over it to jump a dangerous hole in the river’s whitewater rapids? In skiing she learned to control her downslope velocity by sensing the changing frictional resistance of the snow; with her turns she’d make adjustments in balance and ski edge angle.
Most people would think she was honing her instincts through repetition of activities, but Sarah realized she was also developing a natural understanding of engineering beyond instinct. She wondered if others could learn in the same way.
Over time she developed the belief that the best way to educate, especially for engineers, is to blend lectures and textbooks with hands-on experiences.