Q&A with Cari Nelson and Dan Perez

Holly Victor '89 P'23

Q&A with Cari Nelson, Science Department Chair, and Dan Perez, Science, Engineering, and Robotics Teacher 

Interview by Laurie Pellichero

Reprinted with permission from Princeton Magazine

Describe the campus and mission of Solebury School. 

Cari: I love the way our campus reinforces Solebury’s mission to create an environment of educational excellence that prepares students for success in college and beyond. Our campus is very similar to a college campus. The departments are housed in separate buildings and students move around our 140-acre campus as they need to. It is nice to experience the outdoors several times a day and sit outside on a nice day when students or faculty do not have class. Solebury values challenging students academically and building creative and independent thinkers. You see that within the vast number of electives that we offer our students.

What is the role of the Science Department at the school? 

Cari: The role of the Science Department is to give students an understanding of how science is around us every day and to look at things through that lens. We teach students to think about the answers that are given, and see if they make sense with what they already know. Engineering is all about problem solving. We run a “Physics First” curriculum, so students start looking at science that is very tangible with conceptual physics, doing hands-on experiments and collecting data. At the end of the year, the students end physics talking about the atom, setting them up to talk about chemistry. As a sophomore, students take chemistry and do more data-driven experiments and write up lab reports. As a junior, they take biology. All Biology books starts with chemistry and the building blocks of macromolecules. Our students have already taken chemistry, so they understand bonds when we look at DNA or proteins. As a junior or senior they have their choice of electives that interest them.

In the past few years we have added engineering to the Science Department and have given a path of STEM (Science, Engineering, Math, and Science) to a whole new group of kids that may have been scared off by the complexity of science. Engineering classes give them a way to look at problems and figure out how to solve them.

I understand that you are opening a new IDEA Lab this fall. Tell us about that. 

Dan: The IDEA (Invention, Design, Engineering and the Arts) Lab is a new space in the center of Solebury’s campus that is specially designed to be used as both a classroom and collaborative design space for student projects. The lab will serve as a permanent home for Solebury’s engineering and robotics teams.

Cari: We are very excited to open a dedicated space to engineering. We will have classes offered in engineering, digital design, computer science, CAD, VR, and robotics. Some classes offer the option of being in local competitions, and others are trimester courses where they can learn how to code, design objects using the 3D printer, laser cut designs, or design their own video games. Keeping kids active in creating their own designs is the goal of the IDEA Lab.

What projects do you plan to focus on this year? 

Dan: This will be an exciting year of introducing our new equipment. In the past, engineering classes would fabricate student designs externally. Our IDEA Lab can now have the students fully involved in the fabrication process using tools ranging from 3D printers, soldering irons, and Dremel tools to our new laser cutter and computer-controlled (CNC) milling machine.  Students in our Spartanbuilders engineering club will use our club time to design personal projects as well as signs and decorations for the new space. Additionally, a new elective class called Virtual Reality will take advantage of our new computers and HTC VR systems.

How does the STEM curriculum complement other aspects of the students’ education at Solebury School? 

Dan: There are a variety of STEM electives at Solebury School across multiple departments including the Science and Arts departments. Together with the Solebury Science Department “Physics First” curriculum, students have the opportunity to apply hands-on learning methods to reinforce basic concepts of the sciences.

Cari: When students take classes in the IDEA lab, they can use those same skills within their other classes. Once you know how to use the VR software you can design a tour of an art museum or a walking tour within a city in France. Students have a lot more options open to them for presentations within their other classes after learning the skills in the IDEA Lab. 

Our goal in the Science Department is to break down the walls of departmental silos and show students that as adults we do not function in 80-minute blocks of different disciplines. Science intertwines with history very well — we offer a co-taught Moral Conflicts class. Just because you like humanities, it doesn’t mean you can’t come into the IDEA Lab and make something using the CNC machine.