Teaching High School Engineering Better
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
Teaching High School Engineering Better
[Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for July 11, 2016.
[00:13 Pius] This is the Podcast for all the educators, engineers, entrepreneurs, and parents out there who are interested in getting kids into engineering at younger ages. I’m Pius Wong, and today I’m speaking with engineering teacher Jerry Moldenhauer, otherwise known as “Moldy” or “Mr. Moldy” in his high school classroom. We’re speaking today about several things he’s learned about teaching engineering over the last several years. He also introduces one of the leading engineering curriculum providers in the country: Project Lead The Way, or PLTW. As a note, we use the acronym LMS in the talk, which stands for “learning management system”.
[music fade out]
[Pius] Thanks for doing this.
[Jerry Moldenhauer] Hey no problem.
[Pius] I’m speaking to you today because I know you have several years of experience teaching engineering in a local Austin high school, public school.
[Pius] And how’s that going first of all?
[Jerry] It’s going good, it’s exciting. I love teaching. It can be a lot of work. Been at the same school, Eastside Memorial High School, for seven years, teaching engineering. I started as science, though, so, let’s call it five years teaching engineering, but it’s been a nice, slow, gradual introduction to more and more engineering, where now I’m full-time engineering.
[Pius] What kind of science did you start off with?
[Jerry] Started off with biology and physics.
[Pius] And so why did you get into engineering, teaching engineering?
[Jerry] Well I kind of fell into it. I was working with the one engineering teacher in the after-school program, robotics. He basically needed help. He didn’t have experience with the tools and everything. So he asked me to help, and I, of course, I was interested. It was the FIRST Robotics Competition. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.
[Jerry] OK, so I was like, wow, this is awesome. So I went and helped, and in the process of working with him, when he left, he, you know, asked if I would like to go to the training to teach engineering. I was like, yeah, I’ll do that. And at the time I was also doing my Masters work in STEM education, so it was a good chance. I took it.
[Pius] Yeah, that’s a rarer thing, as well.
[Jerry] It is rare, but I think that’s one of – Being that we do Project Lead The Way at this school, they have a very – their program is very supportive of bringing in people outside of engineering, because they will send you – any course that you’re going to teach – they will send you to a two-week, I like to call it a boot camp. They call it a core training, an intensive training on that one course.
[Pius] You’re doing that for eight hours a day…
[Jerry] Eight hours a day, five days a week.
[Pius] So you mentioned Project Lead The Way, and maybe some people listening don’t know what that is. How would you describe it?
[Jerry] Project Lead The Way? Project Lead The Way is a – they’re a nonprofit. Of course that doesn’t mean they’re free, but [laughs] Project Lead The Way provides schools with engineering curriculum, and resources. So it includes, resources include an LMS. Basically like Canvas. Resources also including everything on the LMS, which is lesson plans, PowerPoints, lab procedures.
[Pius] Like all the stuff you would need…
[Jerry] Everything you would need. Minus the materials, of course, because you’re going to have to buy that.
[Pius] Sure, yeah.
[Jerry] Everything you need. I was really impressed with that. It’s probably one of the best programs out there providing everything.
[Pius] The content, the textbooks, so to speak, except digitally, and all the…
[Jerry] Absolutely. Fully – Like I said it includes an LMS, and everything is already published on the LMS, so if you’re running through Project Lead The Way, you basically can go online and click, click, click, all the way through the year. It’s all there for you.
[Pius] Well that sounds great. Did Eastside Memorial, did your school already have Project Lead The Way when you started teaching it, or did that teacher who was there before you make up something?
[Jerry] No, no, we used Project Lead The Way from the start. We started as a STEM academy. Basically we were a new school that opened a STEM academy. We were like, what are we going to do? We want to do engineering. OK, how are we going to do that? The administrators decided to go with Project Lead The Way. And it was already here in Austin. It was in the Austin district already. So I’m sure they just thought, what are the other schools doing? There were a couple that do their engineering programs, their own engineering programs, and then there’s a handful that do Project Lead The Way. And Project Lead The Way has lots of unique offerings so we jumped on Project Lead The Way.
