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Engineering Teachers Replicate Themselves, Part 2

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Get tips on how to run a better professional development (or PD) for engineering teachers, directly from the trainers who just ran one. This is Part 2 of a topic we started in the previous episode. Melanie Kong (@melaniekong) and Natalie Wyll are teachers who formerly practiced engineering in industry, and they just finished running a teacher PD. They discuss how it went and what worked. Teacher Ellen Browne (@EllenSBrowne) also joins the discussion, since she helped run the same PD. Engineer Sadhan (@SadhanSathya) co-hosts with Pius (@PiusWong) again today.

Our theme music comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze. Our music clips in the middle came from "Live Wire" by Steve Combs, and our closing music came from "Late for School" by Bleeptor. All are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses: 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.


Get tips on how to run a better professional development (or PD) for engineering teachers, directly from the trainers who just ran one. This is Part 2 of a topic we started in the previous episode. Melanie Kong (@melaniekong) and Natalie Wyll are teachers who formerly practiced engineering in industry, and they just finished running a teacher PD. They discuss how it went and what worked. Teacher Ellen Browne (@EllenSBrowne) also joins the discussion, since she helped run the same PD. Engineer Sadhan (@SadhanSathya) co-hosts with Pius (@PiusWong) again today.

Our theme music comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze. Our music clips in the middle came from "Live Wire" by Steve Combs, and our closing music came from "Late for School" by Bleeptor. All are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses: creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/


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


Engineering Teachers Replicate Themselves, Part 2

Release Date:



[00:00 Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for August 15th, 2016.


[00:13 Pius]  Welcome to Part 2 of a topic we started in the previous episode: teachers training new engineering teachers.  If you haven’t heard that one yet, go check it out.  You might remember Melanie and Natalie, two engineering teachers who were preparing to help run a professional development, or PD, for new engineering teachers.  They never ran this training before.  In the last episode, we heard their plans right before they ran the training, and now we hear their debrief right after.  In addition to Natalie and Melanie, the teacher Ellen Browne also is here today, as she also helped run the training session and could share her thoughts.  Also engineer Sadhan Sathyaseelan is cohost today.


[00:59 Pius]  I’m Pius, your host.  Sadhan?

[Sadhan Sathyaseelan]  Hi, I’m Sadhan.  I’m the cohost here.

[Melanie Kong]  Hi, I’m Melanie Kong.  I’m an engineering and math teacher up in the Seattle area.

[Natalie Wyll]  I’m Natalie Wyll.  I also teach engineering and mathematics here in the Austin area.

[Ellen Browne]  I’m Ellen Browne.  I teach math and engineering at the Pomfret School in Connecticut.

[Pius]  Ellen was not a former practicing engineer, but she’s here to ask some great questions and observe, because she also was in on the training session that we talked about in the previous episode.

[Sadhan]  So last department we ended up with a thought, an idea, that was – you guys brought up the idea of, OK, how do you deal with the teachers when you have only dealt with students until now?  And one of the ideas that you brought up was you want to set up a rule before you start your training session, and the rule was: put on a hat of a student, and then you put on a hat of a teacher.  Your audience.  And then that was the rule you wanted to set up.  So my question is, how did that work out?  Was it smooth?  Was there any problems?  What happened?

[Melanie]  On day one of training, we spent some time discussing the philosophy behind why we thought it was good for teachers to stay in student mode during the training, so we explain how that – it was important that they experienced the struggles of students, and they have student questions, and that they would keep a documentation as a student would, so they had some kind of textbook in their own hands for what would student work look like.  So we were really clear about that up front, and we also talked about how we would redirect some of their teacher questions that we – we expected them.  We knew that they would have those teacher questions but that there was a time built into the schedule for them.  We told them that we would redirect those questions as they happened.  I think that having that conversation up front was very helpful.

