Conventional thought on education would suggest that the flow of inspiration travels from the teacher to the students, but in Ty Kastendiek’s unconventional teaching career, the flow is more circular.
Ty Kastendiek (’86, MA ’94) has spent his entire 17-year educational career teaching math and science in the Los Angles juvenile corrections system, with 9 of those years spent at Camp David Gonzales. Camp Gonzales is a Los Angeles County probation camp for 16-to-18-year-olds who have been convicted of a felony (although most of them nonviolent). What makes Kastendiek’s circumstances so unique is the fact that his students serve on average, six to nine months in the camp. As soon as he begins to build a relationship, they move on.
So when Kastendiek came across the Metropolitan Water District’s annual Solar Cup race— a solar-powered competition where high school students design, build, equip, and race solar-powered boats—conventional thought would have led him to pass on this opportunity.
The Solar Cup is a contest of design, speed, and endurance that allows the participants to use an alternative power source in a real-world application. Being a seasoned sailor, Kastendiek saw this as a great opportunity to engage his students in practical applications of classroom theories. Having never worked with solar power, this was going to be a learning experience for him as well.
For a school to enter the race, it must be sponsored by a local water district. Camp Gonzales happens to be located near the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, so Kastendiek decided to give a shot in the dark and called them.
“It was a bit serendipitous,” said Kastendiek. “I asked them if they would have any problems sponsoring a probation camp and they informed me that they had been outreaching to schools for the last few years to get involved, but were unsuccessful. They were excited that I called and jumped on the opportunity.”
Las Virgenes donated $4,000 (the maximum budget for an entering school). These funds were spent buying materials such as the motor, batteries, solar panels, frames and other miscellaneous expenses. The $4,000 doesn’t go a long way, so on top of everything else; the students had to learn budgeting and money management.
Kastendiek started the project with 10 students, but because of the nature of the school, students arrive and depart at different times. Two months into the program, he was moving forward with seven students to build the hull. Since the team members constantly changed, Kastendiek was faced with the challenge of bringing students up to speed and reteaching the mechanics of buoyancy and solar technology.
Because Camp Gonzales students are subject to strict schedules, they only had after-school and weekends to build their boat. This drove them to work even harder at reaching their goal. The team was so excited about the project that word of the competition spread throughout the camp. At one point, Kastendiek had over 20 volunteers to simply sand the boat. Everyone wanted to participate in any way they could. It didn’t matter how important their role was, they simply wanted to be a part of the final product and experience.
The Camp Gonzales team was going up against schools whose students had far more experience and much more sophisticated tools to work with. In fact, one school in particular dedicated a yearlong honors class to this endeavor. Ironically, Kastendiek’s students were not intimidated, but motivated by this fact. They researched designs from previous Solar Cup competitions and improved upon them.
“We want to create our own unique design,” said Camp Gonzales teammate Marco. “We liked the idea of using an outbound design. Because our advisor, Mr. Ty had been raised around boats and is familiar with outboard designs, we decided to go with that particular design.”
As different milestones were accomplished, other obstacles presented themselves. In order to receive day-leaves for prerequisites set by the Solar Cup committee, such as boat water tests and swimming tests, they had to petition their sentencing judges. Through this, they gained experience dealing with the bureaucracy of the penal system. Every time they ran up against a roadblock, it somehow was resolved; often at the last minute.
Kastendiek was able to incorporate many academic lessons into this project that cater to learning styles which are often ignored in the conventional textbook styled classroom settings. Through the budget, they learned arithmetic. Through the day-leave petitions, they learned reading comprehension. Through boat building, they learned geometry and algebra. Through the work journal, they learned grammar and clarity. They also learned non-tangible lessons such as time management, delegation skills, teamwork, and problem solving.
To Kastendiek, the joy of this project was watching the kids learn with their hands. “Traditional education inundates you with the book, then you reinforce with the lab,” said Kastendiek. “The way I approached the Solar Cup was by going to the lab first; then when we got stuck, we would go back to the book to find a way through.”
A month before the competition, none of the original team members were still involved. They often joked that the boat driver on the day of the competition may not have been arrested yet.
By the day of the competition, only three students had met all the requirements needed to participate and none of them had ever steered a boat. Going into the last leg of the competition, the boat stopped working. After 15 minutes, they realized that the controller had malfunctioned. “In the classroom, it took us around 45 minutes to switch out a controller,” said Kastendiek. “On the lake, with the adrenaline running, the kids switched out the controller in 15 minutes.”
Even with all the obstacles, Camp Gonzales placed second in the rookie division and Kastendiek believes that if the controller had not failed, they would have won. To Kastendiek, the redeeming moment came when he was standing on the dock, stressed out, wanting to help fix the controller. One student looked back at him. “Relax Mr. Ty,” Marco calmly said. “We got this!” That growth in confidence was worth the effort.
“Because of what they learned during this competition, many of these students could pursue professions as electricians or mechanics, or in boating, carpentry, or even in the emerging fields of solar technology,” says Kastendiek. “Confidence can’t be taught from a book; and what we all gained from this experience will stay with us for the rest of our lives.”