Engineering Teachers Replicate Themselves, Part 1
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
Engineering Teachers Replicate Themselves, Part 1
[00:00 Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for August 8th, 2016.
[00:13 Pius] How do you prepare to train a room full of new engineering teachers? What’s the thought process before leading the training and after? We’re going to talk about that in two separate episodes starting with Part 1 today. Our guests are Melanie Kong and Natalie Wyll, both engineering teachers originally and high school engineering teachers now, and they’re about to lead a summer training session for twenty to thirty other teachers. This training covers a year’s worth of engineering curriculum, all packed into two weeks in August. Guest engineer Sadhan Sathyaseelan helped moderate this conversation with me before the training session.
[00:53 Pius] First, who are our guests? Here’s Natalie Wyll.
[Natalie Wyll] So I have a degree in architectural engineering, and I was a practicing structural engineer for several years before I moved into the classroom. I started my teaching career teaching mathematics, and now I’ve been teaching – I think this is my sixth year. I’ll be teaching both math and engineering. This will be my second year teaching engineering.
[Pius] And here’s Melanie Kong.
[Melanie Kong] I got my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering as well as a teaching certificate, and I worked in consumer products and oil and gas industries before becoming a teacher. I’m going into my third year teaching. I’ve taught science, math, and engineering, and I’ve taught engineering for one year.
[Pius] You can imagine how difficult it might be to find teachers with similar backgrounds. Natalie and Melanie are going to train teachers on an engineering curriculum named Engineer Your World, which they also use in their classrooms. The University of Texas at Austin developed Engineer Your World starting in 2009, as a National Science Foundation project, and – full disclosure – I also helped develop this curriculum when I used to work for UT. So why did Melanie and Natalie get involved with teaching engineering using Engineer Your World?
[Melanie] This is Melanie. I worked on the curriculum a little bit back in college, and I really like how it teaches the practices and habits of mind, versus diving into engineering content. So it doesn’t go over engineering formulas or that kind of thing, but what it does a really good job of is embodying what it means to practice engineering design. And I feel like that’s what I learned out of my own internships in research and development and engineering was how to go through the design process, and how do you sovle any problem that’s in front of you.
[Pius] Natalie similarly learned of the curriculum at UT Austin while doing her research for her Masters in STEM education.
[Natalie] What prompted me to bring Engineer Your World to my school was sort of related to my experience growing up in high school. I was good at science, I was good at math, and everybody was just like, oh, you should be an engineer, but I didn’t really have any experience with engineering. My parents weren’t engineers, but – didn’t know what else to do, so I did it. I went into engineering, and ended up luckily being good at it, enjoying it, but I really wanted to give students a broad overview of what – to add on to what Melanie was saying – what engineering is like. What are the engineering habits of mind? What are the types of problems engineers do, and how that’s different from science and math.
[03:28 Melanie] Definitely want to echo what Natalie was saying there. Same deal. I had no idea what the different kinds of engineering were. My dad was a chemical engineer, so that’s why I went into it. But I had no idea what it actually meant. So I like how the course introduces students to little bits, little pieces, of every kind of engineering, so hopefully they can make a more informed decision by the end of one year in high school.
[Natalie] Yeah, and I really like how the Engineer Your World program is so accessible at a high school level. It really – It’s project-based, and it really gets students hands-on experience at a level that is appropriate for them without having to have an entire degree in engineering.
[04:14 Pius] Now Sadhan gets more to the theme of today.
[Sadhan Sathyaseelan] The first question is: when you were teaching engineering for the first time, how different was it from teaching other sciences?
[Natalie] It’s vastly different, in a wonderful, wonderful way. Going through the experience of doing my Masters program and through teaching Engineer Your World, I think it has profoundly changed my – the way I teach, and in a good way. And I see that I am carrying these concepts and these pedagogical practices over into my mathematics classroom.
