Tech Engineering Academy: Bridges to Learning

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Saturday, March 8, 2014

It's so quiet, you can hear a bridge break. Two hundred collectively held breaths finally release when the balsa and glue creation collapses with a crack under its load. Once "8 lbs for bridge #50" gets recorded, the annual Engineering Academy Bridge Competition officially ends.

Started 19 years ago in a collaboration between Tech and the American Society of Civil Engineers, the competition quickly became a most beloved tradition at Tech. Using supplied materials, academy juniors - joined by sophomores and seniors - must construct a bridge as a class project. As many as 100 academy students work together on the final 50 bridges typically constructed until one is declared the strongest.

The academy grew out of Oakland's now-defunct school vocational training program. A multi-classroom area once filled with lathes, milling machines, welding stations, drill presses, and drafting tables has been transformed with workstations and a 3-D printer.

The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) developed the academy system in 1986 to help students achieve college readiness; the Engineering Academy followed in 1987. Two Tech teachers created the rigorous curriculum in use today, designed to teach visualization skills and the connection between mathematics and physics to budding engineers through project-based learning.

Parker Merrill, an original Academy co-founder, continues as program director. Raised on a New Jersey farm, his curiosity about how things work evolved into his college major, Industrial Arts. He comes from a long line of teachers and school administrators, joining OUSD as a substitute teacher in 1971, later becoming a full-time teacher. Credentialed in physics and vocational training, Parker's love of teaching and commitment to the Academy clearly shows (not to mention his passion for racing Porsches).

Today, 120 students in grades 10-12 are enrolled in the academy, roughly half being women. Entrance is competitive. Typically 100 freshman students vie each spring for the 65 seats offered to 10th grade students. Math assessment, grades and writing sample all figure into the entrance selection criteria.

Academy sophomores learn traditional and Computer-Aided Drafting (CAD). Juniors soak up Honors Physics and Descriptive Geometry, as well as Mathematical Analysis. Seniors concentrate on architecture or advanced CAD design, plus AP Physics and AP Calculus.

Every graduating Academy senior attends college. Members of the most recent classes can be found at, among others, Brown, Harvard, MIT, Northwestern, Tufts, UCLA, UC Berkeley, Oberlin, West Point, Case Western, Stanford, McGill, and Cal Poly.