Why Engineers Turn into Teachers
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
Why Engineers Turn into Teachers
[Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for September 12, 2016.
[Pius] Welcome to the podcast. I’m Pius Wong. Today we’re getting the perspectives of several engineering teachers who share one important thing: they all studied engineering in college. They have a variety of work experience, and now they are teaching engineering.
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[Pius] Let’s hear about our six guests, Donald, Amy, CJ, Rita, Jack, and Bart.
[Donald Jones] Hi, may name is Donald Jones. I was working actually in the editorial field before. I’m an industrial engineer by trade. I went to Ohio State University, got a Bachelors in that, but I also studied engineering education, which they had a pathway to it. So then I went to Rutgers in New Jersey and got my Masters in Urban Education and certificate in Communications. I now teach at METS Charter School in Jersey City, and which – I teach middle school, basic engineering, or I-STEM, and Engineering I.
[Amy Colburn] My name’s Amy Colburn, up near Seattle, Washington. So I – My background: got a Bachelors degree in Chemical Engineering and worked in the oil industry for a couple years. Then went and decided to get my Masters in teaching. So a two-year program. And just math and science, chemistry and mathematics at the high school level. Now I’m teaching math and science in high school.
[CJ Salzman] Howdy. My name is CJ Salzman, and I’ve got thirty years’ experience in industry. Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering from Texas A&M, and I’ve been teaching now two years down in Houston, teaching engineering classes.
[Rita Loughrin] Hi, I’m Rita Loughrin. I’m from San Diego, and I have a Bachelors in Chemical Engineering, and while I was getting my degree I also got credentialing in chemistry and math. Then I had about four careers. I worked as a chemical engineer in the paper industry for several years. Then I also taught chemistry and math courses at the college level. I directed religious ed at a church, and I now teach high school chemistry, physics, sometimes math, and engineering.
[Jack Hwang] My name is Jack Hwang. I’m from California, Sunnyvale. I was in semiconductors for more than fifteen years, and I think I like to help people in my second life, so I just do the education. I think I am working with the normal people, not the rich people.
[Jack] I don’t need to help the rich people become more rich. So this is my first year in teaching, since I just finished my CTE credentials.
[Bart Krieger] My name is Bart Krieger. I have a Bachelors in Chemical Engineering from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a Masters in Environmental Engineering from Johns Hopkins. I started out in the semiconductor field and then moved into the consulting arena, where I did that for sixteen years, and I still carry my licenses in Ohio and Maryland.
[Pius] Jack already started to mention why he transitioned into his second life, and I posed the question to everyone: Why did they go from engineering into teaching? Here’s Donald.
[Donald] My personal reason is the fact that there was not enough engineering curricula at the high school level, so kids could be exposed to it when they got to post-secondary level. For some reason when STEM education, the big STEM education movement really started going around 2006, I really started to notice that people were putting more money into STEM, but they were focusing more on math. And nothing against math and science teachers in here, but they were focusing a lot on that. Just pure math and science, instead of focusing about the engineering process. Personally I got my Master in Urban Education, so I wanted to do something with engineering in the education system, but more so in my special interest, I guess, would be more towards the minorities and the underprivileged. Basically, so many people dropping out of engineering, especially amongst minorities and women, so those numbers need to seriously go up, and part of that is to bring it down to the high school level, you know. Exposing it to them early and making it fun.
[Pius] Here’s Amy, one of the chemical engineers.
[Amy] So I was feeling a little bit unfulfilled in my job at the time, which is kind of a, you know, that happens a lot, I supposed. But I really felt like there was a lot of interesting projects going on in other places, and I wasn’t actually willing to move to those places, so one opportunity that I saw was how to get other people involved in that process and see that there are interesting projects out there. So I kind of got a little flavor of those things. In my program it was about half boys, or half men and half women, which was probably pretty unusual for chemical engineering, but in industry that was not reflect, which wasn’t surprising to me. But I really thought, why am I seeing this difference between the two, in terms of education and going into the field and seeing how it was so much different? So I really wanted to kind of inspire, I guess, other generations – especially women in particular or girls in particular – that you can do it as well, and there’s these things that are really interesting going on out in the world. Don’t be afraid to just try.
[Pius] Here’s CJ.
[CJ] For me, I think it’s the season of life. You know, I’m 56. My kids left to go to college, so I have no kids left at home, so I need some kids to invest in now.
[CJ] And then I was an engineering manager most of my career. And so I dealt with high-priority folks and did a lot of high-dollar kind of stuff in my industry, but after a while I think that’s not what life is all about. So I wanted to help and impact people’s lives.
[Pius] It’s hard to find exact numbers on how rare engineering teachers like this really are in the US. But we do know about related subjects, which can give us a clue. In public high schools, for example, only about 40% of physics teachers actually majored in physics. Only 40% of chemistry teachers majored in chemistry. This is according to the National Center for Education Statistics as of 2012. If we assume engineering teachers are similar, then most engineering teachers today did not major in engineering.
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[Pius] Schools that want to have an engineering program today are looking for qualified teachers from every source. I asked our guests how school administrators might attract engineers into teaching. Here’s Rita’s answer.
