A+ Moment: Student engineering dream one Friday at a time

by Special for McAllen ISD by May Ortega | Nov 12, 2014

It’s nearly the same scene every Friday.


Students are gathered in groups in the science lab at McAllen ISD’s Lamar Academy.  They eagerly enter codes using a programming language called Python that will create 3D images in their seats. The teacher gives them some prompts but otherwise they can explore what happens on their own.


Students engaged in lessons is not an unusual sight but what is odd is this is a Friday afternoon, the dismissal bell rang more than an hour ago, and no one is leaving. Welcome to Physics Friday.


For one student, Physics Friday has contributed to his dream of becoming an engineer. Thomas Wright, a senior in the International Baccalaureate Programme, recalls this A+ Moment.


“It was last year,” Wright began. “We were doing IA’s (Internal Assessments). It was a small experiment. We were measuring voltage.”


He had to punch in data and calculate what’s called a linear regression or line-of-best-fit. It shows voltage measures at different distances. Wright made his calculations, plugged them into an Excel Sheet, and waited for the program to reveal his accuracy.


“When I put in my data, I had like a .999,” he said. In other words, it was practically perfect.


That’s when he knew, he recalled, that physics was right in his wheelhouse. Internal Assessments test you on what you learn in the classroom but Physics Friday allows one to take things in new directions.


“I love physics because we look at things we see every day but in an analytical and technical manner,” he said. “I love being able to (replicate experiments) exactly the way Isaac Newton did.”


Wright is a regular on Physics Fridays – a gathering in a lab after school where students have fun with science. It’s a looser structure than in the classroom.


“Physics Fridays started partly due to an interest some students obviously had in learning more about physics who would come by the classroom and poke around in my stuff and ask a lot of questions,” IB Physics teacher Marc Braden said. “Often, we'd end up setting up demonstrations and the students would get really excited. There were also topics we don't cover in our curriculum that I find quite interesting and have plenty of opportunity for hands-on activities.”


Braden created Physics Friday in 2012. Last year, he was named High School Science Teacher of the Year by the Rio Grande Valley Science Association – the sixth time a McAllen ISD educator has been recognized by the RGVSA in the past seven years.


Students can earn extra credit but many are motivated by the fun of experimentation.


“I have wanted to learn how to program for a while, and Physics Friday has given me that opportunity,” Drazen Medina, a junior, said. “Physics is a subject that can be involved in all situations and it’s important to find its application in technology as well.”


On one recent Friday, 38 students packed the science lab. They were tinkering with a computer program that formulates the building blocks of astronomical orbits.


“We’re doing uniform circular motion,” Senior Luis Quintanilla explained.


One group of young ladies smile as they alter data and coding, causing a heavenly body to accelerate through a more eccentric orbit.


“What’s really cool is the way you can manipulate the program,” one of them said.


Quintanilla acknowledged that some of his peers find it odd so many teenagers voluntarily stay after school to work on science of all things as the weekend beckons.


“Yeah, they say, ‘you’re going to stay on Physics Friday,’ and I’m like, ‘heck yeah I am!’” he said.


Wright plans to pursue a career in engineering and is looking at programs at the Colorado School of Mines, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Michigan or Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind.


Students who graduate with the IB Diploma can receive a minimum of 24 college credit hours at many universities including each state university in Texas – all at no cost to families. McAllen ISD became the first school district in the Valley to offer the Diploma Programme in 2001 and it remains the most successful. It has a 97.4 percent success rate, one of the highest in the world.


And thanks to this challenging program, part of the extensive advanced and specialized academic coursework offered in the district, Wright has the foundation to forge the career of his choice at the university of his choice.


“It’s nice to be able to come and learn about physics in an unpressured environment,” Wright said. “It’s like a think tank.”