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Jefferson Award Winner Demystifies Physics For Oakland Students

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Parker Merrill instructs in the Engineering Academy at Oakland Tech. (CBS)

Parker Merrill instructs in the Engineering Academy at Oakland Tech. (CBS)

OAKLAND (CBS 5) – In a quiet classroom at Oakland Technical High School, students put together their ideas for a small home design on paper.

“Where’s the main body of the house?” teacher Parker Merrill asked one young man. “What slope do you want? That will make a big difference on how it will look,” he questioned another.

Learning to translate their visions into architectural drawings is what Merrill calls the first step in understanding the logic of engineering.

“(They) use math, physics, and their vocational skills…to put that all in a package of here’s what engineers do,” Merrill explained.

Introducing kids to “what engineers do” has been Parker Merrill’s passion for over 25 years. In 1986, he and a fellow teacher started the Engineering Academy at Oakland Tech when they discovered that many Oakland students were failing college physics. So they developed a whole new curriculum integrating math and physics with real world mechanics.

“You learn a whole new different way of looking at the world, visualizing objects really logically,” explained senior Sami Lamont. “It’s really more of a class on logic.”

Fellow student Deirdre Collins added, “I learned that math is all based on real life things, which is better for me ’cause I don’t like the abstract. It’s all more real world logic type of stuff.”

As part of the class, 130 tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders produce real life projects in class. They start with sketches, and eventually make 3-D computer models.

“These guys as a group are going to take apart and start doing a 3D model of motorcycles,” Merrill said, gesturing to a full sized motorcycle in the classroom.

It’s a practical, hands-on approach that more than prepares these kids for college.

“They come back and say, ‘We are doing in our first drafting class what we learned in 10th grade,'” Merrill said. “So it seems to be a program that’s working.”

It’s thanks to Merrill that the Engineering Academy has survived 25 years with all the budget cuts. He’s solicited and received support not only from the parents, but corporations, and even the Port of Oakland. But despite winning numerous awards, he said it’s really seeing the kids make sense out of physics that keeps him going. He says one hundred percent of his students attend college, and many have chosen careers in engineering and science.

“Forty years of teaching in Oakland – it’s been a career I wouldn’t trade for anything,” said Merrill. “It’s been spectacular.”

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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