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Teaching Teachers (When You're Not One)

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Engineers Sadhan Sathyaseelan and Pius Wong both have trained high school teachers in engineering curricula. We're talking about what we've learned, as non-teachers, to successfully train teachers in professional development programs spanning different engineering disciplines. How does it compare to teaching undergraduates? Or our own experiences learning and practicing engineering in school and at work?

Our opening music today comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze, and our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor. Both are used under a Creative Commons Attribution License: creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, by purchasing digital teaching materials at the Pios Labs curriculum store, or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.


The following is a transcript of an episode of The K12 Engineering Education Podcast. More transcripts for other episodes are linked from the podcast main page, k12engineering.net. Extra information about the episode, including links to relevant resources, are listed in the show notes, which can be found on iTunes, SoundCloud, or your podcast player.

Transcript of:

The K12 Engineering Education Podcast


Teaching Teachers (When You’re Not One)

Release Date:




[Pius Wong] You’re listening to the K12 engineering Education Podcast for June 27, 2016.


[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 talking with Sadhan Sathyaseelan again.  We’re both engineers who train high school teachers in engineering curricula, and we’re talking about what we’ve learned as non-teachers to successfully train teachers.


[Sadhan Sathyaseelan]  How do you see the teachers?  Because the way I see them  is like, OK, I’m teaching them, I know better, I know more than them.  It’s not better, sorry.  I know more than them.

[Pius laughs]

[Sadhan]  And I want to develop this specific unit.  So they need to follow the way I present it to them. If they deviate from it, I’m gonna be a little more hard on them.  So how do you deal with that?

[Pius] So that’s interesting.  You – it sounds like you view them in a way like they were the high school students.

[Sadhan] Interesting.

[Pius]  I think that I try to view them as teachers, adults who probably know a lot in their specific field.  Because we are teaching a lot of people who math not have ever taught engineering.  They may have taught a lot of math.  They may have taught technology classes, or they may have taught biology, but never touched these engineering classes.  And so I try to view them as colleagues almost. Almost.  Because as I said I used to work in industry and I had to train a lot of other people in their own specialized knowledge.

[Sadhan] That’s very interesting.

[Pius] You wouldn’t go to a colleague in the orthopaedics industry, for example, and if they didn’t know how to use some CAD package, you wouldn’t tell them, OK, do this, do this, and then you give them an A through F.  I mean that’s not how you would do it in a company, I think.  And so it was very natural for me to just view this group of twenty teachers as experts in whatever they know. And trying to treat time with that respect.

[Sadhan]  OK, that’s very interesting.  What is your definition of teaching vs training?

[Pius]  Whenever you say teacher or when people say teaching to me I always think of teachers officially. Those licensed professionals who teach in our high schools and our middle schools and everything.  That’s specifically what I envision.  And I know that doesn’t have to mean that, but that’s what I envision.  And as a trainer – I easily will call myself a trainer – but not necessarily a teacher because I don’t have a license and I’ve never done that.  Whereas training, anyone who trains someone in something is a trainer. Anyone who unofficially teaches someone something is a trainer, to me.  That’s how I view it.  And of course that’s not the only definition.

[Sadhan]  Because when you were talking about how you view the teachers, teachers, teaching, is a lot more usually: I’m looking down on you, in a sense.  In a sense that, I know more, so you got to follow what I’m saying. That’s teaching. Versus training, like, we are both equals.

[Pius]  Kind of.  Sort of.

[Sadhan]  Yeah.  So I think it’s a different style of communication.

[Pius]  Is that a cultural thing?  You say that you’re from India.  Is that How teachers or engineers are taught in India?

[Sadhan]  OK that makes a lot of sense, yes.


[Pius]  Is that true?  I don’t even know.

[Sadhan]  Yeah.  Very very very very true. In India teachers are always looked up at. If they know what they’re saying, what they’re doing. And I would say that even have a certain amount of control over the students where the students need to listen to the teacher. And it goes beyond just subject, or the field that they’re teaching. It can also be about discipline.  So they can teach you discipline.  They can do that. 

[Pius]  What’s interesting is that I totally agree that teachers should be an authority.  And for that reason I would say that I am not.  Because I don’t want to be disciplining a 30 year old adult. That’s part of the thing.  If they want to do something on their computer I will trust that because I know the situation. If I go to a training myself, I very often will be like, I don’t want to listen to this, and then I start doing something else.  As long as I’m not disrupting the group, for me, I feel like that would be justified. 

[Sadhan]  That’s a very, very, very good insight.  Because I – You don’t discipline them. [laughs]

[Pius]  It depends.  The answer always is, it depends.

