Budd Strnad’s vision in 1968 and his family’s continued financial support have provided over 650 US students with unique and often life-changing learning experiences. Many Strnad Fellows have pursued careers in the same discipline as their Strnad projects. All gained confidence in their ability to solve problems and work independently.
Since the 1990s, between a third and a half of all projects have two-year timeframes. David Devore, former Strnad program director (1987-2009) adds, “The Strnad program and the vision Budd Strnad had was way beyond its time. Also, the expansion of the program to the Strnad Fellowships in Creativity was a huge innovation on the part of the Strnad family.” The 1981 decision to open the program to projects other than science met with some controversy. David explains, “When we first started seeing projects in music and the creative arts, the project review committee was skeptical. They thought they may not carry the academic weight of the science research projects. It took the school some time to realize the value of students exploring ideas that overarched the curriculum.”
SELL YOUR IDEA
Independent student projects are funded annually through an endowed fund established by James “Budd” Strnad. As an entrepreneur and inventor who built a successful business, he insisted students participating in the program sell their ideas. “From the very beginning, Budd wanted students to go before a review committee and sell their ideas. He felt this was a very important aspect of the program, and he was very hands-on, especially in the program’s early years,” David says.
“Creating a plan and developing a budget is a unique aspect of the Fellowships Program,” Karen says, likening the process to applying for a grant. “Boys are not always comfortable with this presentation,” but it’s an important part of the learning process.”
Since the number of projects accepted every year is limited to the funds available, boys must persuade the review committee to accept their proposed plan and must carefully prepare a project budget. While some projects require little funding, others have budgets as high as $2,000. Budget line items range from simple presentation materials to tuition fees for college courses.
During his lifetime, Mr. Strnad approved the overall budget for the year’s programs. One year, David recalls, the budget exceeded the allotted funds by 20 percent. “Budd approved the budget but docked me the 20 percent the following year!”
EUREKA MOMENTS, MAGNIFICENT FAILURES
When asked about the most ambitious projects students completed during their tenures, David recalls one of the early Strnad projects as especially memorable: “Doug Benson ’75 and Steve Peterson ’75 built an electron microscope. It was a large piece of equipment with vacuums and electromagnets. It worked and remained in the science department for many years.” He adds, “There were also students Greg DeVan ’02 and Jon VanWagenen ’02 who built a trebuchet – a medieval war machine like a catapult – in a Shaker Heights garage. They towed it to campus and demonstrated it by hurling pumpkins. Another project that pops to mind is the observatory on the athletic fields at Hunting Valley. Although the funding for the construction of the observatory was not part of the original project, it did begin as a Strnad project.”
“The observatory has been a great asset to US,” says Karen, “and has been used three times in the past five years by Strnad Fellows for research. One of our more successful and ambitious projects was undertaken by students Josh Wang ’14 and Danny Cushey ’14 using the observatory. The boys were incredible math and science students and decided to use photography to follow the motion of Saturn and Jupiter to gather enough data to mathematically determine the density and mass of each planet.
“At one point, they were very frustrated with their efforts to identify the calculations needed to finish the project. Josh was pacing the hallway, like a mad scientist, when he had a eureka moment. He figured out how to make the math work.” Karen continues, “Josh came back to visit me while a student at Princeton and told me none of his college experiences had reached the level of his Strnad experience; none had been as open-ended, challenging or engaging.”
Since the program expanded in the early 1980s to include the creative arts, some of the most complex projects have been making movies. A few years ago, Karen explains, student Isaiah Williams '15 proposed a large-scale movie project. “He wanted the production to be filmed on campus and to hire SAG (Screen Actors Guild) actors at their minimum rate. His budget was incredibly detailed, and his plan was quite comprehensive. We gave him complete run of the building for three days. He had actors and a crew – even a food service staff – on site. He finished filming during the summer after his junior year and then completed editing the film his senior year.”
Not all projects are successful. David calls them “the magnificent failures.” Movie and animation projects are particularly susceptible. While students complete filming, they miscalculate the time and effort needed to edit. “We’ve gotten partway through many film projects,” Karen says. Both she and David do not discount the value of the learning experience though.
