Faculty Colloquia Series Continues with Physics and Astronomy Instructor William Fenton

On Dec. 5, Instructor in Physics and Astronomy William Fenton spoke to faculty members in the Center for Global Understanding & Independent Thinking about his 2017-18 sabbatical. During his year away, Fenton visited classrooms from California to Beijing, with stays in Botswana and South Africa in between.

The “sabbatical” was a bit of a busman’s holiday; more than once, his appearance on a school or university campus resulted in an invitation to take over a class or give a lecture. With his trademark good humor, he accepted all the requests.

Fenton, who is also the director of the Observatory and holds the William Elfers ’37 Teaching Chair, left campus on August 1, 2017, in the family camper with his wife, Lisa, and nine-year-old daughters, Stella and Mabel. Their route followed the Lewis & Clark Trail and made frequent stops at schools, museums, and national parks.

In a visit to Brightworks School in San Francisco, Fenton was impressed by the multidisciplinary projects, designed and built by students. Each project focused on coins and currency, with topics from the various disciplines ranging from a history of trade to vending machines.

At the Maru-a-Pula School in Botswana, Fenton answered an impromptu request from the physics teacher to cover a class; he then taught a robotics workshop. While in the country, he reached out to the University of Botswana for help tracking down supplies needed for use in the classroom, which led to his giving a lecture at the university.

The family had an extended stay in South Africa, living in the center of Cape Town, while the girls attended St. Cyprian’s School for three months.

At Keystone Academy in Beijing, where former Hotchkiss Head Malcolm McKenzie is head of school, Fenton consulted on the construction of an observatory.

Among the places Fenton visited in the U.S. were public schools in San Diego County, where he said there is “a huge culture of charter schools and young people running these schools,” and West Haven High School in Connecticut, which he visited in May, toward the end of the sabbatical.

“We had an amazing experience,” Fenton told his peers.

Fenton came to Hotchkiss in 2006 from Moultonborough Academy in New Hampshire. He earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Weber State University in Ogden, UT, and began Ph.D. studies in astronomy at Dartmouth before deciding he preferred teaching to researching.

In 2016, he was awarded the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation’s James C. Kapteyn Prize for his outstanding work as a teacher, coach, and dorm head.

Fenton’s presentation was part of the 2019 faculty colloquia series held in the Center for Global Understanding & Independent Thinking.

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