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Former Ford Assembly Line Worker Is Top Scholar in Sciences

Science scholar Tracy Thornton

During those 10-hour shifts when Tracy Thornton did off-buck welding and hood deck inspections at Ford Motor Co.'s Norfolk Assembly Plant, he would engage in mind exercises such as memorizing pi out to 3,000 digits - you know, pi equals 3.1415926535 … and so forth.

This occasionally made him think he should do something else with his life - perhaps go to college and become a teacher. His wife had done just that, and her teaching job wasn't nearly as monotonous as the assembly line. But Thornton was paid well to build Ford F-150 pickups, so he stayed on and the years mounted.

Then in 2007, nearly 12 years after he had started the job, Ford helped to make the career decision for him. On June 29, 2007, the plant was permanently closed. Thornton finished his last shift and was sitting in a classroom at Old Dominion University just a few hours later.

When he marches at fall commencement on Saturday, Dec. 18, Thornton will do so as the College of Sciences' Outstanding Scholar. The 38-year-old father of a son, 10, and daughter, 7, will graduate with a perfect 4.0 grade point average and receive a Bachelor of Science degree in ocean and earth sciences. He has finished his cooperative/student teaching assignment and scored a perfect 200/200 on the Praxis II test for teacher certification in earth sciences.

His dream of becoming a teacher is soon to come true.

In a roundabout way, Thornton said, his teaching philosophy will be a product of the time he spent on the assembly line. First of all, there are the mind exercises he used to relieve boredom.

He found in his student teaching at a middle school and high school in Virginia Beach that several of these memory aids are especially effective for today's students. Modern-day youths are bombarded with so much information and so many sensations that they seem to need special tools to help them memorize school lessons, Thornton said. One tool involves the loci system of mnemonics, which was first used by the ancient Greeks and is a way to organize memory by attaching facts to already familiar locations, such as the rooms of a person's house.

For example, imagine walking into your home and mentally placing a large fire hydrant against the wall that is behind you. If a student was trying to memorize the periodic table, this device would represent hydrogen and its location would tell you its atomic number is one. Working clockwise around the room, you may place balloons (helium), a forklift loaded with hams (lithium), and a bear rug (beryllium) against the remaining three walls. To add more elements, the student would simply move mentally into the next room.

"Earth science is a lot of new terminology and the quicker students can organize unfamiliar concepts into retrievable mnemonic devices, the more time they can devote to absorbing information at deeper, more meaningful levels," Thornton said. "I try to get the numbers and facts out of the way quickly so students can learn the science behind the facts."

He also learned at the Ford Plant that sturdy trucks aren't built by grandiose schemes and promises, but rather by hard work and tried-and-true methods. "The assembly line was about getting it done in 50 seconds, or else you're 'in the hole,' and putting the guy behind you farther down the line," Thornton said. "Stay out of the next guy's way, get your job done and do it right the first time. Repeat this same process every 50 seconds, 65 times an hour, 60 hours a week."

This "real-world" experience has made him something of a skeptic. "I have made it a point to develop the student's sense of skepticism," he explained. "Always respect authority, but at the same time ask questions. We've looked at scientific hoaxes and examined how many are perpetrated by charlatans looking to milk public ignorance for self-important or monetary reasons."

One of the games he has created in his teaching is called "BS in Movies," with the BS standing for bad science. "We watch clips from movies such as 'Deep Impact' and 'Star Wars' and pick apart the scientific mistakes."

Thornton's assembly line experience also taught him a lot about what not to be in the classroom. "The industrial revolution is no longer the factor it was 100 years ago, and the mechanical assembly line no longer exerts its influence into the learning objectives of our school systems," he said. "It is my belief that science education should promote the 21st-century mindset of developing personal responsibility over obedience, problem solvers instead of fact reciters, as well as contributors and social leaders for the next generation. Although I do use mnemonic means to memorize facts, the tool is actually more effective at allowing students to mentally organize information and make connections between facts. From this they can make informed decisions based on evidence. This in itself is a life skill on how to think. It's what I've used at ODU to great success."

Thornton said the model he will shoot for as a teacher has also been shaped by ODU faculty members, specifically Malcolm Scully, Peter Sedwick and Richard Whittecar in the Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

It was Thornton's interest in geology that originally caused him to visit the College of Sciences and look up Whittecar, an associate professor and geologist. "Dr. Whittecar was a convincing salesman and has since been very influential during my studies at ODU," Thornton said.

Whittecar was so impressed with Thornton in the classroom that he put him to work in the Whittecar Wetlands Lab, which has external funding to conduct a wetlands mitigation project. Not many undergraduates are asked to take on the research responsibility that Thornton was given, Whittecar said. "Our project requires a lot of data from different government agencies that collect measurements on temperature, rainfall and solar radiation.

"Tracy hunted down all the possible websites to find the most useful data, adapted existing Excel spreadsheets to do the complicated water budget calculations, ran hundreds of mind-numbing versions of the calculations, and redesigned our spreadsheets and overall modeling effort to be more efficient," Whittecar said. "What is always amazing about working with Tracy is that you can hand him a challenging task and he inevitably does far more than you expect and far more completely than you imagined needed to be done."

Thornton said that with the completion of his undergraduate studies and cooperative teaching he can jump full time into looking for a full-time teaching job beginning in the fall of 2011. In the meantime he plans to do substitute teaching.

And one more thing, he said. "I should say something good about Ford Motor Co. Its education buyout package paid my tuition at ODU and, probably just as importantly, paid to keep up my benefits while I was a student." (The Norfolk plant employed about 2,500 workers before it started scaling back in 2006, and when the doors finally closed about 1,000 workers were laid off.)

But he's pretty sure he'll be happier as a science teacher than as an assembly line worker. When the Norfolk plant closed, he turned down an opportunity to move to a Ford job in Dearborn, Mich. He said he doesn't regret that decision at all.

This article was posted on: December 18, 2010

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