[Pius] So what are some of the cool things about Project Lead The Way, or PLTW, as they call it?
[Jerry] I like, like I just said, the variety of offerings you get, all in engineering. And they’re moving outside engineering now.
[Pius] Oh I didn’t know that.
[Jerry] Well they have a biotech, yeah,
[Pius] Yeah, I heard about that. I’m interested in that.
[Jerry] Well I can’t help you with that [laughs]. I’m interested in that, too. I started off as science, and my degree is biology. So I saw that Biotech, and I was like, wow, why aren’t I teaching that? But I’m good, I’m happy with what I’m teaching. They’re fun courses, but you know, you’re always wanting to do something else.
[Jerry] So they offer the Biotech. They have the Pathway to Engineering, which includes – The main courses are Intro to Engineering Design, Principles of Engineering. Then they have the specialty courses, and there’s a wide variety. You can take Civil Engineering, Computer-Aided Manufacturing, Aerodynamics. There’s lots of different ones.
[Pius] It sounds like a mini-college.
[Jerry] Yeah, it is. It is a mini-college program.
[Pius] I’ve never actually every seen one of those classes in action, so it’s kind of neat. Do you have kids who start out in the path, and then they really figure out what kind of engineering they want to specialize in? Or is it just kids who are taking it as an elective and just tasting what engineering is?
[Jerry] It’s kind of both. So you get the elective kids who just want to go through this pathway, and then you do get the kids who get to Principles of Engineering, which teaches a wide variety of subjects, so it hits on mechanical engineering. It hits on thermodynamics. It hits on circuits. It hits on programming. It’s on ballistics. Simple machines, which is mechanical. All in one year. Even does some statistics. It’s like a wide – I call it a preview of engineering, focused on the mechanical. Now I’ve had students get to that class, and then go, Oh hey, this is cool, I want to do this, so where do I need to go? To college so I can learn more about this ballistics stuff? Or more about the thermodynamics?
[Jerry] I’ve had students come in, and “I want to be a mechanical engineer.” And then they do the mechanical engineering, and they’re like, I don’t want to be a mechanical engineer, but I want to do this. But it really does – and I try to avoid that – I’m like, stick with it. There’s more to it than just, like, statics, which, you know, statics can be kind of scary to high school.
[Pius] I loved statics. [laughs]
[Jerry] Yeah, but you’ve got to think about doing truss – We analyze the truss in POE. Full breakdown.
[Pius] Like a bridge thing?
[Jerry] Yeah. Do point analysis. That’s a lot of work, and a lot of them think, I don’t know if I want to do that. So I try to reinforce that this is just one part of engineering. This is just showing you how this works. Yeah, you’ve got to do it in college. What are you going to do in the workplace? No, someone is going to do this on the computer. Of course you’re just learning the fundamentals. But one really good thing about the Project Lead The Way stuff – and hopefully any engineering course – is that you’re focusing on, always on design process, on being creative, coming up with ideas. How do we fix a problem? I focus on more on the thick stuff, like the statics, which basically is teaching them how to approach problems. Even each little math problem is a problem to be solved, the way I like to think of it. You may not use the engineering design process on that, but you may want to approach it and identify, what are they asking here on this problem? How am I going to solve it? What equations do I need? Tools? Come up with a plan. And embody that plan. Like little mini design process there. [laughs]
[Pius] So it sounds like the kids who take these engineering classes, PLTW in general, they could get benefits of it even if they weren’t going to be an engineer.
[Pius] They learn how to solve problems.
[Jerry] Sure. And I think any engineering curriculum – The problem-solving, designing and solving problems, is something we do all the time, right? A famous one: My car is broke down, what am I going to do? You can take it to a shop, or you can, you know, do a little problem-solving on your own and realize, oh, a battery cable came undone. I’m going to plug this back in. So I think it helps reinforce the idea that any problem can be broken down, step by step, analyzed, and handled in an efficient manner. You know what I mean.
[Pius] You’ve been doing this for a while. It sounds like you have plenty of years to perfect how you talk about engineering with your kids.