[Sadhan]  Yeah, but not like disciplining kids.

[Pius]  Yeah.  No, I wouldn’t send a teacher to – what office do I have?  There’s no principal who’s going to yell at them.  Like, they’re coming here ostensibly of their own volition, or their principal made them do it.  And they’re somewhat interested in learning the engineering content.  I will trust that, because I know that if I were in the same situation, I would have empathy for it.  If I didn’t like what was going on, I would get it.  I totally get why I would be wanting to –

[Sadhan]  But it’s the same for the kids, too.

[Pius]  This is true.  Exactly.  So I do wonder if this is like a cultural thing, or just a personal style.  I was the type of kid – I totally slept in class in college, in those huge lecture hall classes that were useless.

[Sadhan]  So did I.  [laughs]

[Pius]  Personally yes, I did, but I did well in those classes, so…

[Sadhan]  Same, same.  Yeah.

[Pius] Right.  So that’s the thing.  I know that people can still do well.  I know some of these teachers coming in can still be excellent teachers and teach their kids all sorts of engineering units and inspire them, without them necessarily doing exactly what is laid out in front of them in our training sessions. 

[Sadhan]  OK.  So you have trained specifically high school teachers.  You’ve trained them in engineering for three years, I believe, right?

[Pius]  Four, yeah, three to four years.

[Sadhan]  So this is coming from a lot of experience.  So would you say that this topic being teaching teachers engineering, maybe training teachers in engineering?

[Pius]  Good point.  Maybe it’s training teachers in engineering.

[Sadhan]   OK so the next question would be, if you are training them, what do you expect them to do with the kids?

[Pius]  I expect them to use whatever teaching knowledge that they already have from their education to teach them the content that I deliver.  My job is just to make sure that they know the science, the math, the engineering, the technology, and they learn all the ins and outs of it as much as we can – as much as they can do in the limited time that we have with them.  And then they can go back and look back upon their own pedagogical knowledge and experience, and present it to their kids however they want.  Now we have a lot of recommendations.  It depends on what curriculum you’re teaching.  Our curriculum happens to be very problem-based, and project-based, and team-oriented, so we will definitely recommend that you teach in that style.  But as for the minute details, I’m not a fan of micromanagement, especially if I’m talking about what a teacher’s going to do in a state away and across the country.  There’s no way I’m going to tell them, you have to say this and this and this.  I will tell them, the kids have to know how to code this, they have to know how to do similar triangles here.  That’s the type of stuff that I’m confident saying.  What’s also interesting is that, like you, I taught undergrads as well, and then I’ve trained a bunch of other things.  But at least when I was teaching undergrads, that’s the closest experience I’ve ever had of being in a real classroom.  And I can draw on that.  Even from that minor experience, relative to what teachers do, I learned how tough – how tough a job teaching can be.  And I wasn’t even a real teacher.  I didn’t have to grade homework.  I was teaching kids who mostly wanted to be there.  And then I’ve also fortunately visited lots and lots of high school classrooms, and I think you’ve seen a few.  But when you visit a high school classroom, middle school classroom, you see the ridiculousness that it is sometimes.

[Sadhan]  Chaos.

[Pius]  And there’s no efficiency at all in micromanaging or dictacting exactly what a teacher must say, because that totally breaks what’s going on in the classroom.  A teacher has to be a great improve artist in a way, and maybe that’s a good topic for a future podcast, but they have to be able to go with what’s happening at the moment.  You have forty different people in the room in some cases. Ten to thirty kids, something like that. And all with their own different ideas.  I think telling a teacher what to do all the time is a recipe for disaster.

[Sadhan]  Yeah.  So I’m glad you touched upon the teaching, TA-ing.  In your Masters degree you TA’d.   A TA is a teaching assistant.  What were the classes you taught?

[Pius]  Yeah, so mechatronics was one of them for a year.  I also taught differential equations for a while.  Very different from what high school kids learn.  And you did a design class.

[Sadhan]  I did mechatronics as well.

[Pius]  Oh yeah.  Mechatronics for those who don’t know, it’s mixing a little mechanical engineering with electronics, and a lot of people treat it as like diffusing a bomb in one hour, because all the labs have to be done in a limited time.

[Sadhan]  I see where your – that’s a very different experience from myself, as well, in terms of my own teaching or training experience.  That was very different from what I’m used to, because they do most of the work.  It’s not like you’re standing there and teaching anything.  They have a pre-test, where they go learn stuff that’s required for the specific lab, come in, and then you just guide them.  You don’t really teach them anything.

