Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Colin Lang, aerospace studies teacher at Alamo Heights High School at TedXSanAntonio.

Colin Lang, aerospace studies teacher at Alamo Heights High School at TEDxSanAntonio.

A theme at TEDxSanAntonio this year swirled around disrupting the education system to train kids for jobs in the information age.

The Internet has had a profound effect on jobs and the way students learn, said Colin Lang, aerospace studies teacher at Alamo Heights High School. Today, the base of knowledge doubles every 13 months, and that means students will constantly have to retrain to keep up with existing technology to stay employed, he said.

“For teachers this means we’re being asked to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet,” Lang said. “Using technologies that haven’t been invented yet and trying to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet. All this while using an antiquated education system that was designed for the industrial revolution that was actually modeled after a country that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Lang was one of 16 speakers at the sixth TEDxSanAntonio event at Rackspace’s event center Saturday. More than 650 people attended the day-long program which featured a variety of speakers on topics including the future of architecture, the power of a mission, BiblioTech, the nation’s first all-digital public library, community building, makers movement, cybersecurity and saving sharks.

Lang spoke about the key to solving the nation’s problems is to create the next generation of innovators.

“This is what made us the greatest economy on the planet,” Lang said.

And then for some reason, the U.S. stopped doing it, Lang said. Fewer and fewer students went on to study science, technology and math, he said. Today, only 3 percent of graduating seniors nationwide attend engineering school, Lang said. That’s a 33 percent drop over the last decade, he said.

“Einstein once said we cannot solve our problems by using the same thinking we used to create them,” Lang said. “In other words, we cannot solve our educational problems simply by modifying the current system. We have to instead change our focus from a teacher centered environment to a student centered one. Most importantly, though, we have to teach our kids how to teach themselves.”

The focus needs to be on teaching kids to learn through project-based education, Lang said.

Lang teaches the Aerospace Studies Program at Alamo Heights High School, known as Systems Go. In the program, students design and build rockets and the projects involve just about every subject in education, Lang said.

“These kids are doing everything. They are doing math. They are doing science. They are doing professional writing,” Lang said. “They also have to do economics. Because they keep track of their own budget because they purchase all their own materials.”

The students fabricate over 90 percent of the rocket in Lang’s classroom, which is also a working machine shop. The program began nine years ago with 17 kids in the junior class, Lang said. That year, the students built a rocket cable of taking a one-pound payload to an altitude of one mile high. Since then, the program has grown to 150 students across all four grade levels.

“My juniors now build rockets capable of breaking the sound barrier,” Lang said. “My seniors, on the other hand, they research, design and fabricate a rocket capable of taking a 35-pound payload to an altitude of a 100,000 feet at speeds in excess of Mach 3, that’s three times the speed of sound.”

The rockets are so sophisticated that Lang and his students travel to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in the summertime and the military launches the rockets for them.

“You can’t do this in your backyard,” Lang said.

Lang brought two nose cones to the stage from rockets the students made. The student who built the nose cone that will be launched at White Sands this summer invested more than 600 hours of his own time to fabricate it by hand out of aluminum, fiber glass and carbon fiber, Lang said.

While only 3 percent of seniors nationwide go on to engineering schools, 90 percent of the students in the rocketry program at Alamo Heights go on to engineering school, Lang said. In fact, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University created a special scholarship for Systems Go students, he said.

During his talk, Lang recounted stories about two of his former students, Eric, who wanted to drop out of high school at 16 before he entered the rocketry program. He is now an engineer at NASA developing the rocket engines going on the Space Launch System, the largest rocket ever assembled. And Julia, who also hated math and science, graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in earth and space sciences. She has interned at NASA and she has built penetration rockets for NASA and now she’s working on her master’s degree on planetary space science. But her ultimate goal is to be the first female astronaut on Mars, Lang said.

Lang wore an “Occupy Mars” T-shirt in her honor.

“Programs like this are so successful because the students are so engaged,” Lang said. “They care so much about their projects that they literally invest hundreds of hours during the school year and much of their summer working in a hot machine shop, fabricating and assembling these rockets, getting them ready for White Sands.”

In the end, the product of the program is not the rockets, but the students, Lang said.

“For students like Eric and Julia and so many other kids, Systems Go Aerospace project-based learning has provided the launch pad to grow their confidence, to learn how to learn and to ignite the innovators of tomorrow,” Lang said.

TedXSanAntonio speakers, staff and volunteers at the end of the event.

TEDxSanAntonio speakers, staff and volunteers at the end of the event.