Head of School Peter G. Curran was driving down the road last summer, when he spied Blair science teacher Chris Thatcher—on top of a local farmer’s barn. “Is that Chris Thatcher?” he asked. “It wouldn’t surprise me. He might be trying out an experiment for class.”
In fact, when Chris Thatcher was not climbing ladders and jumping on barns, the pioneering science teacher did spend his summer conducting experiments for Blair’s new elective, Engineering Science. Open to students in the 11th or 12th grades who have completed or are taking physics, Engineering Science is a new course designed for students interested in pursuing engineering as a field of study or possible future profession. Unlike most traditional classes, however, this course’s curriculum is the brainchild of NASA engineers and secondary education specialists from the University of Texas at Austin. The program also offers teachers the rare opportunity to sample the curriculum as pupils themselves; this summer, Mr. Thatcher worked in teams with teachers from around the country to solve the curriculum’s engineering challenges, experiencing the course from a unique perspective.
Blair’s new course originated through a serendipitous turn of events. In 2008, the National Science Foundation awarded the University of Texas (UT) at Austin a $12.5-million grant to develop innovative solutions for high school engineering education. In collaboration with NASA engineers, UT faculty developed a series of secondary school courses designed to empower students to use creativity and analytical problem-solving to find solutions to real-world challenges. Whether it is launching a spacecraft or delivering safe, clean water to communities, in modern life, professional engineers find solutions to pressing problems. The UT program sought to design courses that would assist secondary school students step into that role of professional engineer. A few basic principles guided the resulting curriculum including: that all course activities are “scaffolded” and build upon each lesson learned; that the standardized engineering design process acts as a framework for all projects; that students engage in simplified and meaningful activities that professional engineers undertake; and that all design challenges have multiple successful solutions.
When Blair science department chair Kelly Hadden saw that a window had opened to apply to the UT program, she quickly consulted with her colleagues. “Engineering is growing in importance as a foundational experience for our science students,” she said. “This was a great opportunity to introduce Blair students to different kinds of engineering—mechanical, chemical, environmental—in a hands-on learning environment.” Blair applied to the program and, along with a limited number of secondary schools from across the nation, was accepted.
That is how Mr. Thatcher found himself, in the summer of 2021, conducting all manner of science experiments, from building towers that can withstand earthquakes to brewing the “perfect” cup of coffee.
In the Classroom
To date, Mr. Thatcher has structured “Engineering Science” around six projects that form the backbone of the new course. After an introductory exercise focused on how to communicate effectively across specialized teams, he breaks students into groups to solve a series of challenges. In the first two, students study light, using pinhole photography to craft a “mobile obscura” and later re-designing a customized flashlight from scratch. In subsequent projects, Mr. Thatcher challenges students to brew the “perfect” cup of coffee, encouraging them to experiment with recipes, as well as variables such as brewing temperature, particle size and time. The curriculum also tasks teams with building safer buildings for earthquakes. In that exercise, student teams evaluate statistical data and then build a series of tower models, presenting their best design at the end of the course and testing it against a machine that shakes the tower and charts the structure’s velocity and displacement over time during a simulated quake.
All projects involve parameters and real-world conditions that students are required to take into account. For the course’s culminating project, for example, student teams design a prototype of an aerial-drop mechanism that surveys a disaster area.
It is this application that most interested Mr. Curran. “The practical application of what Mr. Thatcher is teaching is very exciting,” he said. “Kids will take practical applications from this class to wherever they go next.”
Student Addie Scialla ’22, who is one of 13 pupils in the inaugural class, knows that she will learn valuable engineering skills in the course, but that is not what she is looking forward to most. It is getting to study with the teacher whose enthusiasm, scientific curiosity and devotion to his students took him on an experimenting adventure in the summer of 2021 that excites Addie and her classmates most.
“I know Mr. Thatcher and he’s so energetic and hands-on. I’m really excited to take his class,” Addie said. An avid coffee drinker, she also admits that the coffee challenge is an added enticement. “Every morning, I start my day with a cup of coffee. I know I can perfect it!