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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More Discussion of French Fries

I got back to Brainerd on Thursday evening after checking out of my dorm room at precisely 1:15 PM. I got off lucky by having my last finals on Wednesday and being able to avoid the inevitable move-out madness on Friday by leaving on Thursday. I’ll certainly miss Grand Forks; I’ve enjoyed living there for roughly the last nine months. It’s going to be fun to come back in August, or sooner, if I go up there for any reason during the summer, and see the progress made on some major construction projects currently taking place.

Two posts ago, I mentioned that I went on two tours as a part of the “Introduction to Chemical Engineering” class I was in. I wanted to talk about them for a bit. The first tour involved heading to the J.R. Simplot potato processing plant in the northern part of Grand Forks. I had a real fun time at this tour and basically got to see every single step involved in taking fresh potatoes and turning them into French fries. The full tour involved witnessing:
  1. Semi trucks unloading potatoes into large storage rooms/tanks
  2. The potatoes from storage being placed onto conveyer belts to be washed
  3. The potatoes being washed
  4. The potatoes being peeled
  5. The peeled potatoes being sliced into crinkle-cut fries
  6. The sliced potatoes getting fried
  7. The fried potatoes cooling down and being packaged
  8. The packaged potatoes being placed into the freezer
  9. The frozen potatoes being loaded into railcars and semi trucks
The plant was simply gigantic, and the four (out of four) machines that were running the day I visited were producing French fries at a rate of 100,000 lbs/day. It was amazing to be able to stand above the producing line and witness thousands, if not millions, of French fries go by your eyes at a rather fast rate. Like I mentioned in number 5 above, the type of fries being produced while I was visiting were of the crinkle-cut variety, like the type pictured on this website. The Grand Forks plant produces all sorts of fries, however, including ones for every fast food chain imaginable. While going through the room where all the cardboard boxes that the fries eventually get packed into, I noticed that there were boxes even for fast food places not even close to North Dakota, including Sonic Drive-Ins and Jack in the Box.

The Grand Forks plant will also occasionally use its two lower-capacity fryers to make hash browns, tater tots, and other potato products. Like I mentioned in the previous post, the plant was making some sort of hash browns for sale in Japan earlier on the day I visited. I didn’t get to see the actual hash browns, just a leftover roll of the plastic bags that the finished product was being placed into.

Another interesting aspect of the plant was seeing what happened to the “waste” products of the fry making process. It turns out that Simplot has been rather successful in finely grinding up the peeled potato skins and selling it to pet food companies to sell as dry, “special diet” food for cats and dogs. Also, the mushy scraps of potato left behind from the slicing process can be sold as a cattle feed.

Meanwhile, two days after visiting the potato factory, I went over to the EERC, the Energy and Environmental Research Center. The center has a pretty interesting history, but basically it’s a research & development firm that is technically a part of the UND campus. The whole center is almost completely autonomous – operating essentially as a private firm – and is only connected to UND, as far as I can tell, so as associate itself with a respectable university.

What happens at the EERC is that companies will come to it needing people to do some R&D to develop or redesign a product, process, etc. The EERC then draws up a contract with the company to agree on payment and has its researchers and scientists go to work doing whatever needs to be done. As the name would suggest, energy research is primarily what the center is concerned with. In particular, there has been an emphasis in the last few years in researching and designing alternatives to fossil fuels like fuel cells and hydrogen power. Looking at the EERC’s website, I see that 405 contracts totaling over $100 million were worked on last year. 83% of the contracts came from private businesses from all over the world – since 1987, the EERC has worked with more than 875 clients in 47 countries and all 50 states. One of the most newsworthy projects the EERC is working on is redesigning the heat shields that failed on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Since the tour of the EERC had to be completed within the regular 50 minute class period, there wasn’t much time to look around the center’s many labs. Nevertheless, I got to see a few small-scale goal gasifiers, which basically consist of a wide array of furnaces and pipes that turn coal into natural gas.

