Athenian Students Visit Pixar Studios

This October, ten Advanced Filmmaking students and their teacher, Peter Tamaribuchi went to visit one of the most successful film studios in history, Pixar Studios in Emeryville. They got an inside look into Pixar’s production process and their facilities. Here are the reflections of Katie S. ’22, one of the students who attended the trip.

When I first walked into the secretive Pixar studios, I was surprised by the familiarity of the place. I was greeted by rolling hills, soccer fields, park benches, and even a swimming pool, making me feel like I had just stumbled onto a college campus rather than one of the most iconic movie studios in history. Instead of the closed doors and endless rows of cubicles I had expected to see, I saw people riding their bikes around the halls, working collaboratively over a cup of coffee, and I felt an unspoken agreement to defy standard work expectations and focus on community.

From the annual scavenger hunts to the daily games of soccer, it was clear to me that Pixar had somehow found a perfect balance between producing incredible films and maintaining a happy, stress-free environment. But while those two may seem contradictory, it’s clear that they are like yin and yang: each essential to the other’s existence.

By focusing so vehemently on a stress-free environment, Pixar is able to cultivate a happy community, where employees can let their creativity flow without the stress and isolation of a traditional workplace. It is clear from Pixar’s unorthodox and obviously successful method that other companies and workplaces should follow its example and focus on the employee’s wellbeing rather than feeding off of stress and individualism.

Presentations of Learning

Athenian’s ongoing efforts to focus on mastery as we define student success has led us to experiment with when and how students receive feedback on their learning. In addition to written grade reports, parents are invited to attend conferences with their students’ teachers at the end of the first quarter. Students receive feedback directly from their teachers and then self-reflect with their advisors. Depending on the grade level, students then prepare a presentation of their learning so far this year.

Middle School

Sixth graders don’t receive grades at all in the first quarter. We want students to focus on areas of strength and growth rather than letter grades as they transition into middle school. Instead, sixth graders get comprehensive rubrics with comments from each of their teachers that assess their development across the following learning areas:

  • empathy
  • readiness to learn
  • collaboration
  • quality of work
  • demonstration of learning
  • mindset

Students then reflect with their advisors on the rubrics and develop a Presentation of Learning for their parents. They share strengths and areas of growth for each class and conclude with three general goals: academic, social, and how they will contribute to the community.

Unlike former models in which each teacher would share something about the student, now students are at the helm of these presentations. Students are at the center of this process and have active ownership of their growth and development.

6th graders also have the opportunity to share coursework including their identity shields with their parents. Aa part of an introduction to the tools in the Carter Innovation Studio, students craft wooden shields that represent various parts of their identity. Guided through a number of reflective exercises, students choose areas of identity to focus on in each quadrant of their shield, such as family, social, academic, athletic, religious, physical, or community identity. They learn how to use the laser printer, 3-D printers, and hand tools to assemble their shield and they write a poem or short prose.

Upper School

The Upper School has a similar student-centered model for conferences. All Upper School students reflect with advisors to prepare a self-assessment of what is going well in each class, what they could do better, and what specific actions they can take to improve. In addition to assessing their classes, they examine co-curriculars, social life, health and wellness, time management, and their home life. During conferences, all students in 9th grade and many students in 10th-12th grades present their reflections to their parents and advisor.

By scaffolding the reflection process with written feedback from teachers, in-person meetings with advisors, and student-written reflections, students are central in the evaluation of their own learning. These models encourage students to think creatively about how they can improve with attentive support from the adults in our community.

Visiting Artist Exposes Fine Arts Students to Four Printmaking Techniques

by Kim Palacios, Associate Director of Advancement, Alumni Giving & Engagement

Athenian was pleased to welcome Madalena Parreira, master printmaker and set designer, to serve as our 2019-20 Artist in Residence. Fine arts students in grades 9 through 12 were exposed to four new methods of printmaking under her instruction this fall. An alumni-supported Artist in Residence Endowed Fund provides a guest-instructor opportunity for an artist every year. The students’ diverse, personal, and visually-interesting prints made for an alluring display in the Center for Visual Arts (CFTA).  