[Pius] Well, I don’t know, gotten better at it. Do you think you’ve gotten better? If someone is just starting out to teach engineering, what do you wish you had known, I guess, when you started? Either coming from a science background, or just fresh off the – as a new teacher.
[Jerry] Interesting. How would I…
[Pius] Basically what have you learned over the years about how to teach engineering better?
[Jerry] I think of the big things is, always with engineering, it boils down to math. It’s what keeps a lot of people out. My first approach was always: Make a big deal. Oh here we go guys, it’s time to do the math. Not don’t be scared. It’s not that bad. I don’t approach it that way anymore.
[Jerry] Now I just jump in to it. Positive, positive, because, there are still quite a few people out there, especially high school students, students that have a little bit of math anxiety. And I think all of us have it at some level.
[Pius] Yeah, adults have it…
[Jerry] Sure, I mean I still have a little bit of it. Like when I get around here with people I work with, and yeah, when we meet, and we have to talk math, you know, I feel a little like: Oh my God, I don’t want to get this wrong.
[Pius] You want to be on top of your game.
[Pius] And I’m sure you’re studying it up, or whatever it is you need to do.
[Jerry] Right. My point is to not bring that out to my students. To hide it. Just go through it, and very systematic. There needs to be some sort – I definitely, I recommend using some sort of structured approach to math. Especially for the engineering, because there’s going to be multi-fifteen-variable, picking the right equation, and manipulating… There’s lots out there. I basically use a five-stepper. I think that’s helpful.
[Pius] Did a math teacher help you pick up those skills?
[Jerry] No. [laughs]
[Pius] You weren’t a math teacher before.
[Pius] Oh wow. But you basically are now.
[Jerry] Yeah I am. I realized that, and I was very proud of myself about a year ago. Teaching engineering, you’re teaching math.
[Pius] Yeah, for sure. You’re teaching math, but you’re also teaching, like you said, problem-solving. I think there’s a lot of creative, artistic stuff that happens, too, sometimes, depending on what…
[Jerry] You’re trying to through the A in STEM. You’re going all STEAM on me.
[Pius] Yeah, I’m trying.
[Jerry] No, it’s cool. I was all STEAM before – Can I say something?
[Pius] Yeah, you can say it.
[Jerry] OK. The acronym I think is kind of crazy, because I like to tell people: The A has already been in there. The A is in the STEM, because in the engineering, you have the design, and of course for design we learn design concepts. We know design can be creative. So I think the A’s been in there all the time, really. It’s with the engineering.
[Pius] Yeah, you’re not the only one to say similar things.
[Pius] Yeah, there are similar criticisms I’ve heard about just adding more and more letters to that.
[Jerry] Yeah, what’s next? Sure, even – I’ll take the STEM, that’s cool, but we don’t even need that. The Engineering encompasses the science, the technology, the math, but I like it. We need acronyms.
[Pius] It’s an easy way to talk about it.
[13:34 Pius] This brings me to an important question also. What challenges did you face teaching engineering that other teachers could avoid? Like, they don’t even have to do through this at all. What would you tell them?
[Jerry] Wow. I’m going to kind of go back, seems like. I don’t knoe if this is good or bad, but I’m going to say it. One of my biggest challenges was not being an engineer. Now I know that kind of goes against what I was saying, that Project Lead The Way likes bringing in people that…
[Pius] That may not have been engineers.
[Pius] That’s pretty common, because there’s not a lot…
[Jerry] Yeah, they get paid a lot of money to do what they do.
[Pius] Half the reason why we’re having this podcast. We need more.
[Jerry] Right, we need more engineers in there. Well for me, it’s just because I’m a one-hundred percenter. I like to be good at what I do. I take pride in my job, and there are times where, it’s like, every time we get somebody to come in from – get a mentor to come in and help – get someone to come in and speak to these students about engineering, I always get asked: So what is your field of engineering? What do you do? Where did you go to school? And I’m like, um, well, I’m not an engineer.
[Jerry] You know kids asked you sometimes, too. For high school students, it’s not as important. They get that, oh yeah, you’re not an engineer, you’re a teacher, you’re helping us with math and science. So I guess to be positive about this, is just, I learned to be focused and be proud of and happy with what I’m doing. I have a lot of knowledge about engineering.
