Community November 3, 2008

Practical Science

Once concentrated on space, Hailey’s technology program is back on land

The technology program at Wood River Middle School has returned to Earth.

What was once a nationally-celebrated, NASA-oriented program led by famed past teachers Brad Thode and Doug Walrath, has changed gears and now has an environmental focus.

Thode and Walrath ran the technology program at the middle school for several years, drawing heavily from NASA. Their program was very successful and even led to television appearances. Classes centered on the space shuttle and other aerospace-driven curriculum, as students learned about problem-solving and how humans make their way to space and survive.

Now, a car has replaced the space shuttle, but it’s not just any old car. Understanding it is also critical to the survival of the human race, although not as we venture to a faraway land, but as we strive to continue our existence here on Earth. The car is a Sustainable Energy Vehicle, or SEV.

The new sustainable energy curriculum, which is the brainchild of team teachers Jeremy Silvis and Al Amato, is meant to help students see themselves as problem-solvers for the survival of the next generation. Rather than telling students how something is done, teaching is geared toward the identification of problems and developing problem-solving skills.

“We have to be able to teach them how to teach themselves,” Amato said. “Things are going way too fast to give them any answers. We wanted to show how the rest of their education had real-world practical impact.”

The teaching concept described here by Amato sounds innovative, but it’s not entirely new. Amato and Silvis follow what past teacher Walrath describes as a “non-linear” approach, which allows students to work their way around problems, rather than being told how to reach the right answers.

Wood River Middle School science student Chris Avila cuts aluminum which will become part of the frame of a SEV, or, sustainable energy vehicle his class spent the term building last year.


The new middle school opened in 1996. Walrath and Thode had a new state-of-the-art facility equipped with NASA simulations and various items for their aerospace program. Then, Thode retired and Walrath left to pursue doctoral studies.

Team teachers Silvis and Amato took over at the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year. During the summer before, a pipe burst in the middle school and much of the technology room was flooded and equipment destroyed.

“It was an incredible punctuation in between teachers and the program before us,” Amato said.

The flood may have presented the initial challenge of rebuilding much of the program for the new technology teachers, but it was a talk the Blaine County school superintendent gave regarding 21st century skills that led Amato and Silvis to mold their technology programs around sustainable energy issues.

“We started to ask: How many students are going to work for NASA? (We realized) the class majority was not going to become rocket scientists,” Amato said. “We didn’t do it in terms of rejecting NASA. It was more in terms of: What could we do to help kids prepare best for their own lives?”

The teachers decided to make the switch a month into working with each other when they came to realize they shared the same priorities for their students.

“One of the reasons we wanted to make the change wasn’t just because a lot of equipment had been damaged; we wanted to move kids away from being consumers of knowledge and more into being producers of knowledge,” Amato said.

All of their classes incorporate activities that mirror the concerns of the nation, as America as a whole explores ways to address global warming and the current energy crisis.

Silvis and Amato explain they feel sustainable energy is an important focus, not only to allow their students to work toward solving the same big problems some of the world’s top scientists are currently working on, but to also provide hope and optimism on a topic that the mainstream media often portrays with a sense of “doom and gloom.” >>>



It doesn’t look street legal, in fact, it doesn’t look like much of anything, but when completed, the SEV these students are considering under the guidance of teachers Jeremy Silvis (back left corner) and Al Amato (at right) will hit up to 20 mph and run on easy to recycle acid gel cell batteries.


“More than anything we want students to be enthusiastic about possibilities in their future rather than afraid of the changes that are going on,” said Amato. “We don’t think it’s cool to just give kids the bad news without giving them the good news.”

The teachers believe the challenge to identify and capitalize on the most efficient forms of sustainable energy opens new doors for young scientists.

Technology students entering the program at the sixth-grade level take a general technology class that combines the two key elements that are taught at the middle school: communication and engineering. Seventh-and eighth-grade students choose to concentrate their studies on either topic in a combined class.
Communication and engineering programs are taught through a series of projects, and innovative sustainable energy and environmental ethics situations are infused throughout all the classes.

For example, Silvis says in one project engineering students use software programs to design passive solar energy systems. Similarly, one project for communication students is to create a video to promote alternative transportation.

