Former Fermilab engineer ‘thrives’ on sharing passion for science with Huntley students

Amanda Henk teaches principles of engineering, aerospace, robotics at Huntley High School

Teacher Amanda Henk talks with Jack Breunig as she teaches a robotics class Tuesday, May 2, 2023, at Huntley High School in Huntley.

At an American Airlines hanger at O’Hare International Airport in early March, Amanda Henk’s students got to see up close what they’d been learning in their aerospace class.

There isn’t much of an opportunity to see aircrafts, so the lessons learned on trips like that one are valuable, said Henk, who teaches engineering principles, aerospace and robotics at Huntley High School.

On the trip, students got to see the aircrafts receive maintenance, talk with the techs, and see parts of the aircraft most don’t, such as the computer controls or inside the landing gear.

Although Henk refuses to take credit for the trips, she does everything she can to improve herself, her students and her lessons, Huntley High School instructional coach Jack Towne said.

“She’s a great teacher, but she recognizes everyone can be a little bit better,” Towne said. “She comes to me to see about working on things. Getting class started, collecting work, ending class, ... she wants to do things better for her students.”

She wants to do things better for her students.”

—  Huntley High School instructional coach Jack Towne on Amanda Henk

As she was coming out of college with an eye toward a career in science, Henk’s professor told her she should consider teaching.

For Henk, it was a firm no at the time, she said. She already had her career path in mind – get a degree in physics and go into research. She did as much, taking a job out of college with Fermilab, a particle physics and accelerator laboratory near Batavia.

But after a few years of working in the lab as an accelerator operator, the 12-hour shifts and long weekends caught up to her, she said, and work-life balance was something she wanted.

She found she loved training new hires and writing instruction manuals, and with opportunities to teach at Benedictine University in Lisle and get certified while she did it, she took the leap.

It’s been 17 years since she made the jump, and today, Henk teaches principles of engineering to sophomores and more advanced aerospace and robotics to juniors.

She also was the recipient of the U.S. Air Force’s Teacher of the Year for Illinois in 2018.

My professor must have saw something in me that I didn’t.”

—  Huntley High School teacher Amanda Henk on becoming a teacher

Looking back, she thinks her teacher’s recommendation had to do with her desire to constantly do better and learn more, as well her love for people.

“My professor must have saw something in me that I didn’t,” Henk said.

Towne said another thing that helps Henk stand out is her ability to explain things, which is something many engineers struggle with, he said.

Henk said she thrives on passing on her knowledge and passion for science and technology with the goal of making her classes as hands-on as possible.

That goal is easy enough for her principles of engineering students, she said. They use lab equipment and technology to solve different problems, conduct investigations involving measuring and use devices they build to do so.

However, it can be a little more difficult in her aerospace class because of a lack of airplanes. As a result, the class does a lot of simulation work on the computer, Henk said. They also build models such as gliders.

Meanwhile, in her robotics class in April, they worked on building robots that could climb stairs, Henk said. Multiple options give students the chance to do research and try to code a solution.

Henk said the lesson is “more open-ended but still provides an opportunity to develop specific skills.”

Because of the classes she teaches, Henk said it gives her the chance to work with some students for multiple years. Getting to see them begin to plot their path post-high school is something she said she loves about the job, regardless of whether they pursue engineering and science.

“It’s really rewarding to see what they’re going to do and what they’re taking away from high school,” Henk said.

Huntley High School senior Molly Allen, who is in Henk’s aerospace class, said she began the engineering academy at Huntley to “poke around” but now plans to study physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder with an emphasis on magnetic engineering.

I don’t know anybody in the class that doesn’t respect her.”

—  Huntley High School senior Molly Allen on her teacher Amanda Henk

She described Henk as a “hands-off” teacher, meaning she allows the students to do things themselves. As a result, students often are left to reverse engineer and find solutions on their own.

She gives a lot of credit to Henk for not only teaching the class but also finding time outside of class to look for grants and opportunities, such as the trip to O’Hare, to give students more experiences.

“Her passion motivates us, and that passion is directly correlated to how much respect you have for a teacher,” Allen said. “I don’t know anybody in the class that doesn’t respect her.”