“It’s often said that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that’s important,” David offers. A student may start with a goal to create a full-length animated movie. At the end of the project, he may only have a short scene. Although he was frustrated and didn’t complete what he set out to do, he still learned something valuable.”
MERRY MEN AND A NIGHTCLUB SHOW
The Strnad Fellowships in Creativity are all-encompassing. Students, given the opportunities to explore their interests, are often imaginative. Sean Silver ’92, David recalls, decided to cast himself as the character of Robin Hood. He studied the English folklore ballads and plays of Robin Hood, sewed his costume, and spent a day on campus in character and accompanied by a band of merry men. “I gave Nancy Lerner, his English teacher and Strnad advisor, a lot of credit for seeing this project through.”
Karen cites Jared Stein’s 1999 project as memorable for its creativity. “Jared is an incredible vocalist and he is also a dancer. For his project, he put together a show. He spent the year, under advisor (Upper School Drama Director) Carol Pribble, working out the songs and choreography. The project culminated in a one-man show presented the night before the Strnad assembly.” Jared now has a career in the performance industry. He has served as a conductor and musical director on several national tours of Broadway shows.
REMEMBER THE FRESHMEN IN THE BACK OF THE ROOM
Each May, the Strnad Fellows present their projects to students, the faculty, and the Strnad family during an assembly. This annual event is highly anticipated and takes weeks of preparation. Karen states, “There are many stories of assembly day mishaps. Technology and the kids’ understanding of its use in presentations have made it easier in recent years. When you rehearse the boys the first time and it’s not so good, I always tell them to think of the freshmen in the back of the room. Determine what’s meaningful to share with them. Watching that progression – from the first rehearsal until their polished presentation on assembly day – is what is most incredible for me.”
David agrees, “These boys put in so much time and effort into honing their presentations. Seeing their progression was always very gratifying.”
For the past 50 years, a member of the Strnad family has attended every assembly and presentation night. David fondly recalls one performance night, shortly after the Strnad program was expanded beyond science projects, as particularly memorable. “The boys were performing, some singing original compositions, and I remember Edna Strnad sitting in the front row and being serenaded by boy after boy. One young man sat on the edge of the stage and sang ballads to her. Edna was enthralled.”
VERY APPROACHABLE, ALWAYS INTERESTED
Over the past 50 years, the Strnads have nurtured their investment in University School. Mr. Devore said, “Budd and Edna were committed to the success of the program and the success of each boy. I found both Budd and Edna to be very approachable. Budd frequently asked what he could do to improve the program. Every year he evaluated the assembly program and wasn’t shy about telling us what worked and what didn’t.”
“I’ve had the privilege of working with Edna during my time as director,” said Mrs. Axelrod. “She is a true gem. She is always interested in the boys and their projects. Edna instinctively puts boys at ease. I’ve seen few adults with the ability Edna has to so thoroughly engage students.”
CELEBRATING THE PAST, A MODEL OF EXCELLENCE FOR THE FUTURE
On Sunday, May 20, past and current Strnad Fellows and their advisors will join Edna Strnad and her family to celebrate the Strnad Fellowships in Creativity program’s 50th anniversary. James Park ’94, co-founder and CEO of Fitbit, is the event’s featured speaker. Park, a Strnad Fellow himself, will discuss his experience with the program and its impact on his life.
University School is also marking this 50-year milestone by creating, with the generous financial support of the Strnad family, a website to chronicle the history of the Strnad Fellowships in Creativity. The recently launched website will eventually archive all Strnad projects in a searchable database. The website can be viewed at www.us.edu/strnad.
When questioned about the future of the Strnad Fellowships in Creativity, Karen sees only new advancements and growth, “Boys will likely begin expanding their project interpretations and perhaps their relationships with alumni. With the electronic archive, I envision Strnad Fellows, young and old, connecting with each other and using their shared knowledge to enhance the quality of future projects. Regardless of how the program changes over time, I’m confident it will continue to serve as a model of excellence for any new programs US develops. The Strnad program will continue to inspire projects of passion for the sake of intellectual growth and personal satisfaction. And Strnad Fellows will always graduate more knowledgeable about themselves, their potential careers, and their lifelong pursuits.”