It all leads up to the SEV, a project made possible by a grant from Power Engineers.

The SEV is the final project for Wood River Middle School eighth-grade advanced technology students, which they build from start to finish during the last 12-week trimester of the school year. It is the culmination of all they have learned about scientific advancement in the environmentally-conscious field after completing a required three trimesters of engineering or communications technology classes.


The last group to work on the car found out accidentally and, fortunately without incident, that the battery-powered rig could go 100 miles per hour if tested.


Amato said the idea came about as he and Silvis were completing an inventory of their supplies and realized they had some motors, batteries and controllers that would be perfect for building a car.
Rising gas prices and the goal of a homegrown solution to transportation and energy problems played a part in this decision.
More than anything, Amato said it was their “Gee, wouldn’t it be cool if . . .” teaching philosophy.

“Having these resources on hand, the next thing was ‘gee, it would be cool, let’s build a car’ and we took it from there,” he said. “So many things arise from our own enthusiasms. You have to kind of think like a middle school kid.”

The 2007-2008 assignment began with students researching and presenting short reports on aspects of electric vehicles, from motors to batteries and transmissions, as they prepare to design the SEV from scratch.

“We took measurements of each student in the class to determine the ergonomics for middle school students to determine critical dimensions,” Amato said. “The students then did some conceptual sketches of their ideas. Following their brainstorming, they produced some scale drawings of their ideas which they developed into scale mock-ups of the vehicles.”

Critical characteristics, such as the ability to stop, go and steer, factored into the design they settled on.

Students then moved on to building and testing. They divided into teams to build sections of the car chassis, which was then dry assembled and checked for accuracy. They were on a deadline to have the vehicle in a drivable shape before school was out for the summer, so they had little time to collect data on the finished project.

Silvis laughs, recalling that this year he and Amato took special care to ensure the car would not go more than 20 mph after a scare last year when students completed the SEV and found the wheels would spin over 100 mph during an initial test. Fortunately, the test took place before the first student settled in behind the wheel and Silvis and Amato quickly switched the gear ratio so it would travel substantially slower.

Twenty miles per hour is fast enough for kids who are not yet old enough to drive a regular car, Silvis muses. >>>



This year, Silvis said the SEV project has met with certain “speed bumps.”

Students found their vehicle frame was off seven-eighths of an inch after they purchased some PVC pieces locally, buying all that was available, and had to buy the rest from Twin Falls. They didn’t realize the PVC dimensions were different from one manufacturer to the next and being off seven-eighths of an inch proved detrimental when it applied to multiple fittings on the vehicle.
They ended up having to scrap their first go at the frame and get all PVC pipe from one manufacturer in order to make it fit.

Learning processes like this are exactly what Amato and Silvis are trying to create with hands-on projects that allow students to identify and solve problems.

“Some changes were made due to improper measurement and we explored the problems in quality control and the importance of accuracy,” Amato said.

One of the biggest challenges in the project is the short time period for each class. With only 50 minutes each day, there’s a lot to get done in between bells, including cleanup.

James Petzke, 14, is hard at work filing what will soon serve as the floorboard for the SEV.

The math and measurements were the most time consuming and hardest part of the project, in his opinion, but the challenges were alleviated by all of the people working together to build the SEV and the amount of time they spent pre-planning.

Petzke says this is important work because SEVs will have to happen on a large scale one day in order to solve the energy crisis.

“I’m going to love driving it,” chimes in his sanding partner, Conor Murray, 13.

He’s not the only one. All of the students acknowledge they are excited to seat themselves behind the wheel of their finished product. Most say the endeavor has sparked their interest in sustainable energy and they hope to drive their own SEV when they grow to legal driving age. Several also confide to me that their teachers are “really cool.”

For Conner Bennett, 14, who is hard at work drilling holds for the foot pedals, this class is preparing him for his future career. He comes from a family of mechanics, who work on boats and other machinery. I am proudly informed he and his brother already run their own landscaping company.

“This is the stuff I like to do,” he said. “My favorite part will be driving it and seeing what it will turn out to be. Knowing you can do it is a lot more fun, too.”

