Pre-engineering students Braden Cain, Jonathan Bae and Mario Hernandez race their rubber-band-powered cars. All three are juniors at Memorial High.
By AL CARTER
Pasadena ISD Communications
The dismissal bell never rings on David Scarcella's pre-engineering class at the Pasadena ISD's L.P. Card Career and Technical Center. His wife does.
On school days, they hang around by the dozens -- wide-eyed students immersed in an after-school maze of wood blocks, Popsicle sticks, rubber bands and soda bottles. Bells ring. Buses leave. And still they linger.
"I have to literally kick them out," Scarcella says. "They don't want to leave."
The lights go off when the phone rings.
"It's time for you to come home," Laurie Scarcella says on the other end. And so ends another 13-hour teaching day for husband David, a first-year faculty addition from Galena Park who has made L.P. Card's new pre-engineering course one of the district's hottest curriculum choices -- for students of all academic ranks .
Scarcella teaches students with real designs of attending schools like Princeton, Rice and Vanderbilt. He has other students with leaning handicaps who thrive in the Rube Goldberg environment of his classroom.
He has students who excel at building wind-up cars with CD disks for wheels. He has others who dream of designing spacecraft for travel to Mars.
"I get excited about giving a kid a pile of stuff and saying, 'Do this!'" Scarcella says. "And then watching him while he does it."
Watching Scarcella build a pre-engineering program from scratch has district administrators excited.
"We were worried at first that we might not have enough kids in the program," says Sarah Wrobleski, director of the L.P. Card Center. "But David has made it contagious. Most afternoons, even on weekends, he's got a roomful of kids, all working on projects."
Scarcella teaches students from all five district high schools in a portable building in the back of the L.P. Card. Hired away from the Galena Park ISD over the summer, he inherited the last vacant classroom.
Scarcella says he hopes to see that change dramatically in the next few years.
A major part of the Pasadena ISD bond proposal now on early-voting ballots calls for the construction of a Career Tech High School, a full-size campus that would expand the district's technology curriculum and combine it with core courses. Ask Scarcella about the impact of bond passage and his eyes turn as saucer-round as those of his students.
"I have big thoughts," he says.
"I'd be excited just for the fact that we'll be able to show core teachers just what we're about," he says. "Plus, we'll be able to get those core teachers involved in what we're doing -- all in one location. It would be huge."
Scarcella has a ready example to offer -- catapults.
As any history teacher will attest, the Roman and Greeks built them. Soon, so will Scarcella's pre-engineering students. The plan is to start small -- small enough to fling frozen Tater Tots across the room -- and then upgrade to where small vegetables can be hurled hundreds of feet.
Suggest watermelons and watch Scarcella smile . His enthusiasm for the project is almost kid-like.
"We are going to build catapults," he says. "We are going to launch some food!"
"The first week we started building rubber-band cars and that was fun," says Austin Gonzalez, a junior from Memorial High. "Now we're designing things on the computer and that's really cool."
Earlier this month, Scarcella launched the district's first foray into robotics competition. Although he doesn't teach a robotics class -- the only one offered is at Sam Rayburn High -- Scarcella helped organize three teams of students from four district high schools.
Two weeks ago, one of Scarcella's teams won a robotics competition in Galveston and, with the victory, a berth in world competition next April in Anaheim, Calif. The connection between pre-engineering and robotics is simple, Scarcella says.
"We want to get engineering students hooked -- and robotics is one way to do it," he says. "It teaches you the value of working together as a team, which is an important part of being an engineer."
Which happens to be Scarcella's project as an educator.
"The need for engineers is huge right now," he says. "So many engineers are retiring. We're just going to have to create some more."
Scarcella's background isn't exactly rooted in the engineering field. Before going into teaching, he worked five years as a police dispatcher. But the seeds sown by his high-school training in industrial arts -- and the influence of his career-educator parents -- blossomed into what has been a rewarding reign in the classroom.
His father, David Scarcella Sr., was a long-time choir director at Pasadena High. His mother, Michelle, taught kindergarten at Bailey Elementary for more than 20 years. Wife Laurie teaches autistic students at Bailey.
Son Cody, although only 12, is an advanced robotics student at Deer Park Junior High -- so advanced that he served as a coach for his dad's Pasadena ISD robotics teams.
Scarcella taught technology courses in Friendswood before moving over to Galena Park, where he headed up "Project Lead the Way." His success with that program caught the attention of Wrobleski, who was head of technical education for Galena Park schools at the time.
Last summer, as the Pasadena ISD was making inroads into enhancing science- and math-based programs, Wrobleski lured Scarcella to Pasadena to start a pre-engineering course -- a "spin-off," as she calls it, of the district's robotics program.
For his students' first assignment -- to design and construct rubber-band cars -- Scarcella set a firm deadline for competition entries. The day before the contest, 16 groups of students showed up after school to apply finishing touches.
"Two of the cars went farther than 50 feet," Scarcella says. "And one of them didn't even have wheels. It used skids."
Scarcella says he was pleased to discover that one student showed his car to his physics teacher, who promptly turned the idea into a lesson in mechanics for other physics students.
Based upon knowledge gained in his physics class, the student redesigned his car and doubled its previous distance capacity.
Those are the kinds of cooperative advantages, Scarcella says, that would become commonplace in a Career Tech High School format.
"We've done more in six weeks here than we did in 10 years at Galena Park," he says. "The reason is the amount of technical support we're getting from Sarah and from Troy [McCarley, the Pasadena ISD's Associate Superintendent for Campus Development.]"
But Scarcella says he's eager to take the program several steps forward, and he intends to start next year. He plans to teach a robotics class and also an advanced pre-engineering course for the benefit of current students who want to stay in the program.
"We'll be designing, testing and presenting for real engineers," he says. "We want to offer concepts that will lead to advanced studies in everything from architecture to aerospace to robotics."
Scarcella coaches two of his robotics team members -- Memorial seniors Jacob Perez and Hammad Lodhi -- on how to put a block-toting robot through its paces.
Scarcella helps Mario Hernandez assemble the "drive train" on his rubber-band car.
On to the next project: Scarcella goes over a list of items to be brought from home for the construction of a Tater Tot-tossing catapult.