Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Using an Assembly Line as a Hook to Introduce Industrialization

By Jeff Burns

For several years, I’ve been introducing the industrialization of the Gilded Age with an assembly line simulation that’s a lot of fun for students and always leads to a great discussion. I got the inspiration from somewhere, of course, but I’m not sure where, maybe a History Alive (TCI, Teacher’s Curriculum Institute) activity, but I’ve adapted to my classroom and my personal demeanor.  You see, I’m not an overly effusive person; I’m pretty stoic, dour, emotionless – take your pick.  Students lovingly liken me to internet sensation Grumpy Cat. (If only I could channel my personality into tens of millions of dollars like Grumpy Cat.)

This topic usually falls immediately following Thanksgiving for me, so I begin class by spinning an elaborate tale. I tell the class that I had an epiphany over break. I finally figured out the vehicle that will make me a millionaire and allow me to quit teaching.  It’s the toy sensation that will change the world.  Children around the world will go into frenzy for it. I even have a Shark Tank appearance coming up next week to get backers.  I’m sharing it with the class because I need some help creating some initial inventory, and they can help me.

I use these slides to make my pitch.  (The clumsy cheesiness is part of the charm.)

The Burnsie bears a remarkable resemblance to myself.  You can make it anything you want, just some simple drawing or folded object.

For the next step, I use rows of five desks each, markers, and lots of paper cut into fourths.  I use scratch paper, extra one-sided copies saved up all year.  Give every student a marker and 4 o 5 paper squares.  Tell them you’re testing them to see who can get in on the ground floor of this money-making opportunity by producing a burnsie inventory. Their instructions are to draw as many burnsies as possible in 15-20 seconds. When time is up, have them count their completed burnsies and examine a few to compare their consistence, with each other and with the original.  Invariably, this first effort is not going to be successful.  I make  big deal about how many more have to be produced and how they have to be consistent.  No matter where they are in the world, children have to wake up to find a consistent, high-quality, handcrafted burnsie under their tree.  How do we achieve that?  Students offer suggestions like, more workers, using photocopiers, stamps, or stencils.  No, I say, that defeats the purpose of hand-crafted, made-in-America quality.  Someone will suggest an assembly line. OK, How does that work? The student explains, and we give it a shot.  I pit rows against each other.  Usually to save paper  at this point, I reduce the pool of workers to two rows pitted against each other and have volunteers staff the rows, while the rest of the class watches. However, you could have more rows competing.  Then each student in the row is assigned a part to draw:  head, face, body, arms, legs.  They have to draw their parts and pass it to the person behind.  For this round, I usually give them 45-60 seconds.  When time is called, we count and talk about consistency and quality (usually better).

Now, that’s better, but not quite good enough, how do we make more,  faster?  They offer various suggestions.  Maybe the boss (me) can offer positive incentives or negative disincentives for example.  We discuss various options.  Someone will then suggest (maybe following my lead) turning the desks side by side to facilitate the passing.  They may even switch positions or participants or make other suggestions that you may want to implement.  We then do 1 or 2 rounds of 45-60 seconds each, and the production is always better.

Finally, we debrief.  How did you feel during this simulation?  Participants will say they felt stressed, anxious, etc. What would it feel like to do real assembly line work today?  What are the physical and mental effects of such work?  Now put yourself in a factory in 1890 or so.  What other factors and effect would be involved.  We usually have a great discussion about working conditions.

The finishing touch is to show the classic candy factory scene from I Love Lucy.  It’s available on Youtube, even in new colorized form if you don’t want to shock the students too much.  While some students will have never seen it before (Sadder still, some students may not have a clue who Lucy or what I Love Lucy is.) but most of them will have seen Drake and Josh do almost exactly the same scene, and they are amazed that it was done fifty years earlier by someone else.