Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Adam Davidson gives students dose of real-world fun

CorrespondentDecember 21, 2013 

  • Adam Davidson

    Born: Aug. 19, 1980

    Residence: Raleigh

    Career: Engineering teacher, Riverside High School

    Education: B.S., technology education, N.C. State University

    Family: Wife, Erin

    Hobbies: Woodworking, gaming, art

    Fun fact: Davidson loves cats and uses his woodworking hobby to their benefit, making cat trees and condos that they play on while indoors. He says he donates them to veterinarians, cat clinics and individuals who might not otherwise buy a pricey structure. He offers extra credit to students who make one.

— Adam Davidson is getting some unusual holiday cards in his email in-box these days: a Rudolph reindeer dropping into a snowy scene to send wishes; dancing characters who cross deserts and oceans to jarring electric Christmas music.

They aren’t quite Hallmark material, but they are made by Riverside High School students using newly learned computer coding skills. So for Davidson, a teacher in the school’s engineering program, they indeed bring good cheer.

Davidson, 33, was among the teachers and volunteers who helped 15 million students nationwide learn about computer coding earlier this month during the “Hour of Code” event sponsored by Code.org, a nonprofit whose donors include Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

He and his colleagues extended the lesson with a contest for the best card, due Christmas Eve, made using a simple coding program called Scratch.

The Dec. 13 event sought to reveal – and start to remedy – the dearth of programming classes in U.S. schools compared to many other counties.

Like many who participated, Davidson didn’t need convincing. The event was just one of many ways that he works to engage his students in real-world technologies that aren’t seen in most high schools.

He recently capped off a fundraiser to buy a 3D printer for his classroom, and he started an after-school robotics team. He also works with Duke University’s Talent Identification Program for middle school students.

His classroom hums with students working on 3D puzzles and models of buildings. Regular field trips to an airport help his aeronautical engineering students learn about the forces of flight.

Davidson is always eager to find additional ways to engage students, says Tim Velegol, head of Riverside’s engineering program.

“He brings a lot of energy to the program,” says Velegol. “He’s always looking for ways to get kids interested and teach them something that will stick with them.”

Davidson knows not all of his students will be engineers; he changed his own major from engineering as a college student. But he strives to spark their interest in technology and teach them skills that will be useful in any career.

“When they leave this class, if they know how to solve complex problems, that’s what I want to see,” he says.

Always a teacher

Davidson was born in Denver and spent his youth moving frequently as his parents, both computer programmers, followed their work.

Davidson says he was picked on at his schools for various reasons: being the new kid, orthodontic headgear, and later, a penchant for alternative music and black clothes.

He gives many of his own teachers during his early school years in Texas and Oklahoma pretty lousy reviews, but says he was lucky to have great high school teachers in Spartanburg, S.C.

By then he had figured out that math and science were his best subjects, and he decided to study engineering at N.C. State University. At the time his parents also lived in North Carolina, in rural Polk County. They now live on a ranch outside of Dublin, Texas, where they breed dogs.

He chose to study mechanical and aerospace engineering, with hopes of someday going into space. When he discovered that medical issues would prevent that from happening, he looked for a new path.

He realized he had had a knack for teaching since he was a child. He recalls that when he was 8, he taught his nephew every bone in the human body. Then he had the 5-year-old recite them to his parents.

“That was maybe an identifier that I should be teaching,” he says.

He got a degree in technology education, and started out teaching technology classes at a magnet middle school in High Point. But he says he most enjoys working with high school students.

Davidson says he and his wife don’t plan to have children, but he wants to make his mark on the next generation.

“I like the idea that I can have an impact on them now, because when I get older they’re going to be running things,” he says. “It’s important to me that the leaders of America have a strong background and support, and that starts with your teachers.”

His own teaching style is a mix of ease and organization. Class plans are laid out in calendars, and in-class work runs on timers, all projected on the front board.

He puts the students in teams and empowers each team leader with handling decisions. As the semester wears on, he minimizes his own role. As the end of the semester in January nears, he expects his students to be working fairly independently.

“I tell them this time of year that my hands are getting sweaty,” he says. “I’m tired of holding your hand.”

Experience in 3D

The engineering program at Riverside, now a decade old, was the first such program in Durham public schools. It occupies the space that once housed the vocational courses known collectively as shop classes.

The heavy equipment from those classes was long ago replaced with computers as students started to learn computer drafting and other high-tech skills.

Students from outside Riverside’s district can come there to participate in the STEM pathway (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which includes four courses in engineering. Davidson teaches introductory courses in engineering design as well as specialized courses in aeronautical engineering, civil engineering and architecture.

The 3D printer will be crucial to Davidson’s engineering design courses, in which students design cube-shaped 3D puzzles using computer design software. They already can model how the puzzle will come together and break apart, and can even post videos about how to solve the puzzle on the Internet, including a scannable code with each one.

But when it comes time to make them, they have to glue wood blocks together. The printer will allow them to print their precise plans in 3D form, adding precision and the “wow” factor that can be so crucial in teaching.

Davidson plants to conduct a school competition to assemble the puzzles as a fundraiser. His desk is littered with spare puzzle parts, shapes made of square blocks colored red, yellow, blue and green.

High shelves on every wall hold models of bridges and buildings from his architecture and civil engineering classes.

His classes are a mixture of high-tech skills and the softer skills of working through problems, individually and as a team. During a recent class, Davidson gave his students a quiz and explained their only constraint – time.

Students soon asked whether they could complete their quiz in groups or use the computer, and he said yes. The quiz was simple, he explained: The idea was for them to find the easiest way to do it.

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