Whether students are operating robots using Java or monitoring eclipsing binaries at the Thacher Observatory, project-based work forms the backbone of the learning process in our classes covering astronomy, robotics, computer programming, and data analysis. Through powerful hands-on experiences, students grapple with challenging questions that can’t be answered by flipping to the back of a textbook and, in the process, they cultivate deeper levels of understanding and competency.
The Thacher Observatory and Astronomy
The Thacher Observatory, which underwent a major renovation in 2016, is now a state-of-the-art, research-grade facility where students have the opportunity to engage in real-world scientific inquiry and applied learning. Students in astronomy and data science courses gain fluency and confidence in mathematics, data analysis, programming, and quantitative research skills through foundational classroom instruction and hands-on activities.
At the more advanced levels, students have the truly unique opportunity to work on projects that are connected to professional scientific research being conducted by astronomers and astrophysicists at institutions like Boston University, Harvard University, Louisiana State University, and University of California, Santa Cruz, offering them a front-row seat to the scientific process and access to some of the brightest minds in the field.
From monitoring supernovae or transiting exoplanets to helping program and implement the software being used at the Observatory, students are learning to put their knowledge to active use in a facility unparalleled at any high school in the nation.
Programming and Robotics
Computer programming and robotics classes and club activities complement each other well, challenging students to take the programming languages they’ve learned—including Java, Python, Ajax, PHP, MySQL, HTML, CSS, and others—and explore their practical uses as they code and control NAO humanoid and LEGO Mindstorms robots or develop their own web applications.
A one-trimester introductory programming course allows any student to gain a foundation in computer programming. AP Computer Science and advanced courses in robotics, data structures, and programming focus on complex, interdisciplinary concepts and often emphasize independent projects that students develop themselves—from a custom-built scheduler that reconciles schedule conflicts among students to a web-based alternative grading system for the School—that often have specific, practical uses in our own community. Above all, students integrate engineering, art, design, and mathematics, transforming their relationship to each field in the process.
Design and Engineering
Club activities and independent projects provide interested students with the opportunity to take some of their programming and mathematics knowledge and apply it to design and engineering endeavors. In the past, students have used the on-campus 3D printer to build a functional prosthetic hand for someone in need via a global nonprofit, paired a custom-built sandbox with augmented reality software to create an interactive topographic watershed model, and used the on-campus laser engraver to develop three-dimensional models of the student’s own design as part of an independent project.