Academy Chronicle

Meet the Teachers: Mr. Michael Liva

Nicholas Cho

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Mr. Liva spoke to the Academy Chronicle about many aspects of his life including his childhood pranks, work at the Picatinny Arsenal, and philosophies about technical education.

Mr. Liva spoke to the Academy Chronicle about many aspects of his life including his childhood pranks, work at the Picatinny Arsenal, and philosophies about technical education.

Mr. Liva has been teaching physics at BCA since 1999.  During his time at BCA he has organized many of the school’s engineering programs such as Battle Bots; he has also been involved in the recent opening of the school’s Makerspace, an area that provides students the opportunity to use innovative technologies such as 3D printers and laser cutters.  Recently the Academy Chronicle spoke with Mr. Liva about his past work in industry, his present role as a teacher, and his future vision for BCA.

ACADEMY CHRONICLE: Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Totowa; it’s outside of Paterson.  I guess I was in 3rd grade when I moved there.

So you have lived in New Jersey for most of your life?

Yeah, before that I lived in Lyndhurst, so I didn’t go too far.

I remember last year in physics class you would always talk about some of your childhood stories.  Can you share with us one of your funniest childhood memories?

I guess during the late ’60s early ’70s there were a lot of UFO scares, so my friends and I decided that we would buy a bunch of those helium balloons – I think we took a couple of pie plates and put candles in them and a kite string and, you know, we’d let it up and down.

Cops came and everything, but they had a sense of humor.  They made us take it down, but we really didn’t get into any big trouble.

It seems like you got the buzz going about the UFO’s.

Yes, there were a bunch of people in the neighborhood around us going, “What?”  So it turned kind of into a neighborhood thing.

Did you have any jobs while you were in high school or college?

Yeah, a bunch of things.  I was a french fry man for a while.  I worked as a janitor for a couple of summers.  One summer in college I had a friend who was going to school in Kansas City, Missouri, so he was going to get me a job – this was the ’70s so this is like $10 an hour loading trucks and I was very excited.  It turned into $2.10 an hour and working in a candy factory: so I did that for a summer – things like that.

Did you want to do physics by that time or did you decide that later on?

I switched to physics, I guess, freshman year in college.  I went to Stevens [Institute of Technology], and I initially wanted to be a math major.  Math seemed kind of dry once I got there, and physics seemed more interesting.

And after Stevens Institute of Technology where did you go for your Master’s Degree?

Oh, Penn State.  I got my Master’s Degree in ’76.

What did you do after you graduated from Penn State?  You didn’t go into education immediately, right?

I went into industry, but things were kind of tight in the economy so my first job out of graduate school I was making chlorine tablets for swimming pools.  I ran a tablet press – a factory job.

And then after that didn’t you work in an armory or something like that?

Yeah, eventually the place that made the chlorine tablets also had a scientific division, and they were kind of behind the times and they hadn’t upgraded their product line so I basically created my own job and moved into that.  They made a bunch of fluids, for example, that were used for microscopic analysis of particles so they had very precise optical properties, so I revamped that. But I had worked for a company that had made optical fiber, and I worked at Picatinny Arsenal for a – this is like an onsite contractor.  I didn’t work for the Army; I worked for this company, but I worked in the Army’s facilities.

So the Army subcontracts their work?

Right, so instead of the Army hiring an employee, they hired this company to provide people.  It’s a fairly common thing.

Did you work at the fluids company and the Picatinny Arsenal for most of your career?

There were a bunch of others, but those were kind of the more interesting ones.

I also heard from someone that you’re an inventor as well?

You probably heard that I have a bunch of patents. So as part of these jobs, for example, you sign away your rights and the company will patent certain things.  Like when I worked at [Picatinny] Arsenal, that company and the Army put in some patents for these ignition systems that I worked on.  They were able to ignite 120mm tank rounds with a laser pulse delivered through optical fiber.

Oh wow.

Yeah, there were some cool tests.

Was that during the beginnings of fiber optics?

That was fairly early on – I mean the communication aspects were moving along at pretty high speeds.  This was more in its infancy, but there is a whole class of explosively actuated devices or pyrotechnically actuated devices that use optical fiber now.  I think when the [space] shuttle was running – I think the main tank was separated with a laser pulse to pyrotechnics.  This lessened electrical noise to worry about.

