[MakeShift was a column and competition, by MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, that ran in Make: magazine for its first five years. This challenge appeared in Make: Volume 09, 2007. Read past installments of MakeShift here.]

The Scenario

There was a time when high school, however trying and tedious it often seemed, was still a refuge from the realities of the big, bad world. Alas, those days have gone the way of the slide rule and the mimeograph machine. The threats that once stalked only distant cities and bad horror movies are now just as likely to find their way onto a high school campus as anywhere else.

The Challenge

You’re in metal shop one sunny morning when an announcement comes over the PA system that the school has been ordered into lockdown. The teacher must lock the door to the room and let no one out for any reason. The announcement doesn’t explain why (A riot in the cafeteria? A crazed gunman on the loose?) or how long you may be stuck there. The lights and power are still on, but you quickly discover that the cellphone system has been shut down or is not working, and neither is the school’s internal phone system. And the school Wi-Fi network is also dead.

In order to find out what’s going on, or let all your parents (who will no doubt be freaking out any time now) know that you’re OK for the moment, or to alert someone to the fact that your buddy Chester here will need his insulin shot within the hour, the class concludes it needs to try and establish some kind of communication with folks outside the school. Thinking this will at least keep everyone in the class focused on something besides the crisis, the teacher gives her OK.

The metal shop itself is on the top floor of the school, with a row of windows that open and face out toward the surrounding community. The nearest houses are about a quarter-mile away.

Your Supply List

The shop itself has an assortment of sheet metal, wire, angle iron, and other assorted metal parts available. You also have the following: a half-dozen cellphones of different makes and models, a laptop computer with a wireless card, a walkie-talkie that one of the janitors left, and a cordless telephone — though, as we’ve said, the line it’s connected to in the school is down.

Using some or all of this stuff, you need to devise as many ways as you can to try and create a communications link with the outside world. And yes, if you pull it off, it will be counted as extra credit toward your final grade. Good luck!

Analysis, Commentary, and Winners

This was perhaps one of the trickiest challenges yet, with lots of possible solutions for how to establish communication with the outside world. You all responded with an amazing display of Make: ingenuity, proposing everything from semaphore flags to Yagi antennas to trying to produce homemade insulin for the stranded diabetic in the class. Wow!

Some of you seemed to think that the challenge was a no-brainer and that a computer with wireless internet capability would easily find an open network and solve the problem. But most of you realized it was a bit more complicated than that, and a range of options from low- to high-tech might have to be tried to ensure a decent chance of success. Now, while trying to signal using Morse code and semaphore flags may look good on paper, the fact is, almost no one in the general public knows them anymore, so they probably wouldn’t get you very far. What’s more, they only provide a one-way communication, which isn’t really the optimum solution to the situation. But other low-tech forms of attracting attention (such as reflectors, bright signage, and controlled signal fires) might still be worth a shot and at least alert someone enough to know there was a problem.

But what we were really thinking about— and hoping for — was how you might tweak or expand on the technology at your disposal to effectively establish a useful two-way connection. And here again many of you rose to the challenge with flying colors, proposing a slew of easily built antennas to boost the range of the computer, cell phone, or even the walkie-talkie — some of which we were convinced stood a very good chance of working. Plus, some of you went the extra distance of considering the human dynamics of the situation by suggesting the class break into teams, each to work on a different potential solution. This approach not only increased your odds for success, but also got the maximum number of people involved in keeping the class focused on the project, diminishing the likelihood of panic that can often accompany, and exacerbate, such situations.

Some of you really impressed the more technologically savvy among us. We want you on our team if we’re ever locked down somewhere. Others went outside the technological box and came up with some straight and to-the-point non technological solutions (e.g. posting a “NEED INSULIN” sign in the window). While we hope none of you ever needs to exercise any of the approaches you considered, it’s probably a terrific way to keep ourselves prepared by imagining how we would escape or improve a tough situation should we ever find ourselves or our friends in one.

Kudos to everyone for rolling up your sleeves and thinking hard about a way to overcome a situation we’d all rather not think about. But stretching our minds to really make the most of our techno-toys in a crisis has, and no doubt will, save lives in an increasingly unpredictable world. And that alone makes it worth the effort, right?

Winners

The winners of the “MakeShift” Volume 09 Challenge are:

MakeShift Master — Most Plausible: David Glass
MakeShift Master — Most Creative: Jonathan Deber & Karen Dawson