Senson with the ultralight: 'I wasn't teaching kids how to build an airplane. I was teaching them about life.'
With a meter stick in his hand, Ben Senson instructs his ninth-grade science students on how to calculate formulas for force using levers and fulcrums.
He sketches out an equation on the whiteboard, turns around, adjusts the meter stick on a spring scale and calls for a reading.
"Where do I put the weight for a third-class lever?" the Memorial High school teacher quizzes.
No one answers.
"Come on, man," Senson cajoles. "We have to pre-read our labs so we know what we're going to do. If you're running short of time, make sure you get the spring scale reading. Do the math later."
Grabbing their lab sheets and purple pens, the freshmen split into groups to complete the assignment for an Integrated Science Program.
"The equations are hard to remember," Shannon Behling, 14, tells a classroom visitor. "It gets confusing." But she sees the value of the assignment: "We may not use this stuff, but it gets your brain to think in a different way."
Veronica Zalesak, 15, agrees. "You have to pay attention in this class," she says, leaning back in her chair. "It's really hard to understand. I finally got an A for the first time ever in this class. I want to get into the University of Wisconsin. I spend most of my time in study hall and after school working on this class."
Senson, who has been teaching science and aerospace engineering for 17 years, takes pride in challenging his students. Now 41, he greets each day as a new opportunity to help them learn.
"Memorization is not good science education," he says. "We want kids who are creative problem-solvers."
Senson, who was recently named chairman of Memorial's science department, pours himself into his work. And then, when the regular school day ends, he's off to his second job - as an adviser to extracurricular robotics programs. Here he teaches students of all ages in building and programming robots, in addition to activities involving nanotechnology and alternative energy.
A few years back, Senson created an aircraft-construction course for students chasing careers as mechanics or engineers. The program bounced around to five locations in the first year before a landlord saw value in it, and after two years it was slashed from the curriculum due to budget cuts. But before it was over, Senson and his students had built a single-seat ultralight and a portion of a two-seat Sonex airplane.
"I wasn't teaching kids how to build an airplane," reflects Senson. "I was teaching them about life. Kids talented in mechanics worked alongside kids gifted in math and science. Both groups learned the value of each other's skills."
He works with engineers, scientists, business executives and parents who help mentor his charges and raise funds. He writes grant applications that have raised thousands of dollars for his programs and projects. He's working on an aerospace textbook for high school students. He's on a national team that's devising ways to bring real-world science, math, technology and engineering components to the classroom.
He's joined other educators to rewrite kindergarten-through-12th-grade curriculum and publish aerospace engineering course materials. He's co-writing an aerospace engineering textbook for Cengage Learning, based in Kentucky.
During the last four years, Senson has spent two weeks each summer at both the University of Colorado and Purdue University instructing teachers in aeronautics education.
"The value of a teacher like Ben is immeasurable," says Ole Olson, an electrical engineer with Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing, which has given time and money to Senson's robotics program. "The energy, interests and dedication he brings with him in whatever he does challenges and inspires the students."
'A real inspiration'
Despite the nation's need for engineers, few U.S. high schools take the subject as seriously as Senson.
"To teach an engineering curriculum at the high school level in any kind of a rigorous way is rare," says Eric Gans, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Society for Engineering Education. "To teach aerospace engineering is even more rare.
Don Woolston, associate dean for the UW-Madison College of Engineering, says economic growth and the future of the United States is dependent on a well-educated workforce.
"Students need real-life experiences," he says. "At the high school level, there seems to be a vacuum of programs with a purpose."
Senson, who earned his bachelor's degree from the UW-Madison and a master's from Ball State University, works to prepare his students for the rigors of college. There they will learn the skills needed to meet the critical demand for workers versed in math, computer science and engineering in the space and defense industries.
About 750 freshmen are enrolled in the UW-Madison's engineering courses, says Wooston, who reads student applications, many of them requesting scholarships. He marvels that the applications from Memorial students are often accompanied by a letter of reference from Senson.
"He has six class periods a day, is involved in a national program, provides help to students after class, figures out dynamic changes to curriculum, is really innovative and cranks out letters of reference," Wooston says. "That's really impressive. I wonder how he has that many hours in a day."
