When Butler Area Senior High School science teacher Tad Campagna recalls a memorable moment from his career, the first thing that comes to mind is a friendly bit of competition.
“A few years back, a fellow teacher and I were showing students the power of a vacuum and the atmosphere by launching ping pong balls out of a tube,” says Campagna. “Two students took the idea and ran with it.”
The students decided to build a better launcher than what they’d been shown. They produced videos of their attempts, and after failing several times and adjusting a few variables, they made something that launched ping pong balls at 400 mph. The launcher Campagna and his colleague used in their demonstration only reached speeds of 200 mph.
“It was not a graded assignment, not a standardized test, or a graduation requirement,” says Campagna. “It was a few curious and motivated students taking an idea and making it better. They were excited, and we were proud.”
That’s just one example of why Campagna went into education. After graduating from Penn State University with a degree in mechanical engineering, he decided to follow in the footsteps of his parents, both of whom were teachers.
Over the past few years, he has worked to create non-traditional classroom settings in order to prepare students for the future, especially in the fields of STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. In 2013, Butler Area Senior High School joined district-wide efforts to provide STEAM education by launching SMArT Lab, a hands-on learning environment outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment. With access to tools such as 3-D printers, laser engravers and computer-controlled cutting machines, students had a place where they could learn by participating in activities ranging from planting starter pots and investigating crime scenes to building robots and electric guitars. Each year, teachers also expose classes to new experiences by rotating projects in the lab.
Campagna, who supervises the technical side of SMArT Lab, believes the space and its emphasis on STEAM education gives all types of students an outlet to turn ideas into reality.
“We need thinkers in this world, and we also need doers. I believe general and vocational education provide an arena for the thinkers and doers to learn and excel,” says Campagna. “But we also need to bridge the gap between those two. I think STEAM education is that bridge.”
Last year, Campagna went a step further by applying for and receiving a $20,000 grant to build a STEAM pavilion outside of the high school. The outdoor space, named the OutSmart Lab, was finished last fall and focuses on biology and offers opportunities to experiment with gardening, solar energy and making biodiesel fuels.
While Campagna strives to develop places where his students can succeed, he hopes that, like the eager ping pong ball launchers, they also come to understand the value of perseverance.
“I tell my students that everything in life becomes a competition and that we should embrace it because it will make us better,” says Campagna. “But I also let them know that the best way to get ahead in the competition is to try, to practice, and even at times to fail.”