[Pius] Oh yeah, and I’ve been in your classroom. I’ve seen a little bit of what goes on.
[Jerry] It’s good to think that engineering is not just being math, and knowing all these physical concepts and being able – Engineering is also designing, working with people, being creative, solving problems. So I got that end covered pretty good.
[Pius] More important than having the degree is you know what you’re doing.
[Jerry] I know an example of an engineer who came from the field. Brilliant. Knew his stuff. But ran out screaming after a year just because it’s not what he expected.
[Pius] Trying to be a teacher.
[Jerry] Trying to teach, yeah.
[Pius] I think in one of our other podcasts, we just had that discussion about how, notoriously, if you went to school to become an engineer, a lot of the teachers or teaching assistance, or whoever you may have had, were not very good teachers. I mean they’re trained to be very good engineers. Slightly different skills set.
[Pius] So it’d be cool if students’ first, like, figure to teach them engineering actually knew how to teach as well.
[Jerry] Sure, they need it first from people who can guide them, help scaffold everything. And then we’ll throw them in college and let them hit the hard stuff. [laughs]
[Pius] Yeah, that drop-out rate in college is high, but maybe if we get the right kids there in the first place, it won’t be so high.
[16:22 Jerry] Yeah, here they’re making changes in college. They’re bringing the design stuff down earlier, instead of saving it all until the end, to try to help keep kids in, which is important.
[Pius] Yeah, and you have first-hand experience with this. Do you see that your kids benefit from these programs? You already mentioned how some kids have a better idea of what to study in college. Does it help them in other realms, like, I don’t know, finding jobs in the summertime?
[Pius] Or in their other classes?
[Jerry] That’s the organization part. That comes from every teacher’s own teaching method. I’m big on organizing, and preparing them with 21st Century skills.
[Jerry] Which is a very important part. It needs to continue to be an important part of instruction. Not just focusing on the curriculum all the time, but, yeah, how to organize information on a computer. How to organize it on paper. How to send emails. How to talk with people.
[Pius] Those are the types of things that would help anyone, even if they didn’t become an engineer.
[Jerry] Exactly. But that kind of always boils down to an individual teacher. It’s really not embedded in a lot of curricula. You can find it. You have to make sure to pull it out and emphasize it as a topic. One thing I’ve switched to recently is for documentation, focusing on paper documentation and electronic documentation. These kids will just save things randomly. Figuring out a way to organize everything. Folders, flash drives.
[Pius] They aren’t used to doing that?
[Jerry] No, they really – Well they are but, a little guidance. Some examples, and just stepping up and saying, this is something that needs to go in your digital, we call it a digital portfolio.
[Pius] As a final question, one of the final questions, do you have any of your own questions about the field of K-12 engineering education? Are there things that you’re wondering still about how to teach it, or how to bring it to your kids?
[Jerry] Not to sound like a know-it-all, but –
[Pius] Maybe not. [laughs]
[Jerry] In a way, no, but I have lots of questions, don’t get me wrong.
[Pius] But you’ve been prepared really well, is what it sounds like.
[Jerry] I wanted to say something about the importance of bringing mentors. The importance of bringing professionals into the classroom. Just to stand up in front of the students and say, hey, I’m an engineer, or hey, I’m a scientist, or hey, I’m a researcher. When you do that, there’s just, you can see this look in the kids’ eyes. They just chance. They hear from teachers all the time. Hey we want you be engineers, we want you be scientists. This is what a scientist does, this is what an engineer does. When they actually come in the room and talk about their experiences, the students really listen. They get into it, and they will ask questions that they would never ask me. I think that’s huge. So one of my big questions would be: how do we get more of these people into the classroom? I know a lot of it is time and money. We’re dealing with professionals. But I think that’s of huge importance. Or maybe even getting the kids out of the classroom and going to see the professionals.
[Jerry] Which still has its own logistics complications.
[Pius] That makes me think of two things. One is, does Project Lead The Way help you with those field trips or getting people in? And number two: Do you think that’s the same for basically any subject that these kids are learning – or is it especially important for engineering and STEM, as opposed to like English and art?
