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Practical Science

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

No geeks here. From left to right are science fanatics Ryan Buell, James Petzke, Nathan Kniffen, Julio Diaz, Dustin Rutkowski, Zachary Trautwein, Connor Murray and Joe Wiederrick.

No geeks here. From left to right are science fanatics Ryan Buell, James Petzke, Nathan Kniffen, Julio Diaz, Dustin Rutkowski, Zachary Trautwein, Connor Murray and Joe Wiederrick.

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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.” >>>


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