Rosa Vidal, 13, is the only girl brave enough to take this class full of boys. She is working hard to design a logo for the class project and all of the students will have T-shirts bearing the logo when the SEV is complete.

She is inspired to take technology classes throughout the remainder of her academic career, another sentiment echoed by her classmates.

Asked if she is looking forward to driving it as well, she responded, “Yeah, I don’t want to crash, though.”

It will be the first time she has driven a car.

Riley Henneghan gets to take the SEV for a test drive at the moderate speed of 20 mph.


Students learned about key factors that are holding back gas mileage, such as the necessity to reduce vehicle weight. Less weight means increased efficiency, which is a fundamental point the SEV building exercise is meant to instill in the kids.

This is the micro picture of what their middle school education has accomplished. The macro picture is that they are learning to scientifically research and develop ways to better their world.
Amato explained that this year’s SEV project will build off of this last one, as is the trend for every year. They will reuse parts and borrow and improve upon ideas. Students will gather data from the previous SEV this winter and use that when they build their new one.

“Next time, we plan on having them design a three-wheeled version,” Amato said. “We are going to build two so we can have some races. We’re going to see if we can’t tie into that competitive spirit.”

Silvis is quick to point out the program at the middle school is one part of the very important continuum of technology education in the Blaine County School District.

Silvis and Amato still draw from NASA for some of their projects and NASA is now a primary component in technology education in elementary schools throughout the county.

“Our elementary schools build a foundation in critical thinking, problem-solving and practical reasoning,” according to Bellevue Elementary technology teacher Krista Jones. “A crucial core to all we do is to teach the children how to increase and apply their knowledge, make connections and (show them) how their ideas and actions can and do make a difference in the world. Teamwork is another crucial core item, a real-world lesson in how our global society works.”

Jones contracted with NASA for three years to write curriculum that would bring the NASA excitement to elementary kids everywhere, and because of her relationship with NASA, she was able to bring the program back to the Valley after Thode and Walrath left the middle school and the program there changed hands.

“Using NASA as an educational partner allows the students to be part of something big, cutting edge, our future, and gives them the opportunity to work with and for people outside of the school system,” she says. “The beauty of all of our (technology education) programs is that they are dynamic. The programs are designed to mirror current events, developments and problems in today’s world. That being said, sustainability is a huge issue that must be addressed by all. The middle school students’ experiences in (technology) may spark new ideas or may play an important role later in life.”

Silvis said Blaine County public schools are fortunate to be one of only a handful of school districts in the country that has a technology program at the elementary level.

Silvis and Amato return the favor provided them by elementary teachers. Their eighth-graders are equally excited to move on to technology classes in high school.

Once students enter high school, the technology building blocks from elementary and middle school can be applied to elective classes in more career-specific areas. They will have the opportunity to take classes such as IT and construction.
It is nearly impossible to understand where something is going without understanding where it has been and some details must be provided regarding the previous program at the middle school.
Silvis and Amato follow some great teachers, Thode and Walrath.
Walrath is very optimistic for the future of the middle school program.

“The beauty of technology is that it is continually and quite rapidly evolving,” he says. “Therefore, progressive educators are able to capitalize upon a plethora of current events and topics. Alternative or renewable energy sources (can) serve as effective thematic content organizers just as aerospace worked for Mr. Thode and myself.”

Walrath relishes his unique opportunity teaching at WRMS.
“From the teachers’ point of view, it was the opportunity to present enough options to hopefully find a niche unique to each student, so that they became more informed consumers of technology,” he says.

It seems that despite the distance between space and Earth’s surface, the previous and current teaching programs are not that far apart. Thanks to the incredible continuum of technology education throughout the Blaine County school system, perhaps local students are moving toward solutions to the world’s greatest problems at the speed of light.

Kelly Jackson is a journalist and freelance writer whose work has appeared locally in the Wood River Journal and this magazine. She currently works as the director of outreach and communication for Citizens for Smart Growth, a local nonprofit advocating for vibrant communities in balance with nature. Jackson lives in Hailey with her husband, Jason Von Lindern, and two dogs and four fish.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.