If I'd been born a boy, I probably would have been an engineer. I was born a girl, and I'm so glad, because I get to use a toy pink pig and stickers to teach the black-and-white, no-frills subject of electricity.

If I'd been born a boy, I probably would have been an engineer.

I was born a girl, and I'm so glad, because I get to use a toy pink pig and stickers to teach the black-and-white, no-frills subject of electricity. I'm not sure that a guy could get away with that. I certainly don't know one who would try.

I once tried starting my electricity class without the pig.

“Where's the pig?” demanded a T-shirted plumber's helper with big tattoos on even bigger muscles.

“I left it in the car. I thought maybe it was time to retire it.”

“Go git it. I wanna see the pig.”

So I got the pig and started the class off right - “What does this pig have in common with basic electricity?”

Long past seem to be the days when I could count on someone grunting, “Nuthin'” in answer to that question. It seems that people are transformed by the pig. And so am I.

Back in the early 1970s, I graduated from college with a Master's degree in English literature. I thought I was going to be a college English instructor. Wrongo! What I got to be was (you name it) a telephone operator, a pizza maker, a waitress, a night school information agent, a Washington, D.C., secretary, and finally - whew, relief at last! - a factory worker. This went on for eight years while my parents were in dismay at the blatant waste of a college education.

I was worried, too, and assembling terminal strips and fuse blocks on the night shift for two years gave me plenty of time to think about my future.

What I learned was that I like technical things. I also figured out that no one had any idea how to teach a person how to do a job. And no one knew how to fix the machines.

I took a class in technical writing, thinking it might be a bridge between where I'd tried to be - writing and literature - and where I actually was - technical. I wrote my first technical manual: “How to Fix Hector,” the machine I ran at the factory. When the foreman wasn't looking, I unofficially taught the new folks how to do their jobs.

Getting Started

I got into a technology program and earned another Master's degree by teaching college industrial arts. That's where I learned about “the Back Row Boys.” (See my January 2004 PM column.) I imagined that their dads had said, “Yer goin' to college and ya ain't gonna be a jock.” And they thought, “Cool, I'll do shop.”

Even though I took a 10-week basic electricity class, I didn't learn anything except that I didn't get it. I had conceptual problems. Why, if there are two wires going to a power supply in a circuit, is there only one cord from a lamp to the outlet in the wall?

And then there was my problem with the water analogy. They used to explain that electricity is just like water. But if I close the faucet to turn the water off, why does closing a switch turn electricity on? And why are we doing endless math with fractions when we never use it when we wire in the lab? The instructor just looked at me in amazement when I asked my questions. I learned to keep quiet.

But I didn't give up my questions. They, combined with the following experience, propelled me into teaching basic electricity: I was in yet another “basic electricity” class, this time in a distributor warehouse. I was in the back row of folding chairs along with a bunch of brand new heating technicians. The instructor put up a slide of a complex equipment diagram and asked, “Does everyone understand this?”

While most of us were still trying to focus on the slide, he removed the slide and announced, “OK then, since everybody gets this, we'll move on.” And he did. Yikes!

Helpless, everyone in the back row had another donut and settled in for a long nap.

Whether in a schoolroom or in a warehouse, where did they expect you to learn what they expected you to know before you came to a basic electricity class?

Where did they think you would learn what you needed to know before the first page of the book?

What we needed was a class to prepare for basic electricity.

I had a theory: What if there were a class that was only about how things get wired together? No math, no fractions, no Ohms Law, no Kirschov's Law, no electron theory. There would be an explanation of why a switch is not like a valve. There would be a demonstration showing that there are at least two wires in a lamp cord.

It helped that I like to teach - anything. I've taught college freshman English, technical writing, introduction to technology, water aerobics, kick boxing, pizza making and juggling. I didn't know much about any of those when I started, either, so why not electricity?

I put my eighth-grade son to work building simple electricity wiring boards using ordinary household switches and light sockets.

“But Mom,” he complained, “this is so easy.” Well, maybe for him, but not for us late learners.

When I pictured my class of new heating techs and plumbers, though, I saw potential resistance. They'd very well be thinking, or even saying out loud:

  • “I already know this easy stuff.”
  • “I already took three electricity classes, and I'm just not going to get it.”
  • “I always hated school, and this looks like school to me.”

So I needed a way to signal from the start that this wasn't your normal electricity class.

What better way to loosen up a dead-serious subject than with a toy, maybe a toy with something electrical about it. I looked around the house. And there was my fourth-grade daughter's pink plush pig. That would be suitably outrageous for a serious, guy-stuff class! And it was battery powered. It had a circuit in there.

Power Of The Pig

Now I have this thing about classes I teach: I don't want anyone sleeping. But I'm different than some instructors on this. I think it's my responsibility to keep things interesting enough that no one wants to sleep. How was I going to do that?

Well, the pig was a start. But I wanted people to participate in the class. If you're talking and interacting a little, you're thinking. So I needed a way to get people to participate.

How about a reward for participating? Since I had a pig theme going, I bribed some pig stickers from my daughter's collection. They were shiny, iridescent and in pastel colors. Perfect.

So this is how the first class started:

“Who in here already knows electricity?” I asked.

One fellow raised his hand.

“Glad you're here. But I gotta let you know, this class is really for folks who don't know anything. You can stay and help out, I'd love to have you, but if you've got something else to do, go with my blessing.”

He smiled and settled deeper into his chair. Guess he was staying. I handed him a pig sticker. He stuck it on his shirt.

I asked the question about who already knows electricity for two reasons. The first was to signal to the class that this really is a basic class. We weren't going to try to keep up with the guy who knows the most. The second reason was to say to anyone expecting a more advanced class that we weren't doing that.

And I gave him a sticker as a reward for participating. It turns out you can give out just about anything as a reward. Even paper clips work.

Then I moved to the pig perched on my slide projector.

“So, what does this pig have to do with basic electricity? Oh, I need to give you a clue.”

With much fuss, I turned on the switch, set the pig on the table, and let it take off walking, wiggling its tail, grunting and twitching its nose. The room full of ready-to-be-bored students was enchanted by the pig.

“I have more stickers,” I announced.

Someone said, “It has a switch.”

I followed the voice and gave that fellow a pig sticker. We continued this way until we also had established that the pig had a battery (a power supply) and so does a basic circuit. And the pig had a motor (call it a load or consumer of electricity) and so does a basic circuit.

Every circuit has at least one of each of these components, and everything in a circuit is one of these things. And nothing else.

After being in the class, folks would often ask if I had the material written out. I didn't, but with all the education I had in writing and literature, I could picture writing a book. Dan Holohan was my test market. I called him, explained my idea about the book, and asked if he would put it in his book list.

He said, “Write the book!” And so P.I.G. Press was born and the Practical-Is-Good series now numbers four books.

Lots of years have gone by. The son who built the demo boards is now an engineer. The daughter with the pink pig and stickers is a college senior majoring in opera singing. She's agonizing about what she's going to do to earn a living. And well she might, because opera singing, like English literature, doesn't come with an immediate career.

If fate had whispered in my 20-something English major ear, “You're going to use a toy pink pig to teach electricity to plumbers,” I would have run the other way. I wonder what fate has in mind for my daughter, the would-be opera singer?