Madalena was invited as a result of her long-term artistic collaboration with fine arts instructor, Sally Baker, who previously studied at Ar.Co (Center for Art and Visual Communication) in Lisbon, Portugal. Prior to serving as current head of printmaking at Ar.Co, Madalena taught art in secondary schools and colleges in Europe and the U.S., including for the United Nations International School in New York.

The program focused on four techniques. In the two weeks prior to Madalena’s arrival, Sally presented outstanding artworks in each technique and carefully explained what each printmaking processes entailed:

  • Silkscreen. A seventeenth-century method that uses stencils to block the passage of ink through a thin mesh; seen in the work of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.
  • Etching. A sixteenth-century technique that uses acids to etch line and tone drawings onto metal plates; seen in the work of Rembrandt, Piranesi, and Goya.
  • Lithography. An eighteenth-century technique of printing on stones that was widely used to print stamps, maps, and packaging; seen in the work of Delacroix and Kathe Kollwitz.
  • Collography. A twentieth-century technique that involves creating plates from textured materials and printing in intaglio or by roller; seen in the work of the late Cuban artist Belkis Ayon.

Students were able to choose the type of printmaking they would explore within their respective groups; workshops were designed according to their choices. Following Madalena’s arrival, students watched live demonstrations of each step as precursors to developing their own prints.

We are pleased to report that the program was also viewed as a success by the artist herself, who remarked, “It has been an enormous pleasure to spend these days with such inquisitive and talented students. I was particularly impressed with their warm, polite and welcoming attitude from the first day, as well as their commitment and sustained effort and focus in all sessions. I have rarely seen young artists demonstrate such mutual respect and interest in learning.”

Robotics Season: A Year of Firsts at FIRST Robotics Competition

by Lori Harsch, Robotics Advisor
This blog post is adapted from an email Lori sent to the Robotics Team at the conclusion of the season. We wanted to share the Robotics’ Team successes and gratitude with the community.
The 2019 Athenian Robotics Season has come to an end and as we roll into Spring Break I want to send one final all team email to wrap up the season and to send you all my gratitude for a memorable year.  This year we had a few firsts for our team…
  • First year in the Carter Innovation Studio. We were all finally in the same building and were able to collaborate and experience each other’s work in a way we haven’t been able to do before. We were also able to share our progress in real time with other non-robotics students who had classes in CIS.
  • First opportunity to build a practice field that we could use throughout the build season. Thank you Athenian School for allowing us to use part of the new Main Hall for our field.
  • First time to demonstrate our robot to our School. It was so rewarding to show our classmates and teachers what we have worked so hard on over the 6.5 week build season.
  • First year at a new regional. We have historically competed at the Silicon Valley Regional in San Jose. This year with the new March Term, we chose to attend the inaugural Monterey Bay Regional at Seaside High. Many of us got to meet Woody Flowers who came out for the event
  • I think FIRST also had a first….our very own Diego Rodriguez played the National Anthem on Day 1 of the competition!  Watch below, the link is cued to Diego’s performance.

