Nate Leavy, '21, poses for a photo. (Photo courtesy of Leavy)

CLASS OF 2021: Nate Leavy, ’21, perfects the pursuit of learning and engineering

Anyone who has seen now-graduated-senior Nate Leavy around campus will know the aura of pure wit and constant excitement that he brought everywhere he went.

Equally famous was Leavy’s interest and curiosity in engineering. 

From etching circuit boards to creating Arduino dice simulators to building an LED lightsaber,  Leavy has embraced his interest both in school with AP Physics C and last year’s first Advanced Topics in Physical Science class, as well as with various projects in his home.

“This is actually a funny story. I have wanted to be an engineer since before I actually knew what the word meant,” Leavy said. “I remember once I was talking to my dad. I was like, ‘I want to make things.’ I was maybe 6. He said, ‘Oh, that’d make you an engineer.’ I was like ‘Cool, we’ll go with it.”

As an early sign of his endless curiosity, Leavy often peppered his dad with questions about the world.

“My dad, being a doctor, had to do a bunch of science stuff,” Leavy said. “I always asked him a million questions when I was a little kid, so I would say he’s the main reason I became interested in science in the first place.”

I remember times we were just driving to school, and I would look out the window, and I’d say something bonkers, an unanswerable question, like ‘How do trees work?’ Like what does that even mean? How do trees work? But he would do his best to explain it, or ask clarifying questions. Even after hundreds of questions, he never shut me down.”

Leavy’s freedom to ask whatever questions he wanted encouraged him to stay curious about the world.  

Once, in a Honolulu airport, he was the one who got frustrated when he asked his dad about ‘machines that go forever.’ 

“I had a temper tantrum because I just didn’t understand why perpetual motion machines wouldn’t work,” Leavy said. “I was literally screaming and crying in the airport because I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why you couldn’t make something that can go forever and get energy. And for some reason, in my child’s mind, that was my dad’s fault.”

History teacher Liz Leavy, Nate’s mother, emphasized his constant curiosity.

“He always has ideas, and he’s constantly interrupting to ask me, will this work or that work? It’s just kind of the way he always is,” Liz Leavy said. “All day every day, he’s thinking like an engineer. Which to me seems like coming up with lots and lots of notions,  attempting and succeeding at one or two.”

Nate constantly tinkered even at a young age, she said.

“When he was little, he wasn’t supposed to have a flashlight in his room so he taped up a couple CDs so they reflected light from the hallway to his bed, some sort of weird mirror system,” Liz Leavy said. “He’s always been problem-solving. Now he has so much equipment and stuff just strewn everywhere, and if something’s not working, he goes and grabs some Legos or something. This tinkering was forever.”

Having a budding engineer in the house also has its downsides.

“He was always too crafty,” Liz Leavy said. “I remember we put something up on a shelf so he couldn’t get it. And he devised some sort of gun-type thing with a dart on the end of the string so he could grab it. So he was always outsmarting us.”

Nate’s first formal engineering experience came last year in the inaugural Advanced Topics in Physical Science class, taught by chemistry teacher Victoria Conner.

“When we started doing Advanced Topics, that was the class that let me know, okay, yeah, this is what I want to do,” Leavy said.

In Advanced Topics in Physical Science, students learn the very basics of engineering and complete several projects such as constructing a jointed hand using 3D modeling and printing and soldering circuits and Arduino. Students can also work on their own projects should they choose to.

Leavy, along with the standard class projects, focused on controlling an LED lightsaber blade with an Arduino, with the eventual goal of 3D printing his own hilt and control system for the blade.

Conner described Leavy as ‘endlessly curious.’

“He would frequently pop into my room and ask to perform some little experiment,” she said. “I was usually happy to help him with whatever it was he was curious about that day. He is definitely a tinkerer and I think he learns best by doing and proving to himself that something works.”

Conner also complimented Leavy’s personality. 

