Dave walks in carrying a serious gray briefcase, a titanium-looking briefcase, the kind of briefcase meant to carry smuggled Ukrainian jewels or the nuclear launch codes.
He stands inside an Omaha Mercy High School math classroom and clicks open the serious briefcase.
He does not pull out smuggled Ukrainian jewels, but he does remove something strange.
It is a rectangular bar of aluminum, with some notches cut into it. It is a tool, an educational tool that Dave Eledge invented himself.
He invented this tool because five years ago the Metro Community College instructor realized something shocking.
He realized that his students didn't know how to use a tape measure. They didn't know a quarter-inch from a hole in their heads. They didn't have the first clue.
And so he decided to do something about that.
“You need to know how to measure things for engineering, for art, for manufacturing, for medicine,” David Eledge tells this freshman-level math class as he holds up his invention — the Measuring Assessment Tool, or MAT. “Measuring things is a basic tool used everywhere. And this can help you learn it.”
You may think Dave is being dramatic when he says the college students he used to teach — Dave was a Metro instructor for 15 years — didn't know how to measure things.
He isn't. In 2009, Dave decided to test this seemingly simplest of skills during a machinist course at Metro. He figured that nearly all of the students would be able to use a tape measure accurately to within 1/16th of an inch.
The first time he tested his class, 23 percent of his students could use a tape measure this accurately. All of these students were old enough for college. Some of them were middle-aged.
Furthermore, he heard stories, bad stories, about graduates who had all the skills to work in manufacturing and yet wouldn't get hired because they couldn't pass a simple measurement test.
“I just couldn't believe it,” he says.
Dave was dumbfounded in part because he spent most of his life correctly measuring things. The Council Bluffs native started as an apprentice at Asarco when he was 17 and still in high school. He learned to measure things to 1/1000th of an inch. He became a machinist, and after a year or two the precision became second nature, and after another year or two Dave couldn't imagine doing anything else. He worked there for three decades, eventually rising to mechanical maintenance supervisor.
That was his job in 1998, when Asarco shuttered the plant.
That year Dave enrolled in a variety of Metro Community College courses — an unemployed, 48-year-old freshman unsure of what he wanted to do, and what he could do, with the rest of his career.
He enrolled in a machinist course, basically an advanced, specialized version of that thing we used to call “shop.” Metro officials noticed that Dave knew more about being a machinist than the instructor and all the other students combined. They hired him to teach.
Which is why David Eledge stood there dumbfounded in 2009 and decided to something about his students' poor measuring skills.
He designed the MAT out of aluminum to make sure it wouldn't warp like wood might. He cut the notches, and gave each of them a corresponding letter, so that students could be told to measure from A to B or A to C. And then he made a second MAT, and a third, and a 14th exactly like the first one, so that he could test his students on the measurement between A and C and they could all arrive at the same exact answer.
He gave his next group of students the new tool. They practiced measuring. After several minutes of practice, more than half could do it accurately.
So, with his next group of students after that, Dave incorporated “tape measure skills” into the first class period. They practiced using the MAT a little longer. Eventually, 90 percent of those students could accurately measure short distances to within 1/16th of an inch.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
“Took some time, but we got there,” Dave says.
Dave has a few theories about how we got so off-track.
Junior high students have smartphones and calculators and some understanding of things, like 3-D printing, that their parents may not be able to fathom.
But they often have a tenuous grasp on fractions. And they have rarely, if ever, actually picked up a tape measure and held it in their hands.
Most high school students move into algebra while still shaky on math basics. Most can't identify all those unmarked lines on a tape measure. Some can't convert inches to feet. And fractions remain a mystery to many — Maureen Davis, the Omaha Mercy math teacher, has grown used to students telling her that they have measured something as “3.4 inches” instead of 3¼ inches.
“If you can't do this, algebra is so difficult!” she says.
Which is exactly why David is here today, along with Carl Fielder, Metro's director of career education.
The MAT tool worked so well that Dave approached Metro Community College about a mini-grant to make more. It agreed. An Omaha company manufactured 200. And soon every math instructor at Metro could teach students how to measure using the MAT tool.
The next step, Metro officials think, is to get the MAT tool into high schools. Both Bellevue high schools already have some. The Omaha school district has made an initial purchase.
And today, after Dave finishes his presentation — and after the Mercy High freshmen practice measuring for a half-hour — Fielder promises to donate 17 tools to teacher Maureen Davis and this class. Soon they will all have a MAT.
And so, in this age of chess-playing computers and mobile apps, a now-retired community college teacher named David Eledge is changing the way that Omaha students measure things.
He is doing so with a piece of aluminum with some notches cut into it. He's doing it because he recognized that sometimes we have to stop moaning about what our kids don't know and teach it to them instead.
“I just want to hope that someone gets a job because of this,” he says. “We're doing it. I think we're doing it.”