One of Senson's robotics programs - FIRST Lego Leagues - is for students in grades four through eight. They build robots out of Legos and program them to accomplish tasks. About 50 students signed up for five Lego League teams in 2005. The number exploded to more than 120 students for 12 teams in 2007.
Senson also runs a robotics program for high school students and a summer camp program where the high school students teach younger kids.
"Ben's enthusiasm and positive energy is contagious," says Chris Hunt, a research chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory and a co-organizer for Lego Leagues. "He had the vision to want to develop the future talent pool and the skill and determination to make it all happen."
Lyn Freeman, president of the West Point, Va.-based Build a Plane, calls Senson "a real inspiration." Freeman's group works with the Federal Aviation Administration to promote aviation and aerospace careers by giving young people the chance to build real airplanes.
"There's a downturn in kids coming out of school wanting to go into science, technology, engineering and math," says Freeman, listing the disciplines that are collectively known as STEM. "Ben is exposing kids to fascinating areas of STEM and gives them opportunities to see all the career possibilities."
Lisa Wachtel, who works on science curriculum for the Madison school district, applauds Senson's initiative in taking on projects. "The time it takes for him to think of an idea, write a grant and see it through is significant. Ben has done that successfully several times for the district."
Laying a foundation
At a time when kids have shorter attention spans and less respect for authority, Senson feeds his energy into newfangled ideas to arm students with tools for life.
"It's good for kids to learn that every choice has consequences and you have to just keep pushing toward the positive," he says.
The airplane class is a case in point. Four times in less than nine months, the class had to pack up its tools and materials and move to new quarters. One hike stopped traffic on Mineral Point Road as students hauled the single-engine aircraft across the six lanes to a new location.
Memorial offers 19 science courses, from integrated science to chemistry, physics and molecular biology.
Senson has taught classes including earth science, aerospace, aerospace engineering and aircraft construction. He prefers getting students while they're young, to lay a solid foundation for future learning.
"I like teaching freshmen and guiding them to a totally different understanding of science and the world around them," he says. "It's fun to see kids make that leap. We have kids graduate from Memorial with seven years of science [because they double up on science classes]. Those kids are really fun to teach."
Next fall, Senson predicts he will teach four hours of physics and aerospace engineering.
"It's hard to find anyone who has the background for physics, plus is able to keep it fun for kids," he explains. "I jump in any place they need me."
Senson is one of more than a dozen science teachers at Memorial this year; they share 11 classrooms. Three people share his office. "I'm stunned at the people I get to work with," he says. "Because we share time in the same offices, we end up sharing a lot of information and ideas."
Kelly Cook, a science teacher for 18 years, credits Senson with being a resource to his colleagues. "If a kid comes up with a question I can't answer, I go to Ben," she says. "He's very willing to share."
But Senson's greatest admirers are his students.
Ian Wiese, who graduated from Memorial in 2007, spent two years in Senson's aircraft construction class. There he helped build an ultralight, then the tail components and the main wing spars of a two-seater Sonex. Now he's attending the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where he hopes to major in mechanical and materials engineering.
"Mr. Senson utterly changed the course of my life," Wiese says. "Building an airplane taught me that I really liked hands-on work. I want to apply the theories the physics department comes up with."
Last semester, Wiese had to design and build a rocket to reach a specific height in an introductory course for mechanical materials and aerospace engineers.
"The real fun is the equations for the drag and surface," he says. "I had learned the majority of that in aerospace engineering in high school."
Another former student, National Merit scholar Cody Rebholz, calls Senson "one of the best teachers I ever had," saying he "knows the material and is passionate about teaching it. He has fun ways of explaining science concepts."
Rebholz, now a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering at MIT, says Senson wants to make science and engineering "as big a deal" as athletics.
"Senson really emphasizes that students should be the thinkers and workers," he says. "On our [robotics] team, mentors gave us hints, but it was up to us to make decisions and come up with a workable solution. They taught us the concepts, but it was up to us to apply them."
Last year, Rebholz nominated Senson for an MIT Alumni Association Inspirational Teacher Award.
The mystery of science
As a youngster growing up in Kaukauna, Ben Senson (then Ben Anderson) was always crafting some project or riding his bike through the woods. He built airplane and rocket models out of balsa wood and tissue paper.
"I'd pack them tight with firecrackers and spin them around on a string until they exploded," he recalls. "Then I'd track down every last piece and put them back together.