[Natalie]  This is Natalie.  I also, I think it’s really important, particularly for this PD, for them to experience it in the student mode, because if you’re only in teacher mode the whole time and just talking about only the curriculum and the education piece of it, you know, it’s not as useful.  We want them to be in it, actually doing it, and I can’t imagine these new teachers going out and implementing the curriculum without having experienced it first-hand before they go out and do it with their students. 

[Pius]  And how did it go?  Did the teachers get their hands dirty and do everything you wanted?

[Natalie]  Yes.  Well yes, and it was, yeah, they were doing the projects.  They were doing construction.  We also told them, because this is a shortened version, we’re cramming a year’s worth of content in two weeks.  You’re not going to be able to spend as long as you will with your students.  You won’t be able to complete it and finish it, but you’re going to do parts of it, so you’re going to feel what it’s like.  But it still was a struggle at times to keep the teachers – Their tendency is to drift toward teacher mode – to keep them in student mode, when they’re supposed to be in student mode, and not getting in the weeds with questions.  They still want to do that, and I think we did a really good job at the start of separating that and moderating that.  Hey, let’s put a pin in that for later.  Let’s stay in student mode. We’ll come back to it.  But I think it was equally hard for us.

[Melanie]  I was about to say the same thing.

[Natalie]  We started off really well, but then as it went on, it started to divert back to that.

[Melanie]  Yeah.

[Natalie]  But that was because it was hard for me.  I had to remember to – No, no, I got to keep you in student mode.  So it goes both ways.

[Pius]  So you had people like Ellen around, as well as other co—what’s the word – co-leaders of this PD session.

[Natalie]  Consulting teachers.

[Pius]  Consulting teachers.  Did they help you stay in line when you needed to be?  Or was it just up to you when you’re up there to remember all this?

[Melanie]  So one of the things that us consulting teachers talked about ahead of time was really trying to respect the consulting teachers who’s up in the front, because what we observed in another PD session is that, it can get really confusing when there are too many leaders in the classroom.  In order for the teachers to authentically stay in student mode, they have to know who they’re looking at and who their quote “teacher” is at that moment.  I think that we, the consulting teachers on the side, we really tried to defer to the teacher and try to talk to them later, and then we tried to defer the attention up to the teachers that were up front.  So I don’t think that we really stepped in very much during the training to be like, hey, that’s not a good time for that question, or hey, stay in student mode.  That might be something that we might want to think about in the future.  As we see it happening, maybe we should step in.  I’m not sure about that.

[Pius]  Ellen, you had something to add.

[Ellen]  So I wanted to know what strategies you used for yourself as consulting teachers to stay in teacher mode as you were teaching, and not resort to: “My class, we.”

[Melanie]  So that was one of the things.  I knew that there was this list of words in my head that I had to avoid.  Ellen brought up, “My class, we”.  “Your class” is – also takes away from the student mode.  Talking about “your class” and “your students would“.  So I just tried to avoid those words as much as possible, and instead I just said, “You will,” and “We will”.

[Pius]  Interesting.

[Natalie]  Yeah.

[Melanie]  I tried not to ever say, “your students,” “my class.”

[Natalie]  This is Natalie again.  I tried to do the same thing.  I had the same list of trigger words in my head.  When I heard myself, or when I started to think it, sometimes when I heard the words almost coming out of my mouth, I would stop and redirect what my sentence was to say, “you will,” or “we will,” and again, I wasn’t perfect, and sometimes it came out.  Your students will do this, or you know, but it was at least a trigger for me in my head to maybe, to change my wording, and it’s subtle, but I think it’s important to keep them in the student perspective.

[Sadhan]  Did that change a whole lot?  By changing the language and changing the context of, OK, this is not about your class or my class.  It’s about you and me, here.

[Melanie]  I think it did.  Comparing the last PD that we observed and comparing it to this one, we did see that teachers were doing a much better job of writing in their notebook.  That was one huge improvement.  Teachers were consistently using their notebook to document everything in the process, and they were asking questions that a student would ask, very often.  And that was really cool to see.  Instead of – immediately, the teachers in the PD session we observed would ask questions like, well how would you implement this in class?  What would your class do?  But in this session we got fewer of those questions, and when we got those questions, they would preface it with, hey, teacher question.


