Designs and Dodecahedrons: The secret lives of teachers

Web and Multi-media Instructor Rachel White models a hat she created for a client to wear to a Derby event this year.
Web and Multimedia Instructor Rachel White models a hat she created for a client to wear to a Derby event this year.

SPRING 2017: “I love seeing teachers outside of school. It’s like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs.” – Janis Ian, Mean Girls. 

Have you ever considered what your instructors do outside the classroom? Believe it or not, the faculty at Sullivan Tech have more than a few tricks up their sleeves, and they aren’t as unexpected as you might think. Our own Rachel White and Michael Woodcox spend their free time designing hats and solving Rubik’s cubes, respectively. These aren’t just any hats or cubes: White has a steady clientele for her high-fashion Derby hats and was featured in Today’s Woman magazine, while Woodcox has a competitive record time for speedcubing and has solved complex Rubik’s puzzles like the Megaminx (a pentagonal dodecahedron). Both have found that their hobbies are a perfect complement to their careers.

Celebrating a birthday in early May, White holds a deep love for the Kentucky Derby Festival. Her birthday celebrations get to include hot air balloon festivals, concerts, fair food, and of course, “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” She grew up under the tutelage of an antique store-owning family friend who repurposed recycled materials as sculptures; he eventually invited White to join him. Because of this, the progression to designing hats was natural; she began selling them through one of her web design clients.

Woodcox, like White, started his quest with family. His adolescent brother-in-law brought home a Rubik’s cube, insisting he could solve it. At the time Woodcox thought “you’ve got to be crazy smart to know how to do this,” and was shocked when the teen solved it. He borrowed the original cube while his brother-in-law moved on to more complex Rubik’s puzzles, and the two began to grow competitive. As Woodcox’s interest continued into adulthood, his brother-in-law’s waned.

Physics Instructor. Michael Woodcox says his abilities in cubing are due to innate stubbornness.
Physics Instructor, Michael Woodcox says his abilities in cubing are due to innate stubbornness.

White believes the hands-on aspect of hat design scratches an itch web design can’t, explaining, “I interact with colors in a digital form, oftentimes in hexadecimal, or just the code of the color. For me it’s much more of a physical interaction [when I work with] flowers.” Sometimes it’s just nice to get out from behind a screen, manipulating something tangible rather than digital files. There’s still an overlap between the two, however. She works with multimedia in the digital world and mixed media in the art world. “I like the hodgepodge,” she says with a grin.

Having a more robust, well-rounded experience as an artist has had a positive impact on her skills as a developer. “[It helps] me see color and design differently. Like I would never put hot pink on a corporate client, but I can push them into gradients of blues…because of work I’ve done.”

Web and Multi-media Instructor Rachel White models a statement fascinator she created for a client to wear to a Derby event this year.
Web and Multimedia Instructor Rachel White models a statement fascinator she created for a client to wear to a Derby event this year.

Woodcox has seen a lot of inaccurate ideas about physicists. Similar to his initial thought about cube masters, he suggests, “People think [we’re] all super geniuses because they think of Einstein, they think of Stephen Hawking. But when it comes to my physics work, whether it’s class work [or] actual research work, it gets down to problem solving and persistence.” The same is true of his skills with the cube: When asked what makes him so good at cubing, he demurs, insisting his abilities are due to an innate stubbornness and not an elevated IQ. He points out that some masters use strategy: once they learn technique, they can plan a few steps ahead. When asked if this is similar to chess, Woodcox perks up and discusses his own interest in the game, agreeing that the two are related interests given the need for spatial awareness. “The only difference,” he adds, “is predictability.”

The puzzles provide a sort of brain-reboot when Woodcox is working intently on physics; they present a completely different puzzle to solve. While working on homework, he would take breaks to complete four or five cubes before returning to physics. Engaging in a different kind of problem solving helped shift him into a different head space, which was often just what he needed to tackle his assignment with a fresh perspective.

Many have never explored any sort of traditional art, especially those who grew up in a world that was always digitized. White has some advice for students who feel inspired to find their own outlets. Her first suggestion is photography, which is an essential skill for web designers and blends content with art. She says that students should figure out what they’d like to
tinker on.

As a sort-of wink towards Woodcox, she adds, “If they want to redo a Rubik’s cube, they can!” She also likes the idea of taking something that already exists and “turn[ing] it into the internet of things. They can go Raspberry Pi on it and actually compute with it.” Finding a passion project that actually improves your skills as a web designer is a great marriage of concepts. The trick, she explains, is to be an artist without being a starving artist.

Woodcox believes the Rubik’s cube helps students “see” numbers. He does this by asking a class if they know someone who has ever solved a cube by accident, then boldly calls out any affirmative answers as lies, citing a possible 43 quintillion solutions. These odds render a lucky accident less likely than being struck by lightning over a dozen times. Even so, it’s still hard to conceptualize such an enormous figure. He takes a piece of paper and places it on a table to represent one possible outcome, then asks the class, “If we do this, taking [into consideration] the height of a piece of paper, and we [stack] those pieces, by the time we hit 43 quintillion, where are we at?” He lists common guesses, like the top of his desk or the ceiling. The real answer, he says with excitement, is a stack of paper that would go from Earth to Pluto and back seven hundred times. In light of this, anyone who has randomly solved a cube might consider investing in a lightning rod.

Does he believe that students could begin cubing and see an improvement in their course performance? Woodcox offers a tentative yes, mentioning that three specific students come to mind. He has witnessed one student in particular improve not just his understanding of content, but also retention alongside increased practice of cubing. Statistically speaking, such a small sample doesn’t imply a causal relationship, but having a specific case in our own midst is worth noting. “He’s not just succeeding,” Woodcox points out. “He’s accelerating.”

By: Lindsey B. Harris, Enrollment Coordinator

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