Members of San Rafael High School’s Physics Academy tested their design and engineering skills this past week by racing small, solar-powered vehicles and launching rockets into the air on the football field.
The Physics Academy, a two-year workshop/classroom program unlike any other in Marin County, allows kids to take the science and math they learn and apply it to projects like building a robot, designing a bridge and creating rocket.
“I usually tell students, ‘You don’t know yet what you don’t know,’” said Bob Holt, who co-teaches the program with physics teacher Steve Temple. “They have to research to find their answers.”
The Academy, made up of 50 students, was made possible through a $300,000 grant from the California Department of Education awarded in the mid-2000s. The funds allowed the school to purchase a three-dimensional printer that creates objects in plastic, and two laser cutters that cut shapes out of heavy-duty materials, like metal.
The tools allow the students to design the nose of a rocket in a computer program, and then create that in plastic with the printer. After researching aerodynamics, students can determine what shaped fins would be best to allow their rocket to fly the highest, and then cut out those fins out of plastic with the laser cutter.
“All we give the students is one item [like a photovoltaic panel for the solar vehicles] and a piece of paper describing the project and they go from there,” Holt said.
Each class contains about 20 students, and each semester the students build one or two major projects from principles they learn in their physics and engineering classes. To enroll in the Academy, students must have taken geometry or be currently enrolled.
The students demonstrate their understanding of electrical circuity and energy by designing a small solar-powered vehicle and racing it on a 12-meter track with a .25 meter hill in the middle.
“It can be hard to learn the concepts and then find something that works,” said Kevin Nyamdoj, an 18-year-old senior at SRHS.
Nyamdoj wants to pursue a career in mechanical engineering, and the Academy help solidify that desire.
“It’s so fun, better than just being in a classroom,” he said.
The majority of the work is in the research and design of a project, which can take many weeks. The most difficult part for most students is time management, according to Holt.
“There’s so much to do. Time management is the worst,” said Demi Medina-Hurtado, who is a senior and in her second year in the Academy.
Medina-Hurtado, who was one of three girls who enrolled in the Academy her first year, has designed a bridge constructed out of paper materials, a rocket, and a siege weapon (like a catapult).
“It was intimidating at first, but now I know I’m just as good at math as any of the other boys,” she said as she got ready to race her solar car down the track.
Medina-Hurtado and many of the students are looking forward to next semester, where they will design robots.
“We embrace failure here,” Holt said. “What we really want to teach the kids is how to find their own answers.”
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