[07:49 Sadhan]  So you set up the rule of teacher mode and student mode.  Did you define it or was it – mold itself as it was going.  Did they know what student [mode] was, what teacher [mode] was?

[Natalie]  Yeah.  I think when we talked about it the first day, we kind of explained to them.  We wanted them to have the student experience and what it would feel like in the classroom, and assured them that we would give them time for those teacher implementation questions, but when we’re in the activity, we want it to be from a student perspective.

[Pius]  So it sounds like they got the engineering content that a student should get.  Do you think that sacrificed anything, in terms of the teacher-type questions?

[Natalie]  What I think is a lot of times the questions that they’re asking, a lot of them, not all of them, they will get answered if they will just wait.  Because they haven’t had the experience of going through the curriculum, so they don’t know.  They don’t have the big picture perspective in the moment, so if they will just wait, stick with me, wait for it – Once we get through the project, and you can really see it, half of those questions that you are thinking of are going to get answered, and the other half, we are going to give you time to answer those.  But if you answer every single teacher-based question in the moment, first of all, we would never get through the PD.  And second of all, some of them are very, very specific, and now you’re answering one question that’s important for one person, but the other thirty people in the room – it’s a waste – is potentially a waste of their time, and we don’t want the PD to feel like a waste of time for anybody.  We have just too much content to cover.  We don’t have the time to do that.  Just by keeping them in student mode and keeping them on track, a lot of those questions will get answered just by the nature of moving onto the next question or moving on to the next section.

[Melanie]  And I want to give an example of that.  For instance, the last unit in Engineer Your World is Aerial Imaging, and it’s a huge project, which involves subsystems, and they’re working in individual subsystem teams.  A lot of the teachers were getting really frustrated.  Why can’t I talk with everybody in my group?  Why do I need to work in my subsystem team?  And we just told them, like, they kept on asking, we told them, wait for that question.  And at the very end, after we’d gone through the unit, we were able to actually turn the question back on them.  Like: Why was that important?  And they had answers for themselves, because they had experienced the course.

[Natalie]  It kind of goes back to that philosophy, too, that experiential learning and constructing your own – that constructivist view of your own learning experience. Well, in order to do that, you have to experience it.  You have to go through it.  So they won’t really – you know, so they have to live it to kind of really feel what it’s like.

[Sadhan]  So it seems like it was really worthwhile for them to go through the program as a student. 

[Natalie]  For portions of it, yes.

[Pius]  What portions do they not have to do as a student?  What were the things that you skipped over, in terms of the student experience?

[Natalie]  Writing.  They didn’t write their actual reports.  We don’t have time for that, but we of course talked about them.  Talked about rubrics, and what element should be included in those reports, and what it would look like for a student who is really writing the report.

[Melanie]  I think the parts we really tried to model for them – Of course, all of the actual proejcts.  They built the projects so that they knew what the problems would be.  But the other parts we tried to model as teacher-student were things that they might not have done in a non-PBL, project-based-learning environment. 

[Natalie]  Yeah.

[Melanie]  So things like the different grouping strategies.  We tried to model for them, and I heard some teachers saying, oh that’s really cool.  I’m going to do this in my math classroom now.  And building your rubric collaboratively with your students, that’s something that a lot of teachers might not have already done.  Things that we didn’t focus on as much were, again, the writing reports, but also some of the little, the smaller student activities along the way.

[Natalie]  Some of the additional research projects.

[Pius]  There was a lot of opportunity to streamline what you all did.  So you guys are a little bit unique because you practiced engineering before you started teaching.  Were there any moments in this PD session where you think you had to put on your engineer’s hat?

[Melanie]  I spent like maybe two minutes with my engineer’s hat on. 


[Melanie]  At the beginning of the unit that I helped write, the chemical engineering unit.  Natalie, you had a lot of good stuff to share about buildings and civil engineering.

