Magnet In the Past

By Shruti Chauhan '21 and Vivian Li '21 for Silver Quest (http://tinyurl.com/silverquest2020)

PUSHING ACADEMIC LIMITS
Magnet computer science teacher Lola Piper believes that the first Magnet students were the “real risk takers” because the Magnet was an unknown. “Now, academic risk taking is not a strength. I mean, the most common question I get from kids is, you know, can’t I get another half a point here? So everybody’s very grade conscious,” she says. 
Piper defines risk takers as those who “just focus on what they’re interested in, obsessed and passionate about.” She prides the Magnet as a space where these students have always had the ability to thrive. “It’s really cool to watch them do it in an environment where it’s safe for them to do it, because in other locations [there may not be] a critical mass of people that understand what they’re pursuing,” she continues. 
Social studies teacher and Magnet alum Peter Cirincione (Class of '02) notes that the Magnet was integral to building his character, representing a stark shift from being the cream of the crop to being in the middle of the pack. “As a kid, I didn’t have a lot of modesty,” Cirincione says. “I shudder to think of how arrogant I would be had I not gone through Blair surrounded by people more capable than me.”
Chemistry—dubbed “Phamistry”— was a tough class for Cirincione. “I got a C in chemistry— never before, never since— but I later appreciated the way [Pham] asked us to think,” he says. 
Over the years, Magnet elective courses have generally remained consistent. Cirincione took Optics, Origins of Science, Quantum Mechanics, and Materials Science, while his friends took Thermodynamics and Cellular Physiology. However, the offerings change from year to year based on student interest. Magnet teacher John Kaluta recalls that Plate Tectonics was offered until recently, and Optics is taught on and off. He credits the success of these focused classes to fellow Magnet teachers. “They have this broad expertise, and so they can teach the specialty classes. You know, Dr. Davis is an engineer, he’s a legit licensed engineer,” he says. Without teacher experience, Kaluta notes, the Magnet would not be able to offer these very technical classes.

PRE-INTERNET COMPUTER SCIENCE
“You had a floppy disk for every application and a student had a floppy disk to save. When I tried collecting floppies from kids, that was a lot. Floppies are a pain,” Piper says.  Floppies used to be the painful norm to turn in assignments, but have thankfully been replaced by the convenient hand-in folders.
Current Magnet students learn boolean algebra, digital circuitry, TI-programming, Stella and other basics as freshmen. Piper agrees that freshman computer science has always focused on the basics of technology students needed to know.  “We always thought of the freshman classes being like a tool course, learning what would help you in other classes and to make everything else easier,” she says. 
But the basics before the Internet were things that we now consider second nature — word processing and sending emails. “We didn’t know anything else [about the Internet at the time] so it made perfect sense to do things that way. We also had textbooks.” Piper adds. Luckily, the endless possibilities of the Internet have since replaced textbooks in the course.

MAGNET CULTURE
Despite the challenging coursework, Cirincione’s most memorable moments concerned his relationships with other students. Whether it was the newest couple or his own breakup, Cirincione kept close note in his journal. “I was convinced that social life was my paramount concern as a student,” Cirincione says. “I kept a journal and at least 90% of what I wrote about was social life— who was dating whom and why [wasn’t] so and so returning the affections that I had?”
He also believes that the program goes a long way in defining social circles, estimating that only 10 percent of Magnet students’ experiences weren’t defined by being in the Magnet. “I think I had about a dozen Blair alumni at my wedding and eight of them were in the Magnet,” Cirincione says. 
While the Magnet throws its curveballs, Cirincione notes that the Magnet creates a strong bond between students. “The Magnet brings people together and they have a common experience, which is really important because you have this thing you’ve all been through,” he says.

WORK HARD, PLAY HARD
Kaluta likes that Magnet students have the powerful ability to multitask. “One of the fun things is being able to crack a joke and then get back to work. Because if somebody cracks a joke in a regular classroom, essentially, it gets really hard to get everybody back on task,” he says.
When asked about social events, Piper recalls the end of the year picnic, the Smith Center trip and the freshman field trip to Six Flags. All of these are no longer core Magnet experiences due to a variety of circumstances. 
The end of the year picnic always took place on the last day of finals, since students could leave after finals but Magnet students were always left waiting for buses. It was an annual fun-filled afternoon with a series of organized activities since the start of the Magnet. “But since there’s no final exams, there’s no time to have a picnic, because you can’t take kids out of school for something like that,” Piper says. 
The Smith Center was a trip similar to the sixth grade Outdoor Ed experience. It was an opportunity for freshmen to get to know peers and the Magnet teachers before school started. The goal of the confidence courses was to create new friendships. However, many students had already done the activities in sixth grade and revealed the secrets, taking the challenge factor out of the experience. Piper concluded that the trips eventually stopped because teachers found they were more detrimental than beneficial. If kids knew someone in their group, they were so excited they didn't take the time to get to know the rest of the people in the group. 
The ninth grade trip to Six Flags was a fun experience centered around the physics of roller coasters. However, physics is taught in the first semester and the field trip was best to do in spring. “It became kind of chaotic and we did not find that it was necessarily a good use of time at the end,” Piper says.
On the other hand, two activities that have become staples of the Magnet program over the years are Physics of Music and Magnet Arts Night. “Mr. Donaldson always did Physics of Music in his classes, and that became kind of an annual thing,” Piper recalls. The first MAN was held in the activity hall of a church, but has since been held at Blair. “It was definitely overcrowded. We had way too many people there,” Piper adds.