The Art of Science

School News
November 7, 2017

Five times during each six-day rotation, eleventh and twelfth graders gather in the Vail Mountain School MakerSpace for Science and Engineering class. A reminder hangs above a laser cutter: “Dream, Create, Imagine, Solve, Wonder, Think,” it urges, and this is exactly what’s happening.

The concentration in the room can be best characterized as a quiet cacophony as students construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct all things both mechanical and electrical. Soldering irons smoke and students murmur softly, spitballing ideas to evolve their collaborative creations. Against the wall, a CNC machining tool hums as it cuts out circuit boards that will eventually become FM radio transmitters—just one of the high-tech projects unassumingly underway. Earlier in the year, as a sort of warm up, students made a flashlight—including the battery—from scratch.

Jason Cox, the MakerSpace maestro, floats around today’s class answering questions and helping students apply epoxy to copper-clad silicon before etching it with acid that will reveal custom-designed circuit board layouts. “Having access to stuff is one of the key ingredients to creativity,” says Cox, describing the MakerSpace. “My students can only be as creative as the limitations of their environment … By having as much access to material and tools as possible, the students have more creative freedom.” Which is why there are seemingly random, but in fact very intentional repositories of materials and tools throughout the space.

Cox is the tech-guru in charge of the MakerSpace, and he’s the perfect candidate for the job. His excitement is unmistakable as he shows students how to use the tools in the MakerSpace, and explains the scientific processes at work with a gleam in his eye. Cox is a self-described “tinkerer” and has been all his life. His grandfather was a master mechanic, and as a boy, he taught him much of the trade. After graduating from Virginia Tech, Cox went on to develop the technology program at the Dublin School from the ground up where he was involved with software development, and worked as the lead mentor for their robotics competition. Now, he’s getting an MA in Education from Virginia Tech, and working tirelessly at VMS to share his passion for technology with the students.

While the descriptions above may sound appealing and even, perhaps, glamorous, it’s a result of hard work developing curriculum that is both relevant and interesting to teenagers. And true to the spirit of VMS, sometimes this requires an individualized approach. One of the students in the class who is a musician and senior at VMS, was lukewarm to the idea of making an FM transmitter, so Cox worked with him to help design another project that struck a chord: engineering his own analog synthesizer. “It’s a nice change of pace from a typical science class,” said the student, as he showed off the  inner workings of his synth board, “Especially when your brain doesn’t really work that way. I’m more of a hands-on person.” Another interesting aspect of the Science and Engineering course is that it serves equally to satisfy the upper school science requirements just as other more traditional courses like Anatomy.

And this is not the only example of a student who had chosen to pursue their own project. Just across the table, two other students were busy building an amplifier to play music from a phone. The fun part for them, and secondary design requirement, was that it needed to also serve as a belt buckle. Outside the MakerSpace, two other students were operating a table saw, cutting pieces for a 2200 watt speaker & subwoofer system they had designed from scratch with Mr. Chambers, the school’s Technology Director.

“Students have the opportunity to express their learning in ways that are outside of the normal classroom methodology.” said Cox, explaining the advantages of working in such a creative environment. “This class allows students to pursue projects of their own interest that are relevant to them personally … They are learning more than just science and engineering. They are also learning to work cooperatively toward a shared goal, and how to express themselves through multiple forms of media.”

And though the class is called “Science and Engineering,” it may be more aptly described by that which it exemplifies so well—experiential, project-based learning focused on the future.  “We have to break down these ideas that math class happens in math class, and English happens in English, and science happens in science—everything fits together,” says Cox, “In a sense, this is the embodiment of a liberal arts education. It involves every aspect of learning, not just the individual components.”

This story was contributed to VMS News by freelance writer, Will Brendza, working in collaboration with the Vail Mountain School Advancement Office.