[Natalie]  Yeah, when we did the buildings unit.  My background is in structural engineering, so yeah, when we talked about resonance and things that affect buildings.  Resonance and – I drew on my experience, not only from previously teaching this course but my background in structural engineering.  So yeah, I did during that portion for sure.

[Melanie]  But I don’t think that we did it any more than we would with our students.

[Natalie]  Yeah.

[Melanie]  I feel like we would have shared the same things.

[Natalie]  Yeah.  No, definitely.

[Pius]  It was basically like you were a teacher.

[Natalie]  I share those things with my students.

[Melanie]  But I guess what was cool was drawing upon – We had a bunch of engineering teachers in the classroom as well, so it was really cool to be able to –

[Natalie]  Yeah, that was awesome.

[Pius]  Right, right, so let’s bring that up.  How many of your trainees, I guess, how many of them were engineers before?

[Natalie]  Yeah, a lot.

[Melanie]  About a third of the teachers had a prior experience as an engineer.

[Pius]  How did that affect the atmosphere?

[Melanie]  It was really cool.  Even on the first day of conversations about norms, you heard teachers and prior engineers talking about how we have these different experiences to bring, and we can share them, and we can respect each others’ experiences.  So I think that that continued throughout the course, and it was cool to be able to throw questions back on the teachers, and be like, hey, for those of you who worked in industry, can you share something about this?

[Natalie]  And I think a big focus of this course is just engineering habits of mind, and it was fun to see, well, we just threw out what are common terms in the curriculum from a – common vocabulary from an engineer’s perspective, or things that I would use as an engineer, talking about RFIs and all sorts of stuff like that – They knew what we were talking about.  They jumped right on it, because they had that experience.

[Pius]  They were sprinkled throughout every group, so you could spread the knowledge.

[Natalie]  Yeah, it was great.  And then they were a fantastic resource to have in this type of PD, and I think it really brought up the level – just the level of expertise in the room.

[Pius]  That’s really fortune, because I don’t think that’s always the case.


[14:06 Pius]  If you could do this over again, would there be anything that you would do differently?

[Sadhan]  Or were there any surprises?

[Pius]  Yeah, that’s really ultimately what it is, because this is your first time doing this.

[Natalie]  [laughs]  So I think this is, just like your first period class is always a guinea pig the first time you teach a course, the whole year’s just kind of a little bit of an experiment.  And you have successes and failures, and you always want to incorporate those into future units, or future years, when you teach the course.  Same thing here.  This was the first time teaching it, so some things went well.  Some things, I’m like, oh, yeah, wish we’d done that.  But it’s all about just being a continual improvement process.

[Melanie]  Yeah.  And we all agreed about this.  We would talk about how this is like first period, but all day.

[Natalie]  [laughs]  Yeah, all day long.

[Melanie]  All day first period.  So I think what was – We kept notes on everything, you know.  And I don’t think there’s anything huge that we…

[Natalie]  No.

[Melanie]  …would change about the way, you know, like – not any philosophical thing.  But I think what is hard for all of us is knowing that we won’t have until next year or maybe the year after in order to make improvements.  And we’re worried that we’re goint o lose everything that we learned in this first period PD training.

[Natalie]  Yeah, if you’re looking for specifics like we mentioned earlier, like we started off really well with the teacher-student mode, student hat, teacher hat, and diverting things, and it got harder as the week went on, and just keeping that in mind.  So I think that’s just a personal thing and personal practice.  The more I do it, the better I would get at it, and since this is my first time through, obviously, so I think with time that would get better.  It’s just little things, little scheduling things, you know.  It felt a little crunched for time at the beginning of the two-week PD, and it got easier as it went on, just got in the flow.  But that’s more like really broad, just adjusting our timing.

[Melanie]  I think scheduling and transitions.  So there was like five of us consulting teachers who were trading off and helping to lead the PD, so some of the transitions I think we would have wanted to plan ahead a little more, or talk about what that would look like, and who really was taking what parts.