[Natalie] I would say that math is taught generally in a very traditional way. A lot of lecture, quiz, test, homework, work problems out of the book, and that’s not incredibly engaging for the students, and it’s also not necessarily hugely transferrable. Great, you can work this one problem out of the book, but where does it apply? Where are you going to use it in real life? And being that I was an engineer, I always had that in the back of my mind, because for an engineer, math – mathematics is a tool. It’s not the end-all-be-all. So I always really had this desire to impart that to my students in mathematics. Where is this being used? Why are we learning this? You know. So I think teaching engineering has really given a great outlet for that, and I have tried to bring that, like I said, bring that over into my mathematics classrooms, trying to get more hands-on, engaging activities, trying to get students labs where they’re collecting data, and having to apply some mathematical concept to figure out some greater problem, which is a lot of how the engineering curriculum is taught. So I think teaching engineering has had an amazingly positive effect on the way I teach mathematics. And I really think, just pedagogically or – my philosophy is, I think that’s how math should be taught.
[Pius] That was Natalie, and here’s Melanie.
[Melanie] I came from a program which really emphasized problem-based learning. So I actually carried a lot of the same teaching style over with me to engineering. I did have some of the same students, and my biggest trouble with going into engineering was how I was going to – what I was going to focus on the students knowing and how I’m going to assess it. Because in all of my math and science classes, I was a standards-based teacher, so everything revolved around: what are the standards, and how are students demonstrating knowledge of those standards. But engineering is so process-driven. Every single thing they’re doing in the process really matters. That was a big shift for me. I didn’t know how I was going to assess like how they are doing this activity today, and the same one tomorrow. How am I going to assess all those things along the way? Because I really wanted my students to be following this process, whereas in my other classes, I didn’t grade any of the process. I only graded the results, so that was a huge change for me. It was how was I going to do process versus the standards.
[07:35 Natalie] That is something that is an educational piece for your students that sometimes they’re wary of – particularly at the beginning – since it’s a – There’s a whole, well technically infinitely many ways to approach and solve this problem, and there’s not necessarily a right way. As long as you’re meeting the customer needs or meeting the specifications that need to be met for the given parameters, how you go about doing that…
[Natalie] …is up to you. And it’s OK if you fail. That’s part of the learning process. You know I get so many students that kept – especially at the beginning of the year – asking me, well, how is this going to be graded? What if this doesn’t work? Am I going to fail? Is it going to be points off? Because they have for their entire school career, have been sort of indoctrinated to this points-based grading system, where there is one right answer.
[Natalie] And there is not one right answer in engineering. As long as you meet the customer specifications, you’re fine.
[Pius] There are better answers.
[Melanie] Yeah. [laughs]
[Natalie] Certainly. Certainly there are better answers.
[Pius] But I know what you mean.
[Natalie] There are better answers, but there are better ways to reach, you know, an end design, but there’s not – The answer’s not two.
[Natalie] It’s not a check mark or X-mark. It’s a, like you were saying, it’s a process, and…
[Natalie] …Getting students behind that, it – they have to – I don’t think they understand that.
[Melanie] As well, it’s hard to tell your students that that’s what’s really important. Because students are so used to, like, oh, I need to be able to solve a proportion, and they’re not used to thinking about: I have to identify what the problem is. It’s a different set of standards that you’re trying to teach. And I’m going to share something that a science teacher at my school – whenever he starting teaching his engineering course – He didn’t realize how science was so different from engineering. But what really struck him was when he was looking at that list of standards, and he’d never seen – you know, he never realized that in engineering, the content that you’re learning is how to solve a problem. The content isn’t about earthquakes. It’s not about doing math problems. It’s about how to solve a problem. So that was a big shift for him: it was thinking about how the content of engineering is the practice, not the knowledge.
[09:54 Sadhan] OK, so one of the teachers that was interacting with me told me – this is the context of the conversation – Training a room full of teachers, or being in a room full of teachers is like being in a room full of alphas. How do you deal with that? So that’s pretty much where the question is coming from. So these are not kids. These are not your students, where you’re used to a certain dynamic in the relationship. So here that’s not the case. And in addition to just delivering the content, you also need to train them from the perspective of teachers, yourself, from your own experiences. So what’s the outlook? What are you guys looking at, moving towards this?