[Rita] I’m in a charter school in San Diego, and so there’s a little more flexibility in the charter system to hire somebody like me who had engineering experience and life experiences. So to be honest part of it was that they were able to offer former engineers and other science and math teachers a better salary and a little more flexibility. And I think that’s a little different, as CJ mentioned, when you’re a manager and handling things, to working where there – so many guidelines, we’ll say – they can be a little difficult. So I think that’s part of it. And I also think in my school the principal allowed me to explore different ways to teach engineering, and so that was really helpful to me, because it allowed me to share my experience versus creating something out of a book.
[Bart] I have to mirror what Rita said a lot.
[Pius] That’s Bart, who teaches in a Catholic school.
[Bart] What is really nice is my principal, and things like that, just make it really comfortable, as far as they realize I speak a different language than the teachers. They’re talking, well, think-pair-share, elbow-partners, and all this. And I’m like, I can talk about thermodynamic differentials but…
[Bart] …I don’t know what that is. And also, just to give us latitude as far as how to teach the class. Don’t hand me a binder and say, this is what I want you to teach, when they don’t have that experience.
[Pius] Donald started clapping at this point. Here he is explaining.
[Donald] I’m glad Bart said that. I’m glad Rita said that. Because it’s very important for school administrators to know, if they want us to come in their schools and teach what we know, then first they’re going to have to educate themselves on who we are. Your principals may know. Some administrators don’t know. Some people just treat it like, oh, you’re supposed to teach it like a math and science lesson, or something like that. Uh-uh-uh. My first teaching job was back at my old high school, and my principal didn’t know what the heck engineering education – She looked at my license and was like, what do you do?
[Donald] And I’m just like, you hired me. Did you know…?
[Donald] She was just like, no, no I don’t. And I had to educate her. This is project-based learning.
[Pius] So we heard that salary, flexibility, and supportive administrators could all help attract engineers into teaching, but is that enough? Amy added her thoughts.
[Amy] Maybe its – It’s probably not an easy thing to do, but getting engineers into your classroom, and then putting the seed in their mind that they could be a teacher. And I know if someone would’ve called me when I worked in engineering and said, do you want to come talk to a bunch of kids?, I would have said, that sounds cool. But people are nervous to do that, because you don’t want to bother someone, you know, quote-unquote. Who wants to come spend their time talking to kids? But I don’t think that’s true at all. I think if administrators and teachers reached out to different companies and things that are around them and said – especially industries that are around them – what a great way to get kids to know what’s even right next door to them. Working in the Seattle area, we have Boeing and things that – I mean kids know the big ones, but there are a ton of small places, too. I think calling those places, or emailing or whatever, and just saying, we’re doing this project on, you know, whatever, I see that you guys kind of do that, you’re in that field. Would you mind sending someone to come talk to my class? And if you could make those relationships, I think that would be a really good way to contact engineers and get them interested.
[Pius] Rita recalled when that happened to her.
[Rita] When I worked in Green Bay, Wisconsin, as an engineer, I remember they invited me to do like a summer super Saturday, at a public school. And what I liked was that it was more from probably K through 5th grade. And they invited me, and I realized it was a lot of fun. Most engineers, I think – I agree with Amy – they want to go reach out, but all levels, not just high school.
[Pius] Now that these engineers are all teachers, what do they do to get other engineers to visit the classroom? Let’s hear from Rita and Bart.
[Rita] Every year San Diego has a big STEM fair, and different organizations – Society of Women Engineers, National Hispanic, National Optics Association – anyway, all of these have representatives. I just went from booth to booth to booth to try to get people to sign up, and that was actually very effective.
[Bart] Also if you do something like a robotics club, let these companies know. Hey, would you come and sponsor? You don’t have to give us any money, but we’ll put up one of your company fliers up in our room, and all you have to do is sit around and mentor kids and stuff like that. It’ll get them into the room, and once you get them in that way, you’ve got them.
[Pius] What did these teachers say to engineers who may be considering teaching? Here’s Bart again.
[Bart] I – For me, it’s been the best move I’ve made in my life. You know, when you’re in consulting you get to a point where you’re doing more management than you are technical, and at that point it’s like, well, I became an engineer to be technical, and then you start being able to share your passion of this technology, of being able to solve problems, with these kids. And kids are just like sponges. They’ll just soak it up. When you can teach a kid to do something like code or build this or – it’s a better feeling than any project I’ve ever completed in my life.
[Donald] It’s definitely rewarding when you see a child develop their own app, build their own apparatus, their own circuit, and then them to get to test the work. I think that’s a better investment than anything we can do in the field, you know, because there’s only a certain amount of people that’s going to work in the field, and that’s going to be working on the real stuff, and I saw that up close and personal. Definitely if you want to get into the classroom, start researching STEM programs, technology education programs across the country. They have plenty of good ones. Research your passion.
[Pius] These teachers all agreed that there are real, meaningful, personal rewards to teaching.
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[Pius] So then, what if you ask them to talk about the challenges?