“Some of the lasting impressions Nate provides is that he is deeply caring, empathic, curious, and holds himself to high standards,” Conner said. “He also has a rather wicked sense of humor. If any of his friends were ever in need of a sympathetic ear, Nate was always there for them. He was always available to listen, to walk, to just be there for them.”

When Country Day closed down in March 2020, Leavy took home equipment from Conner’s classroom to continue his own projects.

“My engineering stuff is a lot of fun, and it’s what I do when I’m stressed. It’s nice to be good at something, you know. And Arduinos are something that I fundamentally understand. And it makes me feel cool when I do stuff,” he said.

Leavy’s Arduino dice-roller is one of his favorite projects; he can set it to any dice size and receive a random simulated roll.

Leavy is also proud of the ingenuity and creativity required for his projects. In his dice-rolling project, he found he could often predict Java’s own pseudo-random number generator, so he made his own random seed source to generate rolls from.

To get a random seed for each roll, he had his Arduino measure the voltage on an unused pin, which just picked up random ambient static electricity.

“It’s worked wonders, and I feel really smart for doing that,” Leavy said. “Apparently, my dad was talking to an engineer because of his work, and they were like, ‘Yeah, it’s hard to come up with random numbers,’ and my dad told him the method I used. He said something like, ‘Oh, that’s really smart.’ That was funny.”

At a young age, Leavy was diagnosed with ADHD. Country Day has done well helping him deal with his ADHD in school, he said.

“They’ve done a really good job of helping me not feel like I was wrong or anything for having ADHD,” Leavy said. “The way it’s treated at Country Day; they just do a great job of giving me space that I need. Like extra time on exams, for example. That’s something that I really appreciate as an option. And on the flip side, I try not to abuse it.”

Leavy described his experience with ADHD as simply a matter of what he finds stimulating and what he doesn’t. That can largely dictate what tasks he can easily complete and what he finds easy to learn.

“If I don’t find something interesting, it is impossible to retain information about it,” Leavy said. “And so, if I’m bored while reading an English book that I don’t find interesting, then we have a quiz the next day. Even though I did the reading, I won’t be able to answer the questions. And it’s just the extra effort there.”

On the flip side, Leavy said that he can easily latch onto facts or concepts he is interested in. 

“If I hear something twice that I think is cool, then I will remember it for the rest of my life,” he said.

This double-sided coin also extends to completing tasks or paying attention. Leavy can often focus on physics homework for hours at a time but will be unable to learn in math while doodling.

To help control these effects, Leavy takes medication daily.

“Meds don’t change the way that I am, they make it easier for me to be the person that I’m trying to be,” Leavy said. “Meds don’t make me focus more. They make it so that I can focus if I want to. They don’t take away the ADHD, they help me moderate it.”

Even with his meds, Leavy said he is fairly energetic. Without them, he called himself “just the most distractible person you’d ever meet, singing show tunes all over.”

If Leavy was given the option to remove his ADHD altogether, he wouldn’t take it.

“It’s a part of who I am. I see it as an advantage and a disadvantage. I also think it makes me an interesting person to talk to,” Leavy said.

Leavy has committed to Santa Clara’s School of Engineering and is excited to go, although he said he will miss Country Day. 

“I’ve been at Country Day my entire life, literally since I was five years old.” Leavy said. “I think the thing that I’m gonna miss is obviously the people, that’s what makes Country Day what it is. But I think what I’m gonna miss the most is the familiarity. The sense that I am in a place where I am a constant, where I have my own presence.”

Leavy said he plans to pop back and catch up with Country Day faculty regularly.

“I’m definitely gonna miss the teachers so much because I’ve developed a lot of rapport with them,” he said. “I see so many of them just as my friends. Which I don’t know if they like, but hey.”

Leavy recalls a conversation he had with eighth-grade science teacher Cade Grunst on a Yosemite field trip when he thinks about his attitude to learning.

“He said to me, ‘You know, you would learn a lot more if you focused more on listening and less on proving to everyone else how smart you already are,’” Leavy said. “And I think about that all the time.”

— By Nihal Gulati

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