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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Profile: Engineering assistant lends experience to classroom

As students were challenged with the task of making a model car that can travel the fastest in the first-period engineering class at the beginning of second semester, a 5-foot-6 inch man with thin white hair meanders through the square wooden tables, workbenches and students leaning over their projects contributing his insights to the students who have found themselves with a glitch in their car. He leans over one car that only travels in circles, tinkering with the gears, “Have you tried loosening this gear?” he asks a student who constructed it.

Leichner, now in his 80s, works as a volunteer assistant teacher for engineering and math teacher Audrey Warmuth in the Intro to Engineering class. Each day, he observes students and answers their questions. Outside of class, he helps Warmuth and engineering teacher Matt Welander develop class exercises and projects.

“He offers some real insight,” said Warmuth. “He lends a feeling of authority […] that reflects on the subject matter.”

Leichner began working with Warmuth last year, but before helping out in the classroom, he volunteered to aid the robotics team. However, once he saw the engineering posters go up on the classroom walls and the projects begin to clutter the room, he couldn’t resist checking out the engineering class.

“I took a chance,” Leichner said. “I told [Warmuth] what I had seen, and I said, ‘I bet it’s pretty hard to monitor and walk around so many people. Would you like somebody to help you do that?’” 

However, Leichner isn’t just any interested passerbyer. Leichner brings with him decades of experience in the field of engineering, having worked for multiple companies. Before launching into his background experience, fingernail tapping the rough wooden table for emphasis, he warned us, “Many of the things I’m going to tell you about will seem like they were [from] the Dark Ages, [but] they weren’t dark to us; we thought we were right on the edge of things.”

As it turns out, he had meant the computer.

Leichner went to the University of Illinois in 1947 as an undergraduate in Electrical Engineering. He began working on computers when they consisted of thousands of vacuum tubes, and once in the field, he had to make the transition to the newest innovation in computing: transistors.

His next step was to take up a teaching position at the University of Illinois. After nine years, he was an associate professor with tenure despite only working part-time, spending the other half consulting and doing research.

"I thought this was the right thing to do because I thought if you were actually working in the field, you would do a better job of teaching because you’d be more practical in the way you think, and I still believe that,” Leichner said.

Throughout his teaching career, Leichner strove to follow a policy of challenge and self-discovery.

"[My students] did something that they didn’t think they could do,” Leichner said. “And, that turns out to be one of the most motivating things that you can ever have happen: to take on something that you really weren’t sure whether you could do it, and you did it. And, that happened all semester.”

In 1967, Leichner decided to come to California, where he worked for the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and then at an engineering consulting firm in Palo Alto before starting his own consulting firm. Ten years later, he retired.

Even after retirement, Leichner remained active in the engineering field, continuing to work for free for a former coworker in data communication.

Eventually, though, he began to feel the need to do more community-oriented work.

"I got this urge like many old people, that maybe I ought to give something back,” Leichner said. “So I volunteered at a [public charter] school down in central San Jose called Downtown College Prep (DCP).”

Seven years later, Leichner burned out.

“[I know that] they need help, but I couldn’t [volunteer] forever,” said Leichner.

It was at this point that Leichner’s life crossed paths with SHS.

Clearly, Leichner has a lot of experience from the industry side of engineering, Wealander said.

“He knows more than I do,” said Warmuth. “He has more experience. He wants to be in the classroom and pass on what he knows. It would be foolish not to accept that guidance.”

As for Saratoga students, he is amazed by their eagerness to learn and their strong work ethic, admiring particularly the “no foolishness, no goofiness” attitude with which students work.

The difference in generations is very clear, said Warmuth. When Leichner meets a student for the first time, he shakes their hand, something the students aren’t used to.

Of course, Leichner is also aware of the stress many students are placed under, as several Intro to Engineering students were forced into taking the class by their parents. (However, according to Leichner, one actually turned out to like the class.)

Leichner plans to continue volunteering at Saratoga High as “long as they will have me.”

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