Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Using Your Resources

For those new to this blog, in addition to being a software tester, I'm also a Scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts of America. Last night I had the opportunity of exploring a challenge with some of my younger scouts. We had two tents that had been used by some boys in the past, but put away badly. The result was that some of the gear was lost or damaged, poles mismatched or missing, and otherwise impossible to construct both tents. What started out as an exercise to see who could put up a tent using teamwork became something else entirely, a chance to discuss a problem and see how they could solve the problem.

What we had were two tents, both different sizes, both using similar poles and rain fly's but not the same size. Looking at the smaller tent, it was missing one of its poles, and looking at the larger tent, it was missing two of its poles. The larger tent allowed for more room and better storage, but its rain fly was torn in a spot and there were cut marks on the floor (small ones). Both tents were missing pieces; neither tent could be raised by itself. Faced with this, what could they do?

Their answer was interesting. They looked at the way that the larger tent was constructed, and determined that, if they were to somehow lengthen two of the poles that were originally part of the smaller tent by one section (approximately 18 inches), they could fill out and provide the structure needed to make the full tent stand. With this, they took one of the poles from the smaller tent and cut the bungee cord holding them together, removed two 18" sections, and pulled the rubber ball type end off the original poles to add in the new 18" sections at the very end of the poles, so as to keep the poles intact, but provide the extra length needed for the tent to remain tight. It worked! From this, they were able to then look at the tent interior and determine where they could make some simple repairs (such as stitching and gluing areas where the nylon had ripped) as well as removing parts from the smaller tent that could be used on the larger tent. I found it interesting to see that they chose the option of augmenting the larger tent rather than try to salvage the smaller one, even though the smaller one for the most part had more usable parts. Their reasoning was that the larger tent would hold more people and gear, and therefore was worth more to the organization (i.e. the Troop) to be in serviceable shape than the smaller one was. They also recognized that it was easier to add a section to two of the poles than it would be to cut down longer poles for use in the smaller tent.

The boys may not know this now, but they worked together in a team to solve a problem the same way many engineering teams do. They gathered together with the goal of doing one thing (quickly raising a tent) and discovered a problem (mismatched and missing parts). They talked together and brainstormed ideas as to how they could set up the tents. They experimented and tested out ideas to see which parts went where. They realized that they would be unable to set up both tents with the parts that they had, but that they could create a solution to make sure one of the tents was usable. They applied their ideas and made a prototype to test a fix. They applied the prototype and saw that it would work, and quickly applied the same idea to the other pole to finish the job.

Sometimes we find that we have to be creative to solve problems. That creativity allows us to look at solutions we might not consider. I explained to the scouts that this might be an example of something that might actually happen in the wild, where two tents may get damaged, or parts lost along the way. As Plato pointed out over 2,000 years ago, necessity is the mother of invention :).

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