Sep 6, 2010

Teachers as Learning Engineers


I know I've made myself a reputation when multiple people send the same article. For example, I am fan of Dr. Seuss fan. In fact, while in college, I subscribed to the "I can read" books in the name of my mythical daughter, Yvonne, Jr, so I could get discounted books each month. When Theodore Geisel passed away in Sep 1991, just a few months after graduation, I was innundated with letters from friends who expressed their condolances.

This year, I realized I made myself a reputation about teaching engineering to teachers when I received the June NY Times article, "Studying engineering before they can spell it," numerous times - even my massage therapist sent it to me!

This year, we're teaching engineering to teachers in Richfield School District's new STEM school. It's always heartening to work with such motivated participants; I learn something more about the essence of engineering each time I teach teachers. Six lessons I have learned so far:
  1. Spend time helping people see engineering in their world. Too many people don't know what engineering is and believing it has little to do with their everyday lives.
  2. Be clear that engineering has been part of the human endeavor throughout history. Though the pyramid builders may have not known science and mathematics as well as we do, they used what was known about the forces of nature, quantitative reasoning, and spatial reasoning. Providing experiences for people to discover the engineering spirit in themselves makes engineering seem understandable. In this modern world, many people shut down because they believe engineering is only the high-tech and will be too far above what they could even start to understand.
  3. Understand and communicate that teachers practice the engineering spirit everyday in their work. Engineers must meet measurable specifications within constraints such as time, money, and physical resources. Teachers need to take the students that are in their classroom and help them perform satisfactorily according to dictated standards using the resources provided them in the time allowed during the school year. The American Society of Engineering Education calls psychologists "learning scientists." I believe that teachers are "learning engineers."
  4. Respect the expertise teachers bring. Engineers are well versed on tasks (efficiently accomplishing the impossible, as the Army Corp of Engineers boast) while teachers are versed on getting people to accomplish tasks. Together, engineers and teachers can do great things, but there must be respect and balance. Maybe that's why the Gilbreth children still loved and respected their parents, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. While Frank kept searching for the one master plan ("the One Best Way") using his many children as guinea pigs of sorts, he was balanced by Lillian who had "a way of making each child know he means something very special to her. Not just as one of the group, but as an individual person who has his own special claim on her heart" (Belles on Their Toes).
  5. Show how engineering can be used as motivating or cumulative. Engineering projects can be used before math and science are learned to motivate why those topics are important. Engineering can also be used after the concepts and calculations to have students apply and practice the concepts in a meaningful project. Engineers need to remember that some kids will be like them, eager and able to do engineering right away, but many others (in fact, the majority) need the door to engineering continually propped open without shoving them through it. Too much too soon can make engineering seem a chore rather than an excitement. Respect that for some, engineering is a calling, while for others, it is an acquired taste.
  6. Work with women's education experts. With about 80% of elementary teachers being women, new ways of teaching engineering are needed. The current way of introducing and teaching engineering has proven to be unsuccessful at engaging girls and women. Continuing doing the same ineffective things harkens of insanity, not innovation. Engineers are up to the challenge, though. We are all about finding new and creative ways to solve problems using the resources (human and otherwise) available. Unlike technicians, we take joy in coming up with an end product that satisfies specs but may look very different from what has been seen before.
I look forward to the lessons I will learn this year!

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