There’s never a dull moment with Chip Fenenga, a 58-year-old science teacher at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School (SYVUHS).
His love of technology, geography, sports and Valley history is evident the moment guests enter his large classroom. Computers abound, and every inch of wall space is covered with poster-sized placards of students’ projects, interspersed with colorful photos of the numerous championship volleyball teams he has coached over nearly three decades.
Sitting in a small chair, Fenenga shifts his weight from side to side, talking about aerial drones, software programs, GPS mapping, and Environmental and Spatial Technologies (EAST), which uses lasers to determine the distance between solid objects. A light detection and ranging (LIDAR) scanner sends out light pulses, and then measures the distances between targeted objects based on the time it takes those pulses to return.
“The longer it takes to return, the farther [the object] is,” explained Fenenga, who has taught at SYVUHS since 1990.
The $60,000 LIDAR scanner — which came from a Career Technical Education (CTE) grant — is crucial to surveying projects initiated under EAST, which the high school helped pioneer more than a decade ago.
On Fenenga’s classroom walls, enlarged certificates of achievement share space with historic photos of Mission Santa Ines, where students helped discover aqueducts and a dam.
Fenenga sent a group of students on a mission to discover the dam he suspected fed water to the grist mill nearly 200 years ago. He is quick to point out three of the students went on to achieve successful careers using the curriculum they learned in his classroom.
“After they discovered the dam, it was imaged,” he said, explaining that computer-imaging technology was used to calculate the exact height of the water levels that existed at Mission Santa Inez in the 1800s.
“Every year, more kids want to do this because of EAST and its popularity,” he said, noting that the project helped put SYVUHS on the map.
“The class would not exist without the vision and cooperation of the administration, staff and other teachers here at the school,” he added.
Giving credit where it’s due
About 15 years ago, Fenenga helped gain attention for the high school when it was awarded a $10,000 grant to implement EAST projects in the classroom, followed by a second, $120,000 grant in 2002. That was during “prerecession” days, Fenenga said, when California had money to fund advanced-education programs.
“They were looking for ways to effectively bring technology into the classroom,” he said. “This was pre-iPhone, before Google maps, and [education administrators] were looking at technology that works. I was a physics and biology teacher and we had no computers on this campus at the time. I wrote the [initial] grant to get computers in the classroom — mostly for the physics students.”
Today, EAST is used for everything from surveying construction sites to canvassing crime scenes for ballistics analysis. It’s also used extensively in the film industry, Fenenga said, describing how LIDAR can recreate an area of New York City using high-end computers to render cityscapes.
Thanks to the grants, SYVUHS students have been on the cutting-edge of EAST technology, learning how to use the expensive equipment, and understanding why it’s changing the world.
“Yellowstone had a swarm of earthquakes this year and it raised the earth there three inches,” Fenenga said. “It’s not some dude with a ruler measuring that. It’s a LIDAR scanner that measured Yellowstone to analyze earthquakes.”
Fenenga moves quickly from one subject to the next, eager to highlight each student success story he has witnessed during 34 years of teaching.
“I keep track of the kids here, and what they’re doing after they graduate.”
Fenenga points out that most of the students in his classes are not in advanced science programs.
“Most of what we do is try to get the kids to move from being consumers of technology to creators of technology. If you’re just a consumer of technology you’re held hostage to what’s being shown to you. When you’re a creator of technology, you have power.”
Fenenga points to law enforcement for a real-world example. Police use LIDAR scanners to analyze roadways that are prone to automobile accidents, such as Highway 154 at San Marcos Pass. Fenenga’s class mapped accident locations to create a GIS map that allowed data to be visualized, which led to safety improvements.
“Anytime an adult can come in and interact with the student, other than the teacher, you change the audience. They see that these are police officers and one day, one of them may want to become a police officer, so [police] have a positive impact on them.”
Teaching technology to solve problems
“Kids become very comfortable with technology,” Fenenga said. “They approach it as a problem-solving tool because most technology is designed to make things easier.”
Asked about his ability to solve life’s misfortunes, Fenenga paused. Then he reflected on the 10 months of chemotherapy treatments he received at Stanford Hospital after he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006.
“I wouldn’t be here, except for my wife,” he said. “The caregivers are really underrated — the nurses, the doctors, the wives and husbands. They deserve credit.”
Surely the championship volleyball coach deserves some credit for possessing the will power to kill the cancer?
“It’s not about killing bad cells,” he replied. “It’s about doing the next thing, the next treatment, and the next, and then the next. I can’t say I enjoyed the challenge of cancer, but it’s made me appreciate things a lot more. When it happened, I was 47 years old — two kids. I thought, ‘I’m never even gonna see them graduate from high school.’”
Through perseverance, caregivers and medical treatments, Fenenga has been cancer-free for several years and has lived to see his children not only graduate from high school, but attend college and enter the professional working world.
“There is a sign at the cancer center that says ‘Hope Starts Here’ and I really believe that. Kids are the same way. They love to believe that it can be done — that it’s possible. When kids are 16 or 17, computers hook them with a little bit of fun and a little bit of magic.”
Reflecting on the school’s technology grants, Fenenga said they still have a major impact on the school’s science program.
“EAST changed the culture of learning, especially among girls,” he said. “We may have more females [today] than guys taking the class. Once they see the relevance of the technology, they embrace it. EAST is really a bridge to a kid’s future.
“You try to show them the future,” he continued. “I’m totally proud of the students. It’s kind of like coaching. At some point, you have to let go and allow them to perform.”
Like his approach to fighting cancer, he still sees teaching as a challenge.
“Education is a struggle,” said Fenenga. “We don’t just entertain [students]. Education is achieved. It isn’t just received.”