Teachers and Engineers Need to Talk

A message from Pius Wong, Producer of The K12 Engineering Education Podcast, October 2016

The K12 Engineering Education Podcast

Relationships are powerful tools for education. They made my job possible in my former position developing engineering curricula for high schools. My team accomplished much more when we collaborated with teachers, administrators, professors, researchers, engineers in industry, and businesspeople. Now I have a new role producing a digital show called The K12 Engineering Education Podcast, and from it I have spoken with even more of these professionals and have recorded the conversations for proof. Their thoughts have confirmed for me that relationships are crucial. Educators in K-12 today must collaborate more with professional engineers if they want to improve engineering education.

Communication between engineers and non-engineers can help clarify how engineering learning compares to other fields. As the acronym “STEM” implies, engineering distinctly differs from science, technology, and math, even if it is definitely related and overlapping. Two recent guests on the podcast detail this issue.

Melanie Kong is a teacher, software developer, and former practicing chemical engineer. She described the experience of her colleague, who was a science teacher, when he taught engineering for the first time. “He didn't realize how science was so different from engineering,” she explained. “What really struck him was when he was looking at that list of standards, and he never realized that in engineering the content that you're learning is how to solve a problem.” The content is the process of solving problems more than formulas and phenomena. Frequently these problems are more open-ended and project-based.

Natalie Wyll, a math and engineering teacher and former structural engineer, said, “For an engineer, mathematics is a tool. It’s not the end-all-be-all.” The content in an engineering class should respect these nuances.

How do districts acquire teachers who understand actual engineering practice, and how to teach it, as well? Kong and Wyll both practiced engineering professionally, but not all schools have the luxury of finding and hiring teachers like this. In the recording session of another recent episode, I conversed with six other teachers who professionally practiced engineering before, and the discussion suggested at least four approaches to dealing with this challenge.

Jack Hwang and Amy Colburn, who have experience in electrical and chemical engineering, agreed that professional engineers can be coaxed into education through volunteer opportunities at schools. Colburn actually employed that process, herself. While she was an engineer in the oil industry, she volunteered to help out at a school in various grade levels, and “it reaffirmed my thought process of going into teaching,” she says.

Several of these teachers’ stories showed a common theme: schools can appeal to professional engineers’ desires to help their communities more directly. Colburn cited the stark gender imbalance in her professional engineering career as one reason to try to educate more women in engineering, herself. Teacher Donald Jones, an industrial engineer by training, was especially interested in educating minorities and the underprivileged in urban communities, and so became a teacher. CJ Salzman, who worked in engineering management, wanted a second career, and he thought to himself, “OK, go into ministry, or teaching?” Schools could tap into these deeper, more service-oriented needs of some engineers.

Salzman and Hwang’s stories suggest another strategy for recruiting engineers to teach. Districts could focus on older engineers seeking a second career, or “second life”, as Hwang puts it. Both had decades of experience in industry, and as Salzman describes it, his “season of life” changed as his adult kids moved out of the house. Districts might communicate with local firms whose engineers might be retiring.

These teachers all strongly agreed on a final solution to getting appropriate teachers of engineering: developing the teachers you already have. When asked about teachers who were not engineers but still want to teach engineering, teacher and former chemical engineer Rita Loughrin said, “I suggest they get to meet engineers in their field.” Colburn added that many professional development programs are available that can put them in contact with practicing engineers and the latest engineering pedagogy.

Furthermore, local engineering companies often are happy to build relationships with teachers, through specific outreach and education departments. In recent podcast discussions, guests have mentioned Boeing, National Instruments, and NASA as example engineering institutions that work with local K-12 teachers directly.

Not only do teachers learn from the engineers when they join the classroom, but students learn, too. “When [engineers] actually come in the room and talk about their experiences, the students really listen,” explained engineering teacher Jerry Moldenhauer in another podcast discussion, and he is not a former engineer. “They get into it, and they will ask questions they would never ask me. I think that's huge.”

Unfortunately the burden of finding engineering “mentors” often lies on the teacher alone, as several teachers explained to me. Research, making phone calls, writing emails, and vetting people can take up a lot of time. Schools can build better engineering programs if administrators helped their teachers more to form relationships with professional engineers.

If local in-person networking is a challenge, schools can try digital networking methods, too. For example, the National Academy of Engineers produced the website LinkEngineering.org, a kind of social network for K-12 educators and engineering experts. It mixes communication features seen in Facebook and Quora, among other websites. Educators could try using sites like LinkEngineering to make connections. As another example, NASA’s Digital Learning Network online also allows schools to hold videoconferences with NASA designed to meet educational standards.

As of 2016 my podcast project is, to my knowledge, the only podcast out there focusing in engineering education before college. By all means, please listen to those recorded conversations with teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and other people with ideas. I hope they inspire strategies for teaching engineering thinking and inspiring future engineers. However, even more strongly, I hope they trigger more conversations in your own communities.