[Pius]  That’s awesome actually, because I would say, and I think a lot of people, a lot of professional engineers would say, that that is more engineering.  It’s much closer to real engineering, where you just do stuff.  You’re the one thinking.  You’re the one doing the math.  You’re the one building the circuit.  You’re the one dealing with it when the LED explodes, because that happens, and the TA is there to make sure you don’t hurt yourself, you don’t waste time, and you’re also encouraging a lot of people.  You’re not necessarily giving them the answer, but you’re, like you said, you’re guiding them.  And I think that experience that we’ve had, that’s supremely useful.  That’s the experience that I think teachers should have.  When teachers go out to teach engineering specifically, especially at the high school level, those high school kids should be guided more.  It’s in between middle school and college.  They should have that experience of being able to fail, and having a little bit of pressure.

[Sadhan]  I find, like, this is literally breaking their mode of, comfort zone.

[Pius]  Especially compare to the traditional model of teaching where you’re just lecturing and sitting up at the front of the class.  I don’t think engineering works like that.

[Sadhan]  So that makes me wonder.  So we did talk about how, from your perspective, you want to train the teachers, relating to them as colleagues.  You want to train them that way.  But when it comes to them teaching the students, they adapt their own style, their own mode of operation.  The question is:  Engineering is highly specific in terms of how it should be taught in this instance.  It’s more open, it’s more discovery-based, and and how we were doing the TA-ing, we just guide the students.  So would you say that instead of teachers just going there and teaching engineering just like physics or math, that they do otherwise, do you think it’s OK for them to do the same for engineering?  Or is it necessary for teachers to also change the way they teach that to what engineering is?  And show students, OK, this is what engineering is.  It’s mostly – they have to feel that they’re engineers.  That’s the end goal.  Right?

[Pius]  I think the short answer is, yes, they do.  I think that a lot of teachers already – who are math teachers, physics teachers, science teachers, and non-science teachers – a lot of these teachers might already have skills in guiding students rather than just feeding them answers.  But for those who don’t, those teachers who are only used to lecturing at the front of the class, so to speak, then yes, they would probably have to change their style.  Because personally, and I don’t know any studies behind this, but personally, I learn the most, most definitely when I was doing the work, when I was doing the homework, when I was thinking.  And I learned very little when I was just sitting there listening.  And that could just be me.  You pick up a little bit, but it doesn’t stay.  You have to be involved –

[Sadhan]  Active.

[Pius]  Yeah.  And just like – And math is the clearest example for me.  I never learned anything when people would just be deriving things on the board.  I had to do it.  It’s like solving a puzzle.  If you watch someone solve, like, a Rubik’s cube, I mean if I guess you do it closely and intently you could copy them.  But sometimes you just got to do the Rubik’s cube yourself.  That’s how you’re going to learn how to do it.

[Sadhan]  So it is like, literally describing engineering.  Engineering is hands-on.  How else do you learn that?

[Pius]  Yeah, and so it’s one of those funny things.  I have a friend who’s a surgeon, and that is also learning hands-on.  It’s not design, but it’s one of those things where, yes, you prepare as much as you can, because you don’t want to do something wrong, but eventually you have to do it.  You have someone guiding you as you’re cutting someone open, and that’s in a way what I think this engineering teachers doing.  Fortunately no one’s going to get hurt in an engineering class, as long as the teacher knows what they’re doing.  Way less risk than a surgery.

[Sadhan]  That makes me want to ask you this question.  You brought up the idea of safety.  Engineering classrooms – so when you’re training the teachers, and you know.  You developed those projects.  You know all the safety concerns and how to avoid them more than them.  It literally is not possible to tell them or teach them every single one of those things.  How do you manage to do that?  What do you tell?  How do you set that up?

[Pius]  Well when you talk about physical safety, I think, at least most of the stuff that we teach, there aren’t a lot of physical risks.  Most of the risks fall in broad categories:  Don’t stab yourself.  Don’t burn yourself.  Put away the stuff.  You know.  Basic things that hopefully kids have learned even in middle school.  Don’t run with scissors.  If ever we – So the biggest risk that I’ve ever had in a training situation or a classroom situation was either in mechatronics, or actually at work.  So I used to work at a research lab where you easily could get injured if you put your body in the wrong place, and it might get crushed by a hydraulic testing machine, or you accidentally touch a cadaver, and then you touch your face or something.  There’s lots of bad things that could happen.  That was easily more dangerous.  And before you ever get to the industry level of safety hazards, you get to the classroom level of safety hazards.  I think that the curriculum should be designed in the very first place where there aren’t a lot of safety hazards.  And I talk to them about the broad concerns.    I think that makes the most sense.  Now you’ve taught mechatronics as well.  There always was the risk of things exploding or burning. 

[Sadhan]  Heating up.