Watch Monterey Bay Regional from FIRSTinspires19 on

As we move into the last couple of months of school, I want all of you to know that it has been a pleasure coaching and mentoring you all this season. I know we all have grown from the time we have spent together and I am so fortunate to be able to work with the group of bright, talented, and creative young people that you all are.
I want to thank you all for all your hard work and team support at the competition. This competition was new for all of us (new town, new venue, new hotel) and I appreciate you all for representing our School with enthusiasm and integrity.  Although the competition itself had its ups and downs, the team worked together to do its best to support each other through the tough moments and celebrate with each other during the high points. This resilience comes from the strong team bond that was formed during the build season. You all worked well together and helped each other learn and grow. All of you worked hard to design, build, and control our robot this year and it is always amazing to see these robots come to life in such a short period of time.
I also want to let all of you know how proud I am of this year’s leadership team – Karen H. ’19 and Jake H. ’19. You both had a big job to do and a large team to lead. I know it wasn’t easy and you two were stretched at times but you were able to get the job done and create a strong team. Your leadership and influence have inspired those that will follow and you two are part of the legacy of leaders for Athenian Robotics. And thanks for using the microphone even when you didn’t want to. 🙂
I also want to give a shout out to the students who talked with the judges at the competition. Our team was the first runner up for the Safety Award: I have pins for all of you. Props to Sam H. ’20 and Grace T. ’20.
Our team also won the Innovation in Control Award Sponsored by Rockwell Automation. This award celebrates an innovative control system or application of control components to provide unique machine functions. Vincent P. ’19 and Donovan Z. ’20 were the primary contributors to this innovation. Here is the poem that was announced during the awards ceremony. and a description of the innovation.
Why use ONE camera when you can use TWO?
Keeping your focus, orientation is true.
Aligning a grid, for an overlay scene.
Line up your shot
score like a dream!
Utilizing two cameras, the team was able to provide the drivers with a modified driver’s assist that helps them align with the goal. Both cameras are multi-threaded and made to run asynchronously. The second camera takes in the image first and using a pose estimation algorithm named SolvePnP in OpenCV, it simulates a 3D space with a 2D image (similar to an AR marker) and gives us our robot’s position relative to our goal. The location and other data will then be superimposed onto the first camera, which is what the drivers actually get to see. 
Congratulations team! Well done!
Finally, I want to thank David Grier, Paul Ambrose, Jamey Jacobs, Tané Remington ’06, James Cahill, and Eugene Mizusawa for their generous time and talents. Our students learn so much from you all and the guidance and mentorship you have so freely given have been the backbone of our team. And thank you Doug Moffet and Gerard vanSteyn for you help supervising the students during the weekday evening sessions. I appreciate the second pair of eyes and ears!
Special thanks to Lori for her leadership and countless hours working with our students. The School is grateful for everything Lori has done to ensure the success of the Robotics Program! 

I Can Cook!

Our Athenian 8th graders were in for a delicious treat for the first ever I Can Cook Focus Day! The idea behind this Focus Day was to give our students practical life skills and an understanding of the work and effort that goes into preparing a meal.

Earlier in the week, students were asked to get into groups of three or four and pick two recipes to prepare. The recipes were chosen from a list curated by the faculty and included dishes such as guacamole, chicken nuggets, meatballs, pasta, and lasagna, all from scratch.

The Focus Day began with an enthusiastic field trip to our local Safeway. Students were each given $20 and copies of their recipes, and they had to determine what to buy. Pantry staples, such as spices, flour, and eggs were provided for them to help keep them under budget, but many still struggled with finding the items they needed while staying within their price range. Students made it work by exchanging brand name supplies for store generics as well as by collaborating with other groups to share items they both needed. While the groups did manage to stay on budget, many students were surprised at the price of groceries. One student was particularly scandalized that three avocados would cost more than a third of her group’s budget!

Once we were back on campus, half of the groups were given cooking stations to begin prepping their meals. Lanny Lee, our Middle School art teacher, gave the students a comprehensive safety lesson on how to properly use the burners, knives, and other kitchen essentials, and then the students were given one hour to make their dishes. There was much trial and error involved: one group realized that it helps the cooking process if you turn the burner on, while another learned that subbing out vegetable oil for olive oil will give your chicken nuggets a green tint. A general panic ensued when we gave students a fifteen-minute time warning, but all of them managed to have a plated appetizer and main course by the time the rotation was over.

While half of the students were cooking, the other half were filming them and creating cooking shows. This involved going to each group and filming them cooking, pulling the chefs aside and doing interviews about the cooking process, and having non-chefs weigh in as announcers, hosts, or food critics. The students were given free rein as to what style cooking show they wanted to create, and their products were as varied as the food that was prepared.

At the end of the rotation, each cooking group shared samples of their food with the filming crews, who then rated each group based on appetizer taste, main course taste, and food presentation. We collected all of these scores to determine a “top chef” group for the rotation. We took a break for lunch and then the cooking and filming groups swapped places for the afternoon.