[Natalie]  It’s hard to get five people all on the same page.  But I learned so much in these two weeks.  I feel like it was…

[Melanie]  It was PD for us.

[Natalie]  It was PD for me.  It was awesome.

[Ellen]  So how well did you figure out how to have groups of teachers teaching and how long they should teach before they should switch to another group?

[Natalie]  Oh, good question.  So what we found at the beginning of the PD is we had a schedule more segmented, where we were trading off more often throughout the day on different lessons that we were teaching within, even within an entire unit.  Like I would teach Lesson 1, and Melanie would do 2, and somebody else would do 3.  And we felt that was too choppy, and didn’t have a good flow for the feel for the participants of the PD, so what we started doing was having more larger chunks, so there was more continuity throughout a unit.  So we almost went to AM and PM, making that switch, or that break at lunch.  To have larger chunks and more continuity.  And I think that we felt that worked out really well, that there was a better flow to the PD after we made that adjustment.

[Sadhan]  Was there direct feedback from the teachers about this?

[Melanie]  No, that was just how we felt.  It felt like we didn’t – if we were trading off too much, we were losing sight of what the big picture was, or maybe someone felt the big picture was something else.  We were running into each other a little bit with what we were trying to get across with the unit, so it really helped to have the larger chunks.  You could think about, OK, what are the main points I want to get across in this segment, and you have the entire four hours in order to do that, instead of just like, I have an hour and I’ve got to tell everything now.

[Natalie]  And it’s hard when you’re not the one saying it, oh well, wait, did Melanie say that earlier?  Did she not?  Yeah, overlaps and gaps.  I think there’s more that would be much better when we have larger chunks.  And we tried to team teach it for the chunks, like in the AM, it would be me and Melanie and maybe in the PM it would be the other participants Joe and Ellen, and so even though we were taking a larger block, I might be teaching most of it.  The AM time that Melanie would be right there kind of helping me.  If I forgot to say something, she’d chime in, or vice-versa.  When she was teaching, I’d be there maybe writing on the board for her, being a scribe, so making her life easier.

[Pius]  I’m curious.  Ellen, that’s a great question, but back in your real life teaching you have a team teacher, right?

[Ellen]  Yes, I do.

[Pius]  And so I’m wondering, is Natalie’s answer pretty similar to what you experience team teaching?

[Ellen]  Yes.  So when I team teach the class for students with a colleague, and we do it in bigger chunks, and it works.  And also, just naturally it kind of fell to one of us to do more of the lesson planning and another one of us to do more of the coding, or say the building.  The other teacher’s a science teacher; I’m a math teacher.  So it naturally divided that way as well.  So bigger chunks definitely work better.  I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner here, but…

[Pius]  [laughs]

[Sadhan]  But I also think that from a student mode, it’s better to have one teacher to create the dynamics rather than a teacher keeps changing, and I’m more connected to it.

[Pius]  Yeah, it’s like having ten bosses when you’re working in industry.  That’s always horrible.

[Natalie]  Yeah.

[Sadhan]  That doesn’t seem like a good idea.

[Natalie]  We made the switch pretty early on.  We figured it out.  But I think originally we were just looking at the schedule.  There were five of us.  I think we were almost trying to be polite.  We didn’t want to make one person do too much work, and sort of spread the work load out across the day, but then we figured, you know, we were honestly just doing it from a politeness perspective.

[Melanie]  Just two hours for each person.

[Natalie]  Yeah, we tried to make equal distribution of time, but then we realized, no, we should be – for continuity’s sake, we should do this in larger chunks for the students.

[Pius]  I’m wondering, is part of it that you had wanted your participants to meet you all equally? To get to know you all?

[Melanie]  That was mostly on the first day.

[Natalie]  On Day One, yes.

[Melanie]  On the first Day it was really important that they saw all of our faces and got to know us a little bit, and we continued with that kind of scheduling until Day Two when we figured out that it wasn’t working as well.

[Natalie]  I think it worked well on day one for everybody to see us, but as for when the week went on, yeah, it was better to have larger chunks.