So, all that happened during the last week of April. During the first week of May, meanwhile, there were a few other things that happened that I was planning to talk about. Since it was the last week of classes before finals, I got a few parting gifts from a couple of my professors. The first gift was from my chemistry professor, who decided to celebrate successfully teaching her first undergraduate class by giving everybody traditional Chinese paper cutouts from her homeland. Everybody’s cutout was unique; the one I selected contains a mouse with a cluster of grapes:

(A picture will be forthcoming; I still have to unpack everything)

I received other gifts from my German professor. Namely, he gave me and one other student in German II a scholarship worth $750 for the next school year. Additionally, since I had the highest grade in the class before the final, I received a DVD copy of the award-wining German film Rosenstraße. And, as if that weren’t enough, I was one of the six students who received a voucher that pays for all necessary German III textbooks for the next school year.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Only 832 Schools Are Better

Just in time for the start of this year’s AP testing schedule, Newsweek has come out with its annual list of what it calls the 1,000 best public high schools in the United States. Continuing the tradition started with the 2003 list, Brainerd High School was included in the top 1,000. This year’s list, which is based solely on 2005 AP or IB (International Baccalaureate) test data, ranked Brained as school number 833. Last year’s ranking had Brainerd High School at 633rd place, meaning that the school slipped exactly 200 places between this year’s rankings and last year’s.

Looking more in depth at the data for Brainerd High School on this year’s list, the school had what’s called a “challenge index” of 1.314. It’s this number that is used to determine schools’ rankings and it’s also because of this number why Brainerd went down a couple hundred spots this year. How the index works is pretty simple; it’s just the total number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests given at a school in May divided by the number of seniors that graduate at the end of the school year.

Just to make it onto the list of schools, a school has to have an index of 1.000, meaning that the school gives as many AP or IB tests as it has graduating seniors. Brainerd’s index last year was 1.415, which brings up an interesting question: why did the index drop between the class of 2004 and the class of 2005?

The only thing I can think that may have affected the index is that Brainerd High School’s graduating class of 2005 was larger than that of 2004. On the other hand, it’s always seemed like the AP program at BHS has grown exponentially from year to year, and, although I could just be imagining things, I thought that there was a very high, if not the highest, number of AP tests given out at the school last year.

Actually, Brainerd’s equity and excellence rate supports the thought that more AP tests were taken in 2005 than 2004. As Newsweek’s website explains, this number is “the percentage of all graduating seniors, including those who never got near an AP course, who had at least one score of 3 or above on at least one AP test sometime in high school.” For 2005 the E&E rate was 29.4, whereas in 2004 it was 23.3. So, indeed, there were more AP tests given in 2005. Keep in mind that the nationwide average E&E among all schools, including even those without AP or IB programs, is 14.1. Unfortunately, the E&E number is nothing more than an interesting, yet ultimately useless statistic – it neither helps nor hurts a school’s ranking on the list. The only reason it is included, as far as I can tell, is to satisfy the people who complain about how the “challenge index” doesn’t factor in students’ actual performance on AP or IB tests.

And that brings up another good point about how a well a school can be measured just by looking at a single set of data – that being the number of AP or IB tests taken at a school compared to the number of graduating seniors. The person who came up with the numbers used in the test staunchly defends his methodology, as does Newsweek, which published this article, called “Why AP Matters.”

Indecently, the author of the rankings notes that only 5% of high schools nationwide achieve a “challenge index” of 1.000, so even being in the mid 800s should be taken as an honor. Oh, were you wondering what the highest-ranked school in Minnesota this year is? It’s Edina High School at number 178. The “challenge index” there was 2.545. Overall, 16 high schools in Minnesota made it to the list:
178 – Edina High School, Edina
250 – Southwest High School, Minneapolis
284 – Como Park High School, St. Paul
311 – St. Louis Park High School, St. Louis Park
491 – Minnetonka High School, Minnetonka
546 – Patrick Henry High School, Minneapolis
687 – Highland Park High School, St. Paul
704 – Mounds View High School, Arden Hills
809 – Lakeville North High School, Lakeville
833 – Brainerd High School, Brainerd
843 – Wayzata High School, Plymouth
851 – St. Anthony High School, St. Anthony
945 – Mahtomedi High School, Mahtomedi
966 – Robbinsdale High School, Plymouth
1051 – Robbinsdale Cooper High School, New Hope
1104 – Irondale High School, New Brighton
As you can see, Brainerd was the only Minnesota high school outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul MSA to make it onto the list.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of Mitch Wahlsten and the participants
Mitch's Blog began on December 23, 2001