Making Science Fun

April 1, 2011

Hovercrafts are not usually used as teaching aids, but one is at Gallatin High School in Gallatin, Tenn.

Teacher Allen Robnett built a personal hovercraft from plywood, a shower curtain, and a leaf blower. His students get to ride it in the gym, gliding about as if involved in a giant game of air hockey. Sometimes Robnett shows it off in a hallway near the cafeteria. “It makes a lot of noise,” he says.

Robnett wants to show students fun is part of science. This is why he erected an observatory on the school roof. Inside is a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. Then there is Robnett’s classroom. It is partially black, so it can serve as a planetarium.

Robnett helps Matthew Wright steer a hovercraft.

Robnett is doing his best to hook kids into math and science classes at a time when the performance of US children in these subjects lags behind many other nations. For his innovative efforts, he earned the Air Force Association National Aerospace Teacher of the Year award for 2010.

“His enthusiasm for aerospace fields generates interest in science. His students will be better prepared no matter what career and college paths they choose,” said S. Sanford Schlitt, AFA’s Chairman of the Board.

Because of Robnett, Gallatin students can take two courses not offered at any other high school in the state. In Astronomy and Space Exploration, subjects include constellations and the history of rocketry. In Aviation Theory and Practice, students fly simulated Cessna 172 missions while learning enough flight theory to be able to pass the written portion of the FAA’s private pilot exam. A local flight school donates a free lesson for students who win Robnett’s Aviator of the Month award.

Robnett is a pilot, having learned by first flying sailplanes in his native New Mexico. For a while, he maintained several small aircraft and taught flying himself. He has around 30 years of experience in education. Earning a degree in electrical engineering at Princeton, he took a job at Sandia National Laboratories in the late 1950s, doing research and development on neutron generators. He found the subject fascinating, but the job boring, with too much contract administration.

Allen Robnett, AFA’s National Aerospace Teacher of the Year, spins James Jackson in a swivel chair to demonstrate gyroscopic effects.

He started teaching noontime courses in electronics and logic at Sandia and enjoyed the work. He took classes at the University of New Mexico to qualify for a career change, and sent out a letter inquiring about jobs at Gallatin High, in his mother’s hometown in Tennessee’s Sumner County.

Setting the Standards

Forty years later, Robnett still teaches at Gallatin High.

Robnett took a break when he left teaching in the early 1980s, spending the decade as an independent computer consultant. By the 1990s, big software firms were blotting out opportunities for little guys, so Robnett moved back to his real love: the classroom.

When he returned, enrollment in his advanced physics and algebra classes was fairly strong, getting 24 or 25 kids in each, per semester. But by the mid-2000s his class size shrank to 12 or so. At this point, less than one percent of the school was taking senior physics or calculus.

Robnett set out to do something about the decline. He decided to create a special science class with wide appeal to get kids interested in further studies. After winning permission from his principal, the local school board, and the state of Tennessee, in 2006 he created his Astronomy and Space Exploration class.

Standards for the course did not exist, so he had to write them. He also painted two of his classroom walls black and used glow-in-the-dark paint to depict constellations. He concocted a plywood planisphere that can be adjusted to show visible stars for any time and date, and arranged for a NASA-owned inflatable planetarium to visit Gallatin each semester. Over winter break, in the school’s shop, he built a 12-foot-tall observatory. Painted white, with a large gray “G,” it stands next to a large air handler, and is controlled remotely from the classroom.

Each astronomy class is split into thirds, with one-third of the time spent with a textbook, a third spent with an astronomy or space-related video, and a third devoted to current events. “Every day, something is happening in the astronomy world. We have to keep up with that,” he says.

In fall of 2008, Robnett developed and began teaching another special course, Aviation Theory and Practice. To help illustrate this subject, he added an aviation time line to his semiplanetarium of a classroom, starting with Icarus, continuing through DaVinci’s designs, to the Wright brothers, and ending with the Hubble telescope.

Robnett with student Tony Tuttle, an aviator of the month.

For aviation class, the most important items in the room are the simulators. There are 12 fixed-wing simulators—yokes hooked up to computers—and one for helicopters. When he first started teaching the class, Robnett wrote the 100-page manual for the course and borrowed laptops from the library. Students fly 35 missions of increasing difficulty on the simulators, progressing through instrument flight rules and navigation instruction.

No student has ever managed to make it through all the missions in the manual, however. The last few involve the helicopter simulator, which is much harder to use. The majority of students complete the fixed-wing portion of the curriculum. The highest average point-earner gets the Aviator of the Month award. Robnett also hands out an Aviator of the Year award at the end of the course to the student who best completes a special mission challenge.

Robnett admits that his own experience as a flight instructor makes it much easier for him to teach an aviation class. “I can’t imagine a teacher undertaking to teach this course without having some experience in private flying,” he says.

The Question Is: Why

After three years, none of Robnett’s aviation students have progressed far enough to earn a pilot’s license on their own—although one has expressed interest in attending the Air Force Academy, and another now works at the flight line at a local airport, gassing up airplanes and coordinating their movement.

But the special science classes have drawn more students into science and math in general, and into the higher level courses in particular. Enrollment in Robnett’s most recent physics course was 28 students, up from 14 a year or two ago.

In a nominating letter for the AFA Teacher of the Year award, Gallatin’s principal, Ronald W. Becker, described Robnett as a “wonderful teacher” with “a passion for sharing science and math with others.”

Robnett says he has three main principles of teaching. The first is classes should be shaped for the students expected to take them. Forcing every child to take all college-required courses results in less rigorous instruction, he believes, because content gets watered down so more can pass.

The second is “memorizing is not understanding,” he says. Education is more than repetition; rather, it is making links between a new concept and old knowledge. “I think I probably ask ‘why’ more than most teachers. Somebody gives me an answer and I go back to them and say, ‘Why?’ ” he says.

The third is to accept student challenges. “I give students extra credit when they challenge what I say, because that gets them involved,” he says. “I will make mistakes occasionally. Any student who catches one gets a one hundred for the day.”

Remembering his own time in high school, Robnett says he asked his classmates during senior year what their hurry was when they said they were eager to graduate. He was having the time of his life. He still is. At age 77, he has no thoughts of retiring, he says.

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Call From the Desert,” appeared in the February issue.