[Pius]  It’s funny, I think you had two or three people in the classroom at a time?  At least that’s how it was for me.

[Sadhan]  TA’s you mean?

[Pius]  Yeah. 

[Sadhan]  It was two TA’s at a time.

[Pius]  Now unfortunately schoolteachers don’t have that luxury.  So again it just goes back to the point of how hard their jobs are. 

[Sadhan]  So I have one last question for you.  You have four years of training experience.

[Pius]  And then I’ll have a question for you.

[Sadhan]  Awesome.  Fair enough.  You can take back the host position. 

[Pius]  No, no, you’re the host today.

[Sadhan]  Awesome.  I know for a fact that we need more trainers like you.  If you want to spread engineering to more high schools, we need more trainers.  And best people to do that is teachers themselves.  They need to learn to train.  So if there’s one piece of advice, suggestion that you have for them, what would that be?  When it comes specifically to the teachers training other teachers to teach engineering.

[Pius]  I would have to answer that question from the perspective of just an engineer.  I can’t tell these teachers how to teach, per se.  I would say that if it was just one thing, I would say to them, fin the things that make your kids extremely passionate about engineering.  There are things that I could not get my, get out of my head, just like you, probably, when you were a kid.  There were things I couldn’t get out of my head when I was a kid.  Wanting to decode what was inside your brain, or make a video game, or build a robot.  Those things.  And that was the stuff that was like a fire in me.  And if teachers can use their skills to find what engineering topic would inspire kids, that’s like the number one thing.  Because if the kids are inspired, then they’ll go off and do their own work.  They’ll learn their math, and they’ll learn how to use this computer software, even though coding sometimes sucks, they’ll learn it, because they love creating robots so much, for example.  Whatever it is.  Some people hate building robots.  Maybe they like something else.  Chemical engineering.  Hopefully it’s classroom-friendly.

[Sadhan]  It’s a playground.  It sure is.

[Pius]  So finding the passion.  And that’s part of the art of teaching.  Awkward engineer that I may be, I don’t know how could I could be at that, but I do trust the teachers who I’ve met to do that.

[Sadhan]  Awesome. 

[Pius]  So I have a question for you.

[Sadhan]  OK.

[Pius]  Something that I thought of earlier was:  You have still trained a lot of teachers.  You’ve designed some curriculum.  Curriula, in fact.  You’ve taught practicing teachers.  You’ve taught undergraduates.  And I’m just wondering, what pitfalls have you encountered, what challenges have you encountered in designing curriculum, or training these teachers that you think you’ve overcome.  That would basically be good for any other professional out there designing curriculum for teachers who may not have any educational experience, because there’s a lot of them out there.

[Sadhan]  Yeah.  OK.  So when it comes to curriculum design, the feedback I have is, you need to know where to draw the line.  The framework is very important, like the boundaries.  Defining it.  So you cannot dumb it down so much, the content itself.  You cannot dumb it down so much where it’s ridiculous to teach at that point.  Or make it complex to a point where they don’t know what they’re doing.  So getting that right is very important.  Getting your audience.  For me, it’s high school students, and I need to know what their level of understanding is.  Maybe math, chemistry.  And I need to make sure that the product, project I’m developing reaches them, and there’s also an opportunity for them to think and learn and grow from there.  So getting that boundary is very important.  So that would be on the curriculum development.

[Pius]  OK.

[Sadhan]  In terms of training the teachers, I think it’s more about what you’ve shared, that I had to learn the hard way, is – You cannot discipline them.


[Sadhan]  I think this is advice for other teachers who want to be trainers as well.

[Pius]  Or non-teachers, actually.  There are a lot of engineers trying to teach.

[Sadhan]    For all of the people who want to do that, never try to discipline the teachers, because they are probably better teachers than you are.  And they can do a much better job of delivering the content to the kids than what you’re doing with them.  So the best possible way to do this is what Pius, what you were describing.

[Pius]  I hope.

[Sadhan]  No, I’ve seen it work.  I’ve seen you doing that.  Treat them as colleagues.  All you’re doing is guiding them, and if they have more questions, you can sit and talk in detail with them.  But guide them, and that’s the best thing I’ve learned the hard way, and I hope to implement in the future.

[Pius]  Well thank you Sadhan.

[Sadhan]  Thank you Pius.

[Pius]  This was an interesting conversation, and there’s lots more to talk about, I’m sure.

[Sadhan]  Yes. 

[Pius]  All right.  Until next time.


[Pius]  As always, know that 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.  Let me know what you want to talk about in K12 engineering education by connecting on Twitter: @PiusWong.  Thanks for listening.

[music fadeout]