[Melanie] So we are currently – Natalie and I are currently observing a PD session in which we’re watching other teachers train teachers, and what we have talked about is how important it is for teachers to actually experience the course as if they were students, because we want the teachers to understand: These are the problems your students are going to face. These are some of the questions that might come to their mind. And we want them to have that authentic student experience so that they can empathize more with their students come the school year. What we’ve been noticing – It’s been really hard as teachers to stay in that – we, the trainers stay in teacher mode, and the teachers stay in student mode. So it’s been hard to distinguish between when is teacher talk versus student talk time.
[Natalie] You know we’ve had these conversations. It’s really hard for teachers to not be in teacher mode, because they’re teachers, and so when they’re going through a project, they’re thinking of it all from a teacher perspective. Well how am I going to deliver this material? How am I going to manage these supplies? What am I going to do for this assessment? When they’re only focused on that, some of the experience is just lost for them – can be. Truly what it’s like to go through the design process, or whatever project it is we’re working on. So I think that’s going to be one difficulty – managing that. Helping the teachers for at least some portion of the time, try and stay in student mode so they can understand where their students are coming from, then OK, pause. Now let’s have a conversation from teacher to teacher, from the teacher perspective, because of course, that’s important, too. We want them to not only experience it from a student perspective, but then also think about OK how are we going to deliver this from a teacher perspective. But keeping that divide or keeping them in student mode for at least part of the time, I think, is difficult. And I understand that as a teacher.
[12:35 Sadhan] So do you guys have any strategies? How do you plan to do that?
[Melanie] Yeah, I think we’re just going to be really transparent at the very beginning, for – we need to have these different modes, and we are respecting that you all are teachers. You have more experience than us. You all have a lot of wisdom to share with everybody, but to truly, to authentically experience this course, we do need to have to set up these norms for it. This is when you need to be thinking like you’re a students, versus this is when we can have conversation teacher to teacher.
[Melanie] We’re definitely going to spend a little bit of time at the beginning discussing the philosophy behind what we’re doing.
[Natalie] Yeah. And I mean, they’re not our students. They’re our colleagues, so I think that’s a big difference. You know, just treating them like our colleagues. Being very up front and transparent from the beginning. This is what we want to do. During this time, we want you to experience it like a student. Try and honor that process, and then I promise you, we will give you time to approach this from a teacher’s perspective, too. I think that’s just their worries or fears that, you know, oh my God, when are we…
[Melanie] When are we going to answer these questions?
[Natalie] Yeah. And so we’ve, you know, developed ways – We want them to write questions down in their engineering notebook as they come up.
[Natalie] We want them to – we’ve been using Padlet as sort of a parking lot for questions for them to…
[Pius] Padlet is an online tool that you can use to keep track of that stuff.
[Natalie] Yeah, so you know, hey we understand. This question comes up when you’re thinking about it in the moment, awesome. Jot that down in your notebook, or jot that down on Padlet, so that when we come to the teacher-teacher time, we can come back and address it without distracting from the flow of the project.
[Melanie] We’ve talked about having specific times set aside, too, so potentially lunch-and-learns. Where it’s like, today we’re going to discuss how to do notebooking, or we’re going to discusss team accountability. So setting aside times to address the hot topics for teachers.
[Pius] Have you been to other professional developments?
[Melanie] I have. [laughs]
[Natalie] Certainly, yeah.
[Pius] I’m just curious, how is a professional development for engineering expected to be different from other professional developments? I’ve never been to teacher professional development.
[Melanie] So you’re talking about like, teacher professional development.
[Natalie] [laughs] Oh you’re missing out, Pius. Let me tell you.
[Pius] I’ll live vicariously.
[Melanie] No, so a lot of…
[Natalie] Hey, you can come to mine later this summer if you want.
[Melanie] [laughs] So I’ve been to some – I’ve also been to train-the-teacher PD, as well, so that might be good to bring up as well. But they did a really good job of putting on the teacher hat and the trainer hat, so you would – Our trainer would actually specifically say, OK, now you’re students, and you know, just display putting on his trainer hat, so now…
[Pius] He put on a literal hat?