It’s incredible to see all of these new physics applications and discoveries.  Speaking of which, I remember when scientists thought that they had found “faster than light” particles, you told my class to be a little hesitant about the findings – and it turned out that you were right.  What do you think about the discovery by Harvard researchers about gravitational waves?

Well that’s pretty encouraging.  They’ve been theorizing that for a long time, like a couple of decades I believe, so I think their hope is that they’ve confirmed those theories.  They’re not – I don’t think that they are completely there yet – right?

Right, I don’t think they are fully confirmed.

They would like to have six sigma, six standard deviations, of confidence.  I think they’re at five with that.

So you’re pretty hopeful that this finding is substantial?

Yeah, it’ll confirm the theory and then that will lead to other discoveries.  It is a fundamental property of the early universe.

How did you end up coming to BCA?

Interesting story – I had been working for a client company.  That is, I had a job where I was doing business consulting for small manufacturers, and I ended up working for one of my client companies.  They were kind of hesitant in terms of how they wanted to grow, so I started looking for another job.

I actually got a job offer from a company that made these ring laser gyros.  I mean these were beautiful things – the size of a tennis ball, three laser interferometers – but they were used for intercontinental missiles.  So there’s no market for them anymore, so I didn’t think that they were going to survive.  And, the company that I worked at hired this woman who was an electronics teacher, and she said, “You ought to look into these Academies.  They’re hiring people from industry and have sort of a different model.”

So I had talked to Bergen [County Academies] obviously.  Sussex County was setting up one, so I talked to those people.  I talked to people in Essex [County]; they were thinking about it.  But at the time I interviewed with Dr. Galitskiy and Carol Lisa, who was the principal.  Carol Lisa especially fired me up about this so I was like, “I’ll take it!”

This is the only place that I have taught high school.  I was a part-time adjunct [professor] at Stevens [Institute of Technology] for a while, but that was not a full-time position.

Did you find teaching to be rewarding?  It’s definitely a different experience than working in industry, but did you like it more?

Yeah, my personality is such that I kind of enjoyed all of my jobs – not all aspects of all of my jobs – but yeah this is a great place to work.  There are a lot of cool things going on and, you know, motivated people.

When did you come to BCA?

I started August of ’99.

What were the AAST and AEDT curriculums like back then and how developed were the resources?

Well, the resources were obviously very different.  That was a while ago, but the Academies were well established.  I think AAST was the first academy, and I think they brought on AEDT.  But, the year I was hired there was a huge expansion.  I think I started with maybe 30 other faculty, it might be a little high, but a huge number of people.  So, Mr. Russo was hired.  There was a woman named Angelina Winborne who was also hired in Physics.  I think they were just starting up ATCS, ACAHA, and AVPA, so there were three more academies and they needed more teachers.  A lot of people were hired that year.

That must have been a cool time to join the school.

Yeah, it was kind of interesting.

What did you like more about BCA than the Essex and Sussex County schools that you looked at?

Well those places weren’t – first of all they weren’t as advanced.  Sussex [County Technical School] hadn’t even started yet, so that was intriguing because I could get in as being one of the developers of the program.

But I guess I liked the philosophy that Dr. Grieco had and certainly Carol Lisa was very inspiring, and Dr. Galitskiy was kind of an interesting character.  This seemed like home to me.

So what did you think Dr. Grieco’s philosophy was?  What was your first impression of it?

He seemed very focused on student performance.  He almost played down a lot of the administrative aspects of it, and he was very much into “you should try things” rather than “ask for permission.”  You know, “find other members in the faculty who would help you do something and then just kind of start doing it and see where it takes you.”

He had the philosophy that if everybody was growing in the same direction, then progress will be made and good things will happen, and I agreed with that, you know, the philosophy that if you hire people who are motivated and intelligent and wanting to take risks, then you create this dynamic environment.

Yeah I definitely agree that when everyone is aligned with motivation, the results are inspiring.

Right, I think you see that now – we do things other high schools don’t do.  Students have opportunities that others don’t have.  Also faculty – I think if I was teaching somewhere else, I think I’d be much more regimented.

Right, even within this past year you’ve begun to teach electrical engineering, and the Makerspace area has opened up.