The focus of the day was cooking and filming, but the skills that the students learned and practiced on Friday extended far past cooking a meal or using iMovie. Students had to create and stick to a food budget, using creative solutions if they ran into a problem. They had to work as a team, taking turns being chefs and sous chefs on their dishes, and supporting their team members throughout the cooking process. They had to manage their time effectively, making sure that they weren’t focusing too much of their time on their appetizer at the expense of their main course. And they had to hone their ability to stay on track in the face of distractions, specifically, a horde of their peers filming their every move.

Overall, it was inspiring to see how the 8th graders cooperated and encouraged each other through the process. During the afternoon rotation, many of the videographers were offering tips to the chefs by letting them know what worked for them or what obstacles they ran into while cooking similar recipes. There are few opportunities for the whole grade to spend the entire day together, and it was a great bonding experience for this cohort.

Education for Democracy: Real Change Is Messy—and Worth It

By Rosie Corr ’19 and Josh Tnoe ’19

This is the second in a series of blog posts that highlight Athenian’s Pillars, the foundational values that we share with all Round Square schools. This second installment is a speech about democracy delivered by Rosie and Josh at Morning Meeting to the Upper School.

Josh: When we hear democracy, a lot of us think about our government, and all of the positives and negatives that come with it. But democracy is a lot more than the body that governs. It is the people—the community. To me, democracy means being involved in the community instead of being complacent. It means being outwardly focused on the community around you, and working to make sure your voice is heard and that changes are made where they are due. It means not taking no for an answer, and fighting for what is right and what you deserve.

Ben Granat ’19, Rosie Corr ’19, and Josh Tnoe ’19 worked together on a Democracy in Action class project about Town Meeting at Athenian

Rosie: There are plenty of opportunities for formal democracy on this campus—Town Meeting, our renamed Forum meeting, class or club leader elections, and so much more. But some of the most powerful change is made when you don’t take the beaten path. Real change is made by passionate individuals who aren’t afraid to take a stance and get their hands dirty. There is often a misconception around Athenian that it is possible to make democracy a quick and easy process, something that can happen in an hour, from idea to implementation. And when that doesn’t happen, we feel discouraged and disenfranchised. But that is real education for democracy.

Josh: Learning that democracy isn’t easy is the first step. It is difficult, and it is messy, but for those willing to really fight for what they believe in, it can actually have a substantial impact on the school you and your friends attend, giving you real change without the backtracking and empty promises.

Rosie: It’s also why Democracy in Action is one of the most challenging, yet most interesting and rewarding courses you’ll ever take. And that is why I am so proud to be part of a school that embraces education for democracy and lets the students speak truth to power; without our voices, Athenian couldn’t really be Athenian. Thank you.

Middle School Focus Days: Kicking Off the Year with Fortune Cookies, Flowers, and Film

Focus Days are in full swing in the Middle School! Focus Days are designed for students to find relevance and deep meaning in what they are learning, connecting content with interpersonal skills while engaging in hands-on activities. Last week, we had three action-packed days that encouraged our students to get creative, get moving, and get out of their comfort zones:

The 8th graders had a field trip to Chinatown in San Francisco, where they got to explore the neighborhood and learn about its history. Their day started with a trip on BART, followed by a guided tour of Chinatown. In their English classes, students have been reading stories by Amy Tan. One of the highlights of their tour was the First Chinese Baptist Church at Waverly Place, featured prominently in The Joy Luck Club. Later in the day, students talked about the significance of Chinatown as an immigrant community and also had the chance to hear faculty tell their own family immigration stories. Sama G, ’23 said, “I very much enjoyed learning immigrant stories. I also loved having 30 minutes to roam around with friends. The boba was spectacular and the fortune cookie factory was interesting.”

The 7th graders also ventured out to San Francisco on Friday to visit the Botanical Gardens and the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. In small groups, they investigated different species suited to a variety of ecosystems, from the ferns that grace the Ancient Plant Garden to the towering trees in the California Native Redwood Grove. Students were asked to observe and draw the plants they saw, paying special attention to how they have adapted for survival in different environments. After a quick lunch break, the 7th graders hiked over to the Conservatory of Flowers to continue their adaptation reflections while marveling at carnivorous plants and tropical flowers.