[Melanie] Yeah, so now we’re in this mode, and you are students, and you are taking notes as if you’re students. You’re asking questions as if you’re students. He had a really clear divide between, this is the time that we’re going to talk as if you were a student in the course versus this is the time that we’re talking as if you are going to be teaching the course, because you are going to be. A lot of the PD session I go to as a teacher – And we’ll model a lot of the same – Like, the trainer will be a teacher, and we’ll be students. We’ll model activities as students, so I do see that a lot.
[Natalie] Yeah. I think, it seems like in my experience there hasn’t been as clear of a divide between: this is teacher time, versus this is student time. So what I’ve found is that the teachers just stay stuck in teacher mode 100% of the time and aren’t really getting into that student space where they’re experiencing it as a student. So I think it just takes being very clear and up-front, you know, from the beginning. This is our philosophy. This is what we want you to do. Right now is teacher time. OK, now let’s switch gears. Now this is student time.
[Sadhan] That gives me a lot of insights. Thank you for that.
[Sadhan] This seems like such a simple and elegant solution. Put on a teacher hat. Put on a student hat.
[Sadhan] I personally have learned a lot from you guys, in this conversation. I can totally see what went wrong with my training sessions in the past.
[Pius] It wasn’t that bad.
[Natalie] I’m sure you were fine.
[Melanie] First time.
[Sadhan] …that I’m going to implement in the future, that’s a brilliant strategy. And I’m actually very curious as to know how this actually works out.
[Melanie] Yup, we’ll see.
[Pius] You can speak as engineers and teachers, and that…
[Sadhan] That is a huge resource.
[Melanie] Yeah, I know. There might be times we need to put on our engineering hats, too.
[Natalie] Yeah, versus our teacher hats, yeah.
[Melanie] Because there I times when I do want to talk, content-wise, about, like, oh, during the chemical engineering, this is like an actual example of design of experiments in industry. I might want to pull up my experiences, too.
[Natalie] Oh I get super excited during the earthquake unit and want to talk totally all about the structural engineering, and I think it’s just – It takes us, too – We as trainers have to make sure that we are honoring when we are in teacher mode, and they are in student mode. It’s really hard for me. I want to give them all my teacher tips and tricks. I want to do that.
[Natalie] And I have to hold myself back. Like, no, you know, I need to give them the student experience, pause on that. So I think it’s a two-way street. It’s me making sure that I’m honoring the process just as much as they are honoring the process, but I get super excited and want to go dive way deep into all the structural engineering, so, I totally get that there’s a time for teacher hat, there’s a time for engineering hat.
[Sadhan] You know what? So, you will have time to talk about this…
[Sadhan] ...if you guys are willing to do another session…
[Melanie] All right.
[Sadhan] …after you are finished with your training. Would you guys be willing to come back and talk about what happened, and what worked?
[Melanie] Yeah, it’ll be interesting. Hopefully it works.
[Natalie] Yeah, absolutely.
[Pius] A debrief and post-mortem.
[Natalie] [laughs] Fantasic.
[Melanie] Thank you.
[Natalie] Thank you.
[Pius] Thank you Natalie, thank you Melanie, and thank you Sadhan.
[Sadhan] Thanks, Pius.
[Pius] Thank you. [laughs] Let’s thank everyone.
[Pius] And we will come back again.
[18:43 Pius] Stay tuned for Part Two of this talk in an upcoming episode. Our guests will talk about what happened after their first time running this training. You can go online to find more information about the engineering curriculum mentioned in this episode at engineeryourworld.org. That’s also linked in today’s show notes. Please subscribe to The K12 Engineering Education Podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, or your favorite player, and rate this on iTunes if you like it. On Twitter, send me comments: @PiusWong. You can also like and share the show on Facebook for updates.
[19:20 Pius] The views expressed in this podcast are our own, and they’re not necessarily the opinions of any schools or other organizations with which we might be connected. Our opening music comes from “School Zone” by The Honorable Sleaze. Our music in the middle and at the close is from “Love is Chemical” and “Theme P” by Steve Combs. All are used under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Thanks so much for listening.