Editor's note: "Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. On Monday, Kelly spent some time in the Valley Christian School District.
Students at Valley Christian School are learning to control and manipulate a tiny virtual ghost.
The electron, the "orbiting" particle of every single atom, is the key to even the most mundane things in the universe: a functioning light switch, hair standing on end in a lightning storm, AM radios.
And it's the basis too of Wally Simmert's electronics class, where students first learn about the elusive particle that drives both the cosmos and an iPod.
"They learn that what we do in class, we can apply to the world around us," said Simmert, who is a retired electrician and is in charge of the only full-on electronics class in Missoula County.
Electronics is one practical application of physics. It also runs practically everything we use today. So Simmert was hired two years ago to teach it to Valley Christian students, from elemental theory to actual usage. Students do everything from learn the structure of an atom to build televisions and radios, testing their knowledge of physics, mathematics and engineering all the while.
Simmert introduces the class with a quick crash-course in theoretical physics.
"At first it was kind of boring, because you sit there and he talks about things you don't know about," said freshman David Calderon. "But after a while, you learn there are a million things that work together to make a circuit because everything you use, like TVs, involves electronics."
Simmert, who has a master's degree in elementary education and is a state-certified electronics instructor, taught electronics decades ago in the U.S. Navy, of which he is a veteran.
A longtime business owner in Missoula, he was looking to share his expertise when he got in a conversation with Valley Christian School Superintendent Chris Martineau.
"He said, ‘You know electronics?' " remembered Simmert. "So I said ‘Yeah.' And he said, ‘So how about teaching that?' "
Electronics is an elective at Valley Christian.
The physical sciences are fascinating, said senior Chris Manuel, but their practical application - as in electronics - is even more intriguing.
"We talked a little about the principles of electronics in our freshman course in physical science, but it didn't make a lot of sense to me," he said. "But it makes a lot more sense to me now. I've been actually understanding and applying things into circuitry like this."
Simmert said that he'd like to see more girls take his course, as it's been rare since electronics debuted at the school.
He also sees that his students learn practical skills that are immediately relevant to the job market.
"I ran a business here in town for 18 years," he said. "When a child comes out of this class, they will not be afraid of electronics. They gain self-confidence because they construct things and see results, and they see that the lessons they learned can be applied."
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at email@example.com.