Meanwhile, the 6th graders got the Middle School campus all to themselves. Their Focus Day, Tool Cool for School, showed them how to use a variety of physical and digital tools that will be relevant throughout their Athenian careers. The students spent half of their day in the new Carter Innovation Studio, learning “making” fundamentals in their creation of an art piece using hammers, nails, and string. The string art they created is integrated into the Identity Projects that they have been working on in their English classes. The second part of the day involved students using iMovie to create a film titled “The Hilarious Tale of a 6th Grader’s First Month at Athenian.” In groups of four or five, students had to write scripts, film, and edit their movies, which were shown at the end of the day to much laughter.

Let’s hope that the rest of the year is full of Focus Days that are as exciting and fulfilling as the ones we experienced on Friday!

Athenian Students’ Innovative Projects

by Kate Oxley ’20
Originally published in the March 2018 edition of The Pillar, Athenian’s student newspaper

A scalable bionic heart. A bio-digester to make methane from compost. A mobile refrigeration unit with electronic generation for third world countries. A prosthetic limb that simulates a ball and joint socket. What do all of these have in common? They can all change the world, they all took hundreds of hours to develop, and they were all made by students while at The Athenian School.

Classes such as Applied Science, CADFab, and Engineering enable students to pursue personal projects while receiving class credit for their efforts. Many students rise to the opportunity and exceed all class expectations in their projects for more than just a good grade. These students can spend hundreds of hours in a semester on their project, but what drives them to do and learn so much in such a short period of time?

“I think individual passion should lead students through the learning process,” Dave Otten, teacher of Athenian’s new Science and Engineering class, said. “It should be the thing that keeps them going when they get stuck. When doing projects, it should help determine what they need to learn.”

One former student who thrived in project-oriented classes is Baxter Eldridge ’13. In high school, he claimed he had a tendency to work on “way too many projects at any given time” in and out of class. One of these projects was a scalable 3D printed bionic heart.

“There are these ventricle assistive devices, which were a super recent medical device when I worked on it,” Eldridge said. “They work like a motor, but the rotor in the motor is a turbine, think a jet turbine, so it pulls fluid through it as it runs…. There was this popular science article about these two doctors who were trying to use two of these ventricle assistive devices to make a complete artificial heart. The reason that’s currently somewhat challenging is that while these devices work quite well, they do damage blood cells. So, while one patient can handle the damage to blood cells caused by one of these devices, if you use two you damage too many blood cells to use as a long-term heart. My idea was to take the concept of the ventricle assistive device and the premise you eventually get to make it a complete heart, and focus on trying to make the device so you can tailor its output depending on the size of its patient… The goal of my project was that you could choose, let’s say three motors, then 3D print the size of the auger so the optimum running speed of the motor pumped out the optimum amount of fluid for the patient.”

Projects like these are one of many reasons that The Athenian School is developing a more project-based curriculum for the coming year. Whereas in some classes students currently find interest in the topics presented to them in class, Eldridge pushes Athenian teachers to tailor their curriculum to take cues from students’ passions, and to teach students how to deconstruct their ideas into smaller, quantitative milestones.

“Rather than telling students to produce this report, then this report, and this little thing, when you’re not really excited about each milestone, it’d be better to [build milestones where] you’ll be able to say ‘ok, now this is a real thing, I’m holding it in my hand,’” Eldridge said. “The school could [work on] taking ideas from understanding students’ goals and visions, then helping them see how to break those down into distinct and satiating milestones.”

Rock Williams ’17 and Ryan Keller ’17 were another pair of students who took project-based learning to a new level in their Applied Science class.

“I worked with Ryan on a ball-and-socket motor, which we’d originally planned on purchasing online for a robotic arm,” Williams said. “For all the joints of the fingers where all the phalanges meet the metacarpals, all of those have the range of motion of a ball-and-socket. Because of this, we thought it’d be easier to use a ball-and-socket motor, rather than a set of multiple motors.”