[Sadhan]  That seems like a good strategy, to have Day One where…

[Natalie]  Yeah.  Absolutely.


[20:41 Melanie]  Just one other thing that really helped us set the tone for PD: It’s really fast paced.  We just spend one-minute investment of time to show them a video to set the pace for how fast-paced it was going to be.  It was a video clip from “The Big Bang Theory” where one of the characters just wants closure everywhere, but then his girlfriend is trying to give him therapy and will take everything away before it’s done.  We showed them that video, and throughout the whole PD, it would be like, oh, sorry, we have to move on.  Oh yeah, the video.  And that just helped all of our transitions into our next units go a lot faster, because they weren’t trying to wrap everything up.  They weren’t trying to finish and do the best they could.  They knew they wouldn’t have enough time to finish everything, and that was OK.

[Natalie]  Yeah, and I think that just – I don’t know if this is a surprise, but stressing to teachers that it’s OK, we’re cramming a year’s worth of content into two weeks, and jumping on that, you’re not going to be able to finish, and it’s not going to be perfect, and it’s OK.  Try and just think about big picture.  We want you to gain the experience, see what it’s like.  If it doesn’t work out, if your building fails, or your aerial imaging doesn’t take pictures, don’t stress about it.  Nobody’s grading you here.  I’m not judging you.  It’s about the experience, so you can see what it’s like.  You can see what the content’s like, so you understand it from a student’s perspective, and just kind of giving those teachers who were maybe stressing out a little bit, reminding them that, just on a personal one-on-one basis, to keep them from freaking out.

[Sadhan]  Frustrated.

[Natalie]  Yeah, people were being frustrated.

[Melanie]  And sad, too.

[Natalie]  Yeah.  It’s OK.  There’s no reason to feel frustrated.  This should be a positive experience.

[Sadhan]  See, now you’re having a different hat.  You’re being a coach or counseling.


[Natalie]  Well I think that’s what a lot of what this course in particular is.  You’re less of a teacher and more of a facilitator and a coach. 

[Sadhan]  So moving forward, next year, what’s going to be different?

[Melanie]  So I don’t know if there are specific things, but we learned so much from this one.  We just want to implement those changes and make sure the new teachers can do that as well.

[Pius]  At the very least you now have a recording of some of your ideas.  You can go back and listen ot it next year.

[Melanie]  Thanks.

[Natalie]  Thanks, Pius.


[Natalie]  It’s all in our engineering notebooks.


[Ellen]  If it’s not there, it didn’t happen.

[Pius]  Were you actually taking notes as you were doing this?

[Melanie]  Yes.

[Pius]  OK, good, that’s really hard to do.

[Sadhan]  So the student hat, too.

[Pius]  Yeah, you were a student, you were a teacher, you were an engineer.

[Sadhan and Natalie]  And a coach.

[Pius]  You were a coach, all in one in these two weeks.  Sounds tough.

[Natalie]  Isn’t that how it is like every day at school?

[Melanie]  Yeah.


[Natalie]  That’s what being a teacher is.

[Pius]  Well thank you all for helping me out today.  Thanks to Melanie Kong, to Natalie Wyll, to Ellen Browne.  Sadhan and I, we were facilitating.  And I hope we can hear more from you.

[Melanie]  Sound great.

[Natalie]  Awesome.  Thanks for having us.

[Sadhan]  All right.  Thank you guys for doing this.

[Ellen]  Thanks.

[Pius]  Good luck.


[23:49 Pius]  Before we say goodbye, an announcement:  This podcast now has a website.  It’s k12engineering.net.  It’s a little easier to say than all our Soundcloud and iTunes links individually, so go there to check out how to subscribe and like us on Facebook, tweet  me on Twitter, sign yourself up for a newsletter.  Thank you for all the support, and hope you listen next time.


[24:12 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 theme music comes from “School Zone” by The Honorable Sleaze.  Our music clips in the came from “Live Wire” by Steve Combs.  And our closing music came from “Late for School” by Bleeptor.  All are used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.