"I just used pieces and parts, and some rockets were horrible designs. So I learned what worked and didn't work by messing around."
Fridays were movie days. His high school physics teacher showed the film series "Connections," which explained how the invention of one thing leads to another, leads to another.
"That was really cool," Senson says. "I really enjoyed that class."
Industrial design was another one of his favorite classes, even though the instructor nixed his first project - a machine-gun for his radio-control airplane.
"So I designed laser tag," he jokes. "I was way before my time."
But a job collecting data and crunching numbers for the U.S. Geological Service proved that a career as a bench scientist wasn't in his future.
"It was a great job and paid well, but I liked making sense of the mystery of science," says Senson. "That moment of discovery is a really powerful thing."
Ben Anderson changed his name when he married Lisa Petersen. Neither liked the idea of having her take his name. "So we messed around with different combinations and invented our own name, which is the "sen" from Petersen and the "son" from Anderson.
"As far as we know, we're the only Sensons on the planet."
The couple live on Madison's west side, near Memorial. They have three children: Aaron, 12, Braxton, 10, and MaiaLynn, 7.
A former fencer for UW-Madison, Senson started the fencing club at Memorial in 1992. Still popular, former participants now direct the club. But Senson's "number-one hobby," he says, is reading.
Sitting on his nightstand is a collection of books from The Mad Scientists' Club, a cleverly written series for children, alongside Michael Crichton's Next, a novel about the biotech industry.
GE Healthcare, a national manufacturer of high-tech medical equipment with offices in Madison, has pumped more than $45,000 into materials, tools and competition fees so students from Memorial, West and La Follette high schools could design a competitive robot the size of a small riding lawnmower. In March, students and mentors joined more than 1,500 teams across the country to compete in a simulated NASCAR race during a three-day Milwaukee regional contest. The Madison team placed as a finalist.
"We really need teachers like Ben to drive this program," says Rob Washenko, an engineering manager and inventor at GE Healthcare and a volunteer robotics mentor.
"Teaching moments come in all sizes and shapes. We need a program like this to do real-world problem solving. Putting the power in training the workforce for the future takes tremendous extra time to bring access to technology and science beyond the curriculum and much closer to the real challenges we're going to face."
Senson has funded the nearly $90,000 robotics program by writing grants, corporate sponsorships and student fees. He has built-in scholarships for all the programs.
Donors include the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, GE Healthcare, Sonic Foundry, Sony Media, Madison Gas & Electric, PDQ Stores, Culver's and the Evjue Foundation.
Senson has raised an additional $100,000 for science and aviation-related programs during the last five years.
Engineers and machinists at Madison's Isthmus Engineering built a test course in the plant so robotics teams in Madison and Milwaukee could test drive their robots before the regional competition.
Students had invested six weeks working with mentors to build robots and program them to perform specific tasks.
"It's incredible to get kids at this young age involved with technology in a hands-on environment," says Randy Smith, a mechanical designer for the company. He and others were on hand to consult and assist during the test drive.
"It's a real-world application," Smith says. "It's complicated. Kids have to define the project, decide what they will build, create a budget, work on a time scale and rely on the creativity and expertise of their team members."
"What Ben is doing in the classroom is absolutely outstanding," adds Lee Siudzinski, a former school superintendent and vice president of the Experimental Aviation Association in Oshkosh. "Certainly, we will create some wonderful future pilots in the process, as well as support people, including mechanics, for the aviation industry."
Built 40 years ago, Memorial classrooms are challenging places for today's science programs. Newer schools, like Richland Center High School, about 60 minutes west of Madison, have up-to-date facilities with modern technology.
"We don't even have a data projector on hand," says Senson. "With some of our math and chemistry programs, we have tons of video and need a data projector."
The teaching of science has changed, and the technology needs to change with it. "In the 1960s, science classes were taught with lectures and a few demos," says Senson. "Modern science is focused on hands-on or first-person experiences."
A dilapidated insurance building on Monona Drive houses the robotics program. There are plans to demolish the building this summer.
Senson is searching for a 2,000-square-foot facility with high ceilings much closer to Memorial. Tax credit is available. The school district will assume the liability.
"I want to take the high-quality programs we offer in the classroom and outside and expand on them," he says. "I need to win a big lottery."