Upon looking for a ball-and-socket motor, the pair discovered that it did not exist. Rather than moving on to a new project, they “decided to delve deeper into how [they] could counter this problem, and into the possible future applications of a ball-and-socket motor,” marking the beginning of a school-year long project to create a ball-and-socket motor for a functional prosthetic limb. Williams hopes more people can work on projects they are passionate about, however, he has some concern about the visibility of such projects.

“I think it’s difficult because, at least with the old Makers Studio, it’s a little hidden, like its own little world,” Williams said. “I think Eugene, Lori, and Dave do a really great job of getting projects going and getting them completed, but as a whole school, I don’t think the Makers Studio is completely integrated. It’s kind of like an isolated event.”

Another way to participate in these projects is through the entrepreneurship program. Laura Victorino, teacher of the entrepreneurship G period class, hopes to bridge the gap between business, technology, and social justice issues, however, she fears that false assumptions about entrepreneurship could discourage student participation.

“One of the things that disappoints me is that people associate the word ‘entrepreneurship’ with too narrow a set of ideas. People think it’s all about being the next Facebook or Tesla, and while those are very high profile entrepreneurial ventures, to me entrepreneurship is a much broader thing which involves making social change or solving health problems, or environmental problems, or education problems. I think you can bring an entrepreneurial attitude and toolset to all the important problems we have, not just entertainment or transportation or finance… Entrepreneurial thinking is one of the most valuable things you can learn to take to almost anything you do.”

Athenian will be opening the new Carter Innovation Studio in the fall of 2018, a significant upgrade from our current tucked-away Maker Studio. The Carter Innovation Studio will stand at the entrance to our campus and will be an integrated hub of learning for all of our students to work on projects. Athenian believes in hands-on education where students can work on real-life projects that have meaning to them. We can’t wait to see what our students will create in this new space. Learn more about the future of project-based innovative learning at Athenian.

BlendEd Seismic Studies Class Shakes Up Learning

by Katie Furlong ’18

This fall, I took a class called Seismic Studies & Earthquake Engineering. The class was a BlendEd class, so it was composed of students from Athenian, Marin Academy, Lick-Wilmerding, Urban, and College Prep. The main benefits of BlendEd classes are that they allow students to work independently and perfect time management skills, as well as meet and work with students and teachers from other Bay Area independent schools. The majority of the class was based online, but there were also a few dates where we met in person, either to have an in-class lesson or to participate in a discussion with engineers who work to design earthquake-proof structures.

Our final project for the class was to build a three-foot tower out of just balsa wood and glue that we would test on the shake table at UC Berkeley. This project was intended to help wrap up everything we had learned about the structural integrity required of buildings needed to survive an earthquake.

We first tested our towers with two earthquakes that are programmed into the shake table: the 1995 Kobe earthquake (Magnitude 6.9) and the 1994 Northridge earthquake (Magnitude 6.7). My tower survived the replications of both the Kobe earthquake and the Northridge earthquake.

After, we were able to design our own earthquakes to test our buildings by changing the amplitude and frequency of the seismic waves. While I was subjecting my building to an earthquake of my own design, I saw weeks of hard work shatter right in front of my eyes. Despite the demise of my tower, I thought this project was a great way to put into action everything we had learned in the class and it made it more memorable than just taking a test to finish off a semester of hard work. I can certainly say that it was one of the best demonstrations of Athenian’s commitment to hands-on and experiential education that I’ve experienced throughout my four years here.

Students Redesigning Spinal Surgery

Reprinted from the Athenian Magazine 2017


When Sofia Kavanaugh ‘17 started Applied Science at the beginning of her senior year, she thought she would learn how to use a saw and wasn’t really sure what else. Little did she know that she would embark on a project that could change the way surgeons treat scoliosis.

Applied Science is an untraditional course, Sofia explains. “Eugene [Mizusawa] sets us loose and tells us to think of something we’re interested in, not something that’s going to bore us a couple months from now.” Some of Sofia’s classmates set to work on a range of projects. William Yao ‘17 wanted to build a robot that could carry heavy camera equipment on movie sets. Emma Cottrill ‘17 used a personal experience with a concussion to fuel her search for an on-the-field concussion detection device. Rock Williams ‘17 and Ryan Keller ‘17 wanted to build a motor that mimicked the movement of a joint socket, rolling around rather than backward and forward or side to side. But Sofia wasn’t sure what she wanted to do.

