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Posted: March 30, 2011

On the Horizon: Good News From Sandia High

Sandia High School teacher Adolphus Washington spent 23 years in the Navy before starting a new career, and his yes-sir, no-nonsense bearing is a crisp and starched reminder that there are tasks to accomplish on this fine day.

Emotion? Mr. Washington doesn’t have time for that.

But when a classroom full of Sandia kids uncorked claps and cheers in his honor -- an homage to learning, effort and excellence -- Washington’s eyes began to redden.

“It’s you,” he said quietly, trying to U-turn the attention back to his students. “It’s you.”

Washington, a team of teachers at Sandia and the students themselves are among the first happy ripples in the success of the Horizon Awards – an APS Education Foundation grant program that puts money directly into classrooms for innovative projects that target four key educational areas.

In this case, Washington wrote a $5,000 grant proposal to the Foundation that would blend Sandia’s auto shop,  computer-aided drafting/engineering classes, plus algebra, metal works, chemistry and physics curriculum. The result: Sandia students are converting cars from conventional engines into vehicles that can be run on biofuel and even electricity, while at the same time understanding how the traditional engine (in an ’81 Pontiac Firebird) can work more efficiently.

“We want our people to know where we’re coming from, where we’re going and where we’re at right now,” he said.

The Horizon Awards made it possible for Washington to buy the shells of two vehicles – a Toyota MR2 and a Volkswagen Golf – and then begin overseeing the conversion from their conventional engines into electric and biofuel motors. The electric motor came from a golf cart that had seen better days. Getting the biofuel engine to work is a collaborative effort with Sandia teacher Ray Quintana, whose students created a biofuel “reactor” – in essence, a tiny refinery – above the autoshop.

These vehicles probably won’t be racing down Montgomery Boulevard anytime soon, but students will leave with an appreciation for what the future of technology holds for an industry – automobiles – that binds us all.

Freshmen through seniors, boys and girls, are part of the project, and they come in every shape and color. Every student, whether they were turning a wrench, refining a design on the computer, re-creating a design by hand, or checking on the biofuel mix, had a role. Washington and Quintana even created a risk-management team of students who made sure the work was being done with safety in mind.

“I’m amazed at him,” an admiring Quintana says of Washington’s drive and leadership. “He’s got an amazing work ethic.”

Obviously, it’s catching. One by one, Sandia students take turns describing the project and their roles within it. Ian Larsen talks about making certain hazards are kept to a minimum. Tyler Kurtz , Nick Hines, John Pantea and many more calmly explain the intricacies of the project, in part because Washington and Quintana want students to verbalize the work – not just do it.

“If we want these guys to be engineers, they need to be treated as engineers,” Washington says.

To display the project for visitors is a point of pride for Washington and Quintana, a Sandia graduate himself. But it’s evident in the faces of the students. They are doing something relevant, real, cool. Maybe that’s why they broke into applause at the conclusion of the display for the teachers who helped make it possible.

Maybe that’s why Adolphus Washington, if only for a moment, was on the verge of tears.

It’s an example of what  community support – in this case, through the Horizon Campaign – can do in a classroom.

It can make cheers and tears feel wonderful.

Watch the Video

Putting Fuel Into Education from APS in Motion on Vimeo.

Editor’s note: The Horizon Campaign funded 21 different projects throughout the district, ranging from $1,500 to $5,000. The 2011 grant process will begin later this spring. For more information, contact Foundation Executive Director Phill Casaus at 878-6165 or