[Jerry] I think it’s especially important for engineering, just because the challenges that you face as you go down that road – and you hear a lot of people say, that’s hard. You need to have a GPA this, or you’re not going to be able to do that. So it gives them like a role model. Somebody physical that they can see. This guy did it. I had one mentor come in from Austin Energy and told the story of – he struggled. People told me I couldn’t do this, but I did it. And he was really cool. He handed out business cards. He said, hey, any of you have any trouble, email me. I’ll talk to you.
[Pius] Wow. Did anyone --
[Jerry] They didn’t appreciate that like I did, but I told them. I said guys, what you got was a gift, and when people do that, if someone hands you a business card and says, here’s my email, they mean it. Especially if they tear up like he did at one point when he was talking about how difficult it was, and how he cares, and he wants to help other people. I said that’s sincere, so you know you can email that guy down the road. So yeah, that’s huge. And Project Lead The Way, they tell us obviously that we need to get professionals in, and a requirement to be a certified school is to have a partnership, to have an advisory board, to have somebody out there, industry, academics, as part of your team helping you develop your program and talk with your students.
[Pius] That’s really cool. And so your admin helps you set that up? It’s not just you finding people all the time? Or a little bit of both?
[Jerry] It’s mostly the teacher. Yeah.
[Pius] Wow. So you have contacts.
[Jerry] Yeah. What’s nice is, you find programs -- like Austin Energy has a program. I dealt with one central – I dealt with a guy who set up the interviews, or not the interviews but the classroom visits. One person, and I would get two people, two new people coming -- I should say two new professionals every month come in the classrooms. One class or another. And talk to the students, and do a little presentation, and they’re were all engineers, and it was awesome.
[Pius] They probably pick out the people who were interested and good at talking with kids.
[Jerry] Yeah, and there are a lot of people who are interested, too. A lot of people want to go back and they want to help.
[Pius] Yeah I’m sure. I know that even at the university level, a lot of people want to go back and help the schools, where they come from.
[Jerry] Yeah. Like we said, sometimes it’s just hard. Where do you go? Who do you talk to? You can’t just call up a school and say hey, I’d like to talk to kids. They’d go, you’re crazy.
[Pius] I need to find that out, if there’s like a central database of professionals who are willing to go out and do outreach like that. I’ve never heard of one.
[Jerry] Yeah there is a thing, oh my goodness I can’t remember what it’s called.
[Pius] I can look that up, and anyone listening can send me an email.
[Jerry] [laughs] Yeah but most of the things they have are like Skyping in, coming in with a computer.
[Pius] Oh right. NASA does that if I’m correct.
[Jerry] Yeah they’ll do it. So that’s a question I have. What are these…
[Pius] These mysterious…
[Jerry] Yeah. [laughs]
[Pius] The companies I’ve worked with, they’ve got different community divisions, but I don’t know if there’s one central place that everybody goes to, but maybe there ought to be.
[Jerry] Well that would be a – That’s a good design problem, for someone to come up with an application or a website that connects.
[Pius] Yeah technically I should be working on that.
[Jerry] Yeah I think that’s a good idea, Pius, why don’t you get up on that? [laughs]
[Pius] All right, I think we just came up with a new product out of the twenty others in my pile.
[Jerry] Go to work.
[Pius] No but that’s cool. Thanks. I think that was pretty much the last thing I wanted to ask you. I really respect what you do.]
[Jerry] Thank you.
[Pius] And hopefully we’ll talk again and hear more about engineering down the road.
[Jerry] Yeah man, thanks. Keep doing what you’re doing, it’s awesome to get more information on these connections.
[24:26 music interlude]
[Pius] The views expressed in this podcast are our own, and they are not necessarily the opinions of any schools, universities, or other organizations with which we might be connected. Our opening music comes from “School Zone” by the Honorable Sleaze, and our closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleeptor. Both are used under a Creative Commons Attribution license, so go check them out. Let me know what you want to talk about in K12 engineering education today by connecting on Twitter: @PiusWong. Thanks for listening.
[24:56 music interlude]