Engineering the future

Science teacher Anthony Pham gives students tips on using a hole saw bit as the student team works to construct a trebuchet as part of a physics project.

Portola High engineering students rarely sit at their desks. Instead, they’re building gears, pulleys and trebuchets, or using a 3D printing machine.

That kind of learning-by-doing takes an especially skilled teacher, which is why the school’s leaders and students so appreciate Anthony Pham.

“We knew we wanted to have an engineering program since the inception of the school,” says Principal John Pehrson, who hired Pham two years after Portola High was founded in 2016. “It was just a matter of finding the right person to run it.”

Pham, 28, set up the new department in 2019 and recently won praise from the Greater Irvine Chamber for nurturing future engineers among students who might not otherwise have looked into the field. The department offers an introduction to engineering and instruction in mechanical, civil and aerospace engineering.

The biggest smile

Students describe Pham as transparent, approachable and passionate.

“He has the biggest smile,” says senior Jonathan Kim. “It’s so contagious; it encourages me to smile as well.”

Pham is the first in his family to have attended college. He studied mechanical engineering as a UCI undergrad and worked as an engineering firm intern before deciding he would rather be a teacher.

“My mission is getting everyone really interested in engineering, no matter where they’re at.”– Anthony Pham

Portola High’s engineering department started out with just two classes in 2019 but quickly grew to its current enrollment of 150 students. About a quarter of them are girls, a ratio Pham wants to improve.

“My mission,” he says, “is getting everyone really interested in engineering, no matter where they’re at.”