Braced for a barnstorming science

12th July 1996 at 01:00
And finally," intoned the presenter, "this week is National Constipation Week." It was the wrong time for me to hear this. I was lying under one of my Spitfires with two spanners fitted carefully either side of a propshaft bolt. The car, supported on axle stands, was in an old cowshed whose floor still bore substantial traces of the sort of stuff you would expect to find on the floor of an old cowshed.

I laughed, the spanners slipped and . . . well you can work out the rest for yourself. I was removing the overdrive gearbox from my scrap car in the hope of selling it to finance the rebuild of my slightly less scrappy car. The job was not without setbacks. The workshop manual said things like "undo the eight bolts securing the propshaft and remove the shaft", neglecting to mention that removing the shaft would entail the use of a trolley jack, a wooden lever, a rope and a substantial hernia risk. But I was having fun. This is my hobby and if the job didn't get finished there would always be another day.

Contrast that situation with what happened to my "road car" the following week. As we left school my passenger noted brake fluid around one of the wheels. On the way home warning lights began to flash and it was clear prompt action would have to be taken. I bought a new wheel cylinder and set about replacing it. I did this successfully but discovered that the brake shoes were worn. The car would be best kept off the road for another day until a new pair could be bought and fitted.

These I subsequently acquired but when I attempted to fit them to the car I found that two tiny springs were hopelessly corroded. It was Sunday and the Skoda garage was shut. Now exasperated (a euphemism for "now turning the air blue"), I had to leave things for another day.

When I did get the springs I had severe difficulty fitting them. They would hook into one shoe, stretch then release themselves to ricochet off the garage walls. After several false starts I stabbed myself with a sharp implement trying to put things together. An observer would have concluded that I was now either extremely exasperated or reading aloud from a James Kelman novel. When, with the aid of a vice, rubber mallet, pair of pliers and broad-bladed screwdriver, I did get it all to work.

I was too knackered to feel any real satisfaction. There was no real pleasure in the job because of the pressure to get it done, in contrast with the "just for the hell of it" Spitfire work. This took place in the final week before the senior years left on study leave. The third years were already in the throes of exams and S1 had just had their reports. ("Hey! I've got an A for my maths!" whooped wee John, failing to understand the new 5-14 grading system.) Perhaps it's time to have a National Learning Just For the Hell if It Week. Every secondary subject picks a topic that will not appear as part of any exam, assessment or report. Teachers tell the kids that this is the case. More than that, we stress that this is for fun.

It will never happen. Too many teachers resent intrusions into normal class work. I have felt that way myself quite often but I have got this great idea for a science unit. It would be on the physics and chemistry of the internal combustion engine.

In a barn three miles from the school there is a great visual aid I would love to bring in.

Gregor Steele Gregor Steele offers the overdrive gearbox at a bargain price.

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