Eugene prompted her to think about what she was passionate about. “He asked what my interests were and I told him I was interested in medicine and anatomy,” Sofia remembers. Eugene thought of a 9th grader on the robotics team who he knew had scoliosis and had undergone an experimental surgery. In short, Grace True ’20 had a spinal surgery that in time overcorrected her scoliosis, forming a curve in the opposite direction and necessitating a second surgery. Surgery is always risky, so Grace, Sofia, and fellow Applied Science classmate Peni Magari ’17 set about creating a mathematical and computerized 3-D model that could help surgeons perform the surgery with more precision necessitating fewer surgeries.

An x-ray of Grace’s spine

Unlike older scoliosis surgeries that fuse the spine together restricting movement, Vertical Body Tethering (VBT) works to correct spinal curvature by screwing a tether into the spine of a still-growing scoliosis patient. As the patient grows, the tether pulls the spine back while still allowing for a full range of motion. The problem is that there is no way to test how tight to screw in the tether. In Grace’s case, she grew more than was expected in a short amount of time, and the tether pulled her spine past vertical into a curve opposite of the one she started with. While the first surgery went well, after a year, Grace needed a second surgery to alter the tightness of the tether to accommodate her rapid growth.

Sofia and the team were left with the question: How can we measure the tension in the tether and figure out a mathematical and computerized model of predicting how tight the tether will pull and how much the spine will correct? They set about creating a model that surgeons could use to enter the patient’s height, weight, predicted growth, and other measurements and predict using a 3-D model what tether pressure would have the best outcome.

3D printed spine

After extensive research and pulling into the project a 9th grader with coding expertise, Kate Oxley  ’20, they used Grace’s x-rays and cat scans to create a digital 3-D model of Grace’s spine. They were able to print the model using 3-D printers so they could feel and see for themselves what they had been studying. Using the Cobb Method, they set about measuring the degree of spinal curve. Measuring the Cobb angle at various stages of growth is the baseline data needed for making predictions.

A highlight of the project, the team spoke with Grace’s surgeon to get more information on the flaws in the surgery and what problems he anticipated with the model.  Sofia says, “Up until we met with the surgeon, it had been all talk. What if we did this? What if we did that? The surgeon showed us what we needed to work on. He saw the project for what it was and really believed in it. It was definitely a cool moment.”

Sofia notes how important and also how unusual this class is, even at Athenian. The students are given freedom to explore a passion and see where it takes them. “In other classes, you’re more dependent on the teacher, but in this class, it’s all you doing it. Athenian is one of the only places that would allow that kind of freedom.” A class without strict attendance rules and no specific assignments may not sound like a class at all to some people. Yet the outcomes of this course make its value self-evident. Sofia shares the impact the class had on her, “I’ve always been a motivated person, but this class tested me: if someone isn’t watching, will you still put in the work? It taught us how to be self-motivated and learn about the things we really wanted to. The kind of perspective the class gave me I’ll definitely carry with me through college.”

Sofia further raves, “This class and these types of classes are really important. Getting to learn in a new way that is purely directed by you is incredibly beneficial. It gave us more confidence as there’s no one telling us this is the exact procedure you have to follow. Everything was driven and created by us. Since we are younger and we still have a lot of school left, we often get told we don’t know or can’t do certain things. This class was the complete opposite of that. A high schooler can come up with a super complex project and have it be used by the world.

The team made a lot of progress during the year but there is still more to do. Sofia isn’t exactly sure where it will go from here, but she hopes Grace and Kate will keep working on the project the next couple of years and take Applied Science as seniors. She also plans to stay involved in whatever way she can as she moves on to college.

Sofia started at University of California Los Angeles in fall 2017; while her major is undeclared, she plans to be in the pre-med track. Asked what she wants to do after school, she responded with a wise smile, “Right now, I want to be a vet. But there’s still a small chance that I might become a physician given that I would probably be the 5th generation. It’s kind of in my blood.”