Right, these are all exciting things.

What exactly is a Makerspace area?

That is a good question because they’re not very defined.  Some of them are just a couple of people in a garage with some power tools.  Some of them are very interestingly organized so that it looks like a gymnasium where you buy a membership and you go to this building and there is stuff there – maybe it’s electronic equipment or mechanical equipment.

There’s a huge Makerspace in Dallas, I mean, they do everything.  They cut metal and wood. They make circuit boards.  They sew.  They cook.  They do biology experiments.

So, the idea is, and this seems to be catching on, to use facilities – libraries for example are big on this – that have been underutilized due to changes in technology and do things to help the community.  Some libraries are looking into setting up Makerspaces that maybe have a 3D printer or soldering equipment or sewing classes – whatever it is – but the idea is to get a group of people together who are of different levels of experience.  Some of them offer classes and sometimes have like an open lab section where people come in and use the equipment.

It’s in free form, and we’re working with the community college to have shared facilities, and we’ve offered classes like “Introductory to Arduino” and some open labs where you just come in and use the equipment that we have for projects.  Mr. DeFalco has offered classes on 3D printing, so now we have little Makerbots, and that’s going to be expanding.  We’ve been primarily doing it with adults, but obviously that’s going to start to expand to the students.

Do you think that would be in the coming months?

Probably, yeah.

What do you think the students will be able to use the Makerspace for?

Well that’s the interesting thing about it – whatever they want.  So like some Makerspaces have people who are starting businesses so they build prototypes or develop code, and they can find other people to help them.  Some people are just hobbyists who want something to do.  Some are students working on a science fair project or competition, so they’re looking to build something or get something working.

They’re kind of interesting.  I’ve been to the MakerBar in Hoboken – smaller operation, but yeah, there are some talented people there who are going to help you, and they offer classes.  There seems to be a movement to push education to get involved with this. The New Jersey Education Association put out a magazine last month or the month before where they talked about educational Makerspaces and about how you take the skills that the students are learning and translate it into just some real-world applications – solving a problem that involves a physical component that is supposed to work when you finish it.  It’s kind of exciting.

What are some resources in our Makerspace?

We have a water jet [cutting] machine, a laser cutter, 3D printers, some Makerbots, soldering equipment, oscilloscopes, Arduino boards with sensors and wires, and that’s just between Mr. DeFalco and me.

There are other resources at this school – you know there are faculty members who want to get involved.  Who knows where it’s going to go.  The community college has a lot of machine shops.  They do some work with Quadcopters, and they were actually here [last] Wednesday.  They flew a Quadcopter for about a minute over the football field, but it was autonomous during that time – interesting and scary.

I’m working on a project with the students now.  I have this dream about flying sensors over a fracking site and measuring benzene and carbon monoxide levels, things like that.

That’d be really cool.

Yeah, very cool.

What do you hope BCA students gain the most by attending this school?

I guess I hope they come away with a philosophy of thinking, you know, a way to approach the world.  You want to be skeptical.  You have these principles that you believe in, certainly as a scientist I believe that, and you have to apply them to your life around you.  I mean so many times I see people who are textbook-smart but believe in something that’s clearly wrong – they don’t apply the critical thinking that they should have to the world around them.  That’s really what I hope the students come away with.

I think that’s the beauty of a technical education: you learn something, and you can apply it immediately.

Yeah, I have so many arguments with people.  My current argument is look at the growth of gun violence and look at the growth of video games – they’re correlated.  Now I’m having a discussion about how correlation is not causality.  Cell phone usage has also increased; are cell phones causing the problem?   So it’s exactly what you said – you know you have this way of thinking and evaluating, and I think that’s very important.

Well, I think that is what is great about BCA.  I think that if you go to a different high school that realization of the importance of critical thinking just comes much later in life, and the time gap of the potential that you could have applied critical thinking in your life is too valuable to miss.

Right, I hope you feel like you’re a participant in what is going on around you because you’re critically evaluating it as opposed to learning about it from a distance, and that is what’s important.

And that’s another great thing about BCA.  There’s no dichotomy between the teachers and the students. 

Yeah I would agree.

What is your favorite aspect of BCA?

