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Treasure from Trash: Recent Grad Ed Bear Works to Curb E-waste

iPads over laptops; DVDs instead of VCRs; cell phones, not land lines — changes in technology naturally produce new gadgets that replace older versions of themselves. The outdated items, called e-waste, then sit in forgotten corners, dusty relics of a culture trying to keep pace with the rapid technological advances characteristic of today’s world. Does it have to be that way? asks recent Polytechnic Institute of NYU graduate Ed Bear. And does it have to be that way at NYU-Poly?

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Curious about possible answers, the electrical engineering major researched funding opportunities for sustainability initiatives and discovered New York University’s Green Grants, which supports environmental literacy, applied research, and community engagement. Bear received one of the grants and proceeded to spend 2010 conducting an audit of NYU-Poly’s e-waste, with the intention of designing workshops in which the excess items, which included routers, monitors, and printers, could be reused to educate attendees. “Part of the idea is to excite people that are getting this very technical, very specialized education to the resources out there,” he explained.

Organized under the banner of TERRE (Technical Education Reusing and Repurposing E-waste), the five workshops took place throughout the spring and fall semesters at NYU-Poly. They ranged in content from building an FM radio transmitter to reverse-engineering a common consumer product. Attendees were asked to solve equations and then were presented with an example of the equation in real life — taking apart a DVD player, for instance, and then using one of its motors to power a light and measure the efficiency of the motor as a power source.

“It’s maybe a complicated question if you want a really precise answer,” says Bear, “but behind it is a pretty simple idea that people haven’t encountered in a situation that’s kinesthetic and visual and tactile.”

Hands-on learning turns out to be the foundation of the TERRE workshops, which reused parts from the audited items as class materials. “A mechanical engineer that’s seen the plastic parts of a DVD player translating motion in these different ways is better prepared to do their job. They have a better chance of visualizing that system in the future or modifying it,” says Bear.

Growing more excited, the slight, bespectacled Bear fires off rapidly, “The student that feels a specific metal bend — sees how strong it actually is — doesn’t just have to trust a number, but can also develop engineering intuition, which is valuable.”

Bear acknowledges that other groups organize similar events, but he’s adamant about the importance of the TERRE workshops occurring in an academic setting. “This is something you can do on your own,” he says. “It’s not like you need a giant lab.” He’s once more emphasizing the importance of experiential learning at the college level, which Bear argues is glossed over by the scientific establishment.

In what may be the best example of experiential learning, Bear himself learned that the pedagogy he supports has its own lessons to each. Reflecting on the workshops, he says, “I kind of thought that it would be something I could pass off to people, but I underestimated the amount of skills needed to design and run a class like this.”

Aware now of improvements that could benefit the workshops, Bear hopes to hold them at other colleges around the country. Already one is scheduled at the University of Ohio in the spring, with others tentatively slated elsewhere. Asked his final thoughts on the workshops, Bear pauses before saying, “If you’ve got a DVD player in a bunch of kids’ hands and they take it apart and go through this cathartic learning experience, that can’t be a bad thing.”

Bear will present one of his workshops at the Dumbo Arts Center (30 Washington St. Brooklyn NY) February 21, 7 – 10 pm. Tickets are $30.