Science & Tech

Zen and the Art of Teaching PET: A Tribute to Dr. Venuti

By Jack M. ’23

Walking down the stairs into the mansion basement, minding the “mind your head” sign on the way down, Crystal students are always thrilled to encounter Dr. Venuti, known affectionately as Dr. V.  Over his 27 years at Crystal, Dr. V has taught Astronomy, Programming, and Physics C, and served as the Director of Technology. However, he is best known among current students for his role as the Robotics Team leader and as the teacher of the Physics, Engineering, and Technology (PET) class, as well as its successor, Advanced Topics in Physics, Engineering, and Technology (AT PET). 

At their core, Dr. Venuti’s PET classes focus on the universally important skill of problem-solving. “It doesn’t matter if you are going to be a banker or a nuclear physicist, problem-solving is a part of your job” he noted in an interview with The Gryphon Gazette. The PET classes are favorites at Crystal for their unique blend of classroom teaching and hands-on applications, in which 11th and 12th-grade students learn how to operate 3D printers, use CAD, handle chop saws, weld, and use other tools and machinery, all under the watchful eye of Dr. Venuti. 

The PET classes are academic, of course, but a “different kind of academic,” he said. “My philosophy as a teacher is: give the students an opportunity to learn. Provide a setting, provide some instruction. But basically, students learn.” He also insists on hands-on experience. “Without doing, it’s like watching a movie.”

For Dr. Venuti, seeing students overcome challenges is the real reward of teaching. In Dr. V’s words, “What inspires me is the students. Watching them tackle difficult problems with determination and persistence. The look of satisfaction on the students’ faces when they solve a challenge. That’s the reward. It’s worth the price of admission for me.”

One of the PET class’s most memorable recent projects was the Trellis Project, a multi-year collaboration between Ms. Agoff, Mr. Martinez, and Dr. Venuti. An extremely complex project with hundreds of pieces that demanded extreme precision and resulted in the trellis outside the Gryphon Center, this project was a big hit with his students. Daniel N. ‘22 remembered it as a particular highlight of his year. “It ended up looking really really nice, and we were all super pleased with the work that we did. We did it, and it’s honestly something that I won’t forget.” 

Given his renowned positivity and prowess as a teacher, it may be surprising to learn that Dr. Venuti never originally planned to be in the classroom. Before teaching, Dr. V was a particle physicist working at the Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC).  Fortunately for Crystal Springs, he was set to work on a $20 billion project in Texas but the funding was cut. Dr. Venuti found Crystal Springs Uplands School, initially planning to only stay a year or two. He stayed for 27.

Malyka R. ‘22 noted that students have benefitted tremendously from Dr. Venuti’s work experience. “He’s kind of like a college professor. He’s had a lot of industry experience. For one entire class, he showed us a blueprint of the particle accelerator he worked at. That was really cool. We got to see the application side of what we were actually learning.” Camille L. ‘22 noted, “He’s so knowledgeable about things. He often makes reference to something that’s going on currently in science, physics, or engineering. You can tell that he has a deep passion for what he does.”

Dr. Venuti in the classroom, photo courtesy of Mr. Martinez

Dr. Venuti reminisced about his time at Crystal, including many years ago when student comments were hand-written and the school had “an excellent reputation as it does now” but “felt more like a ma ‘n pa country store.” New to teaching, he was embraced by the “close-knit professional community” which continues to this day. 

Dr. Venuti tipped his cap to the Crystal students: “I think that the Crystal students are really exceptional. The caliber of the students, the integrity of the students, the intelligence of the students. Working with students is the part that I enjoy the most.” 

Caleb Q. ‘23 noted that students also love working with Dr. Venuti.  “He really focuses on each individual person. He’s a super knowledgeable guy, he’s fun, he’s positive and his class has been a terrific experience.” Camille L. ‘22 added, “He’s fun to be around. It is obvious that he enjoys working with us on experiments. He made the class enjoyable for all of us. Even if our experiments failed, we were able to learn from the experience of trial and error. The class was truly fun.”

Of course, one would be remiss to describe Dr. Venuti without mentioning how he starts his classes – with a moment of meditation. Malyka R. ‘22 described this practice: “There are no electronics out. Pens and pencils are down. Just for a minute, we are silent. You can close your eyes, or put your head on the desk, or look around. That one minute really helps clear your head. It is a really nice addition to the class.  In fact, I wish a lot of other classes had this because I read a paper about how the brain can’t switch between materials very efficiently in a short period of time, and this one-minute meditation really helps us refocus.”

Dr. Venuti has bounteous enthusiasm for much beyond physics and the classroom. He is a fanatic for Boston sports teams. In his own words, he “bleeds red when it’s baseball season, green when it’s basketball season, and red, white, and blue when it’s the football season.” Dr. V loves to read – science, philosophy, and psychology in particular. He also mentioned his wide-ranging musical taste and revealed a particular predilection for Duke Ellington and classic jazz, as well as folk and rock ‘n roll. He also loves to cook, specializing in Italian food after picking up some things from his talented mother. “Providing nourishment for other people. That’s a good gift.” 

As our interview concluded, Dr. Venuti offered some advice to Crystal students, inspired by one of his favorite books The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. “In our life, everything seems to be moving at the speed of light.” Recognizing the industrious nature of Crystal kids, Dr. Venuti advised students to “slow down. Take time to enjoy life as much as you can each day. Get the proper amount of sleep. Get outside, get out in nature, and be active.”  

As he moves on from Crystal, Dr. Venuti’s plan for retirement is “to have no plan, and to see what comes.” Whatever comes next, we hope it is as inspiring, wide-ranging, and life-changing as what Dr. Venuti has generously shared with his students over the past 27 years at Crystal Springs. Thank you, Dr. V, and congratulations on a wonderful teaching career at Crystal! 

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