I think, even though I love you kids, working with the faculty.  This is an interesting collection of people, so it’s really quite enjoyable and rewarding to work with them.  They’re all crazy characters, but everybody is motivated and passionate about what they’re doing.  The administration is supportive as well.

You guys are here for four years and then we wave goodbye, but this whole family is kind of an interesting dynamic.  And, they challenge each other, and they learn from each other.  It’s a very nice environment.

It definitely is an eclectic group.  Do you get to see any faculty members outside of school?

Well certainly the Physics Department will get together outside of the school.  Some other people as well, but the Physics Department is like a family.  What is scarier than a Physics Department barbecue, you know?  I mean it’s exactly like what you would imagine it to be.  Somebody brings toys they found at the dollar store and we figure out how it flies.  But yeah, we get together outside with our families.

In the previous edition of “Meet the Teachers,” Dr. Crane said that the teasing between the Chemistry and Physics Departments is “good-natured teasing” and that it’s “nothing personal.”  Do you share the same sentiments?

Oh of course.  It’s a big part of the fun.  Chemists and physicists have been going at it since the prehistoric time.  “Heat – it’s energy!”  “Enthalpy – it’s a state variable!”

But – I think he alluded to this – from the students’ standpoint first of all they’re interested in it because they see this conflict going on.  I was doing this thing with Mrs. Sorrentino when I was teaching freshmen.  So the students were seeing the same physical phenomena from different viewpoints, so it’s kind of a sneaky way to teach both subjects.

Do you think it’s good that students get to see different perspectives of the sciences simultaneously?

Oh absolutely.

It provides a fuller understanding?

Sure, plus you have to decide what works for you.  Some people look at the world as a physicist.  Some people look at the world as a chemist.  Some people look at the world as a biologist.  We’re all looking at the same world, so it helps people channel into the area that matches their understanding and personality.  Everybody is good at something.

And I think channeling into what works for you gives you more potential into stronger understandings and discoveries. 

Right.  Years ago, I used to team-teach with Dr. Ostfeld, who was a chemist, and we used to teach materials science.  That worked really well.  He would talk about the same phenomena as I, and we would both come down to the same conclusions, and I’m talking about it from a mechanical engineering standpoint and he’s talking about it from bonds inside the crystal structure and we’d get to the same point.  It was very useful for the students.

When you came here did you start in the Physics or the Engineering Department?

I was in the Physics Department.

When did you start making that shift into the Engineering Department?

Well officially just this year.  I have been teaching physics courses to Science and Engineering Academy students, but this is the first year that I am teaching core engineering courses.  The electrical engineering courses are new courses.  But I’ve been involved with the extra-curricular stuff because I’ve worked as an engineer.

What are some of those engineering extra-curricular activities?

Well we certainly did Battle Bots for a while.  We had a Lemelson grant a couple of years ago.  We’ve worked on a balloon project last year and that is continuing.  So these are all extra-curricular activities, but they involve science and engineering since we have to build things.  And of course if students need help – certainly because of Chocolate Comp people have been coming in and out all week.

Where do you see BCA going?

I guess I see it moving along sort of the same path.  That is, you want to focus on a technical education and that by its nature is going to have to be somewhat narrow.  So, you’re going to learn physics, chemistry, and biology.  You’re going to learn math skills.  You know, if you’re in AEDT, you’re going to learn some mechanical and some electrical [engineering] and some coding, and I just see more opportunities in those areas.

Personally, I’d like to see a shift away from those AP-type courses because those are pretty generic – you can get them anywhere.  You can’t work on an electron microscope everywhere.  You can’t use a water jet [cutter] everywhere.  The feedback I get from the alumni – they find those experiences more useful.  They were applying them earlier in their college education.  It gives them a better experience when they decide what field they are going to go into. I think I see more of that.  Mr. Davis is very open to expanding that part of BCA.

Do you think academies should be more focused then?  Is that what you were hinting at?

I guess maybe I am hinting at that.  I think every academy has a core set of competences that they are trying to develop, and I think there is more focus on that now.

They recently set up that surgery elective, too.

They had the surgery elective.  They’re setting up an optics lab for Dr. Dogru.

Wow.  I didn’t know that.  There is a lot of growth happening at BCA.

You’re right.  It’s an exciting place.

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Meet the Teachers: Mr. Michael Liva