[Amy] Oh, well, maybe you shouldn’t ask me. [laughs] No, and this isn’t meant to scare anyone away, although it might. And I think it’s a different situation for everybody. When I worked in engineering it was pretty slow. I started in 2008, which was right when the downturn happened, so that’s kind of why it wasn’t as interesting to me. Oil was not doing big interesting projects in 2008. Looking back now, there’s a lot of time – I maybe wasn’t utilizing my time as best as a I could, and that does not happen in teaching. I remember my first – I think this was my second year – and somebody, we were talking about it, and somebody said, which one do you think you worked harder at? And I’m like, that is not even a question. Like, there’s no comparison to how much teachers, how much time and effort teachers put into teaching, especially for things like this, I think, engineering. Some of the other teachers were saying earlier. You’re not just teaching out of a book, which is good, but it also means that you’re putting in a lot of time. I will say the biggest thing to me that is – I just had no idea – is how much time teachers put in to their craft.
[Pius] That was Amy, but CJ had a different take.
[CJ] I earned this gray hair that I’ve got from industry. And there was so much stress for me in industry, and this is way less stressful.
[Pius] CJ, if you remember, was the former engineering manager. He started as a regular engineer, got his MBA, and worked his way up.
[CJ] The biggest team I had was maybe 150 engineers in my department that I was the head of, so there was so much stress in that, and this is – I mean there is a little bit of stress, but nothing compared for me personally, and you know, I really like this. Plus it has a long-term impact, versus the work I did in engineering. I mean at one time I had kind of a crisis, when I was 40 years old. And I guess you might call it a spiritual crisis, but it was looking back on all the work I had done in the computer industry and realizing that not a single one of those computers was still in use.
[CJ] Everything was in the garbage. And what lasting impact would I have made in the world? It would be hard to see from that perspective. I was like, OK, go on to ministry or teaching, was kind of the way I was going to be significant for the long term.
[Pius] Jack had advice for engineers considering working in education.
[Jack] I think for engineers, if you think your second career is in education, I advise you go volunteer in the classroom, to feel the environment. See if there’s a passion. You can make a connection together. So as the first-year new teacher that I am, I’m worried.
[Jack] First, how can I handle those, around thirty new kids coming in? But before you enter into the education field, maybe as Donald says, what is your passion? Is your passion making a connection to the classroom? If that matches, then you are good to go to the education field.
[Amy] So this is Amy again. I just wanted to speak a little to that, because I did exactly what Jack just said. Before I quit my job and totally freaked out my parents to go back and get my degree in teaching, I did actually – I contacted the schools, and I think they probably thought Iw as a little ebit crazy, because not many people do that. I actually started at kindergarten. I volunteered a couple days at each level until I found one that I liked. And kindergarten, I was a little bit like, oh my gosh, OK, that’s not good! [laughs] I give it to the kindergarten teachers, you know. Yeah. I just, I really – Not every single grade level, but I did kindergarten and then third grade all the way up until, OK, high schoolers, you can, you know – it’s a little bit more my style. I did exactly what Jack said, and then using that kind of reaffirmed my thought process in going into teaching.
[Pius] I asked one more question to the teachers. What tips could you give to engineering teachers who never were engineers, in school or otherwise?
[Rita] I actually started out teaching chemistry and physics, and I kept wanting to share my experience of engineering. So for anyone who is normally a math or science teacher, I suggest they get to meet some engineers in their field. So for me chemical engineering, chemistry was a good match. So I understood how to apply it, and what my fear was, is that a lot of kids and even a lot of adults have preconceived notions of what an engineer is. Oh, they only build bridges, or they only do software. And so I think it’s important for teachers to trust that they can do it and get to know somebody in the field to share with them how they would teach their material from an engineering standpoint.
[Bart] Yeah, I guess it’s kind of funny. You’re in a room full of a bunch of engineering teachers and expect different answers, but very similarly, is, you know, for the math and science teachers, is to realize: When you’re trying to reach these kids who are going to be engineers, who want to be engineers, or there are kids in that class who I guarantee you could be good engineers but have been told their entire life, well you know you’re not the greatest in math and science so therefore you can’t go on into engineering – it’s because these people don’t realize engineering is problem solving. And if you have a good problem solver, and their math and science skills aren’t the top of the class, but they’re going to be good engineers.
[Amy] I think there’s a lot more professional development out there that people don’t take advantage of. Most teachers, I think you get a hundred emails a day or whatever, and sometimes they’re in there. You get the emails where it’s like, oh do you want to do this thing that’s three days, and a lot of times you’re like, delete, delete, delete, you know? But I think I’ve had the opportunity to go to a lot of professional development that I probably would have passed by, but other people in my district had taken advantage of it and said this is very good. Last summer I went to one that was doing CNC machines, so looking at just kind of like alternatives to four-year college type thing. That was really really cool, and I learned a lot that I would have never gotten otherwise.
[Pius] That was Rita, Bart, and Amy. Amy also added another point that the other teachers really emphasized, too.
[Amy] Kind of going back to one of the other questions that you had asked earlier, you had said oh it seems that would be really time-intensive, getting, contacting engineers. But I really think that’s how non-engineering teachers can really understand what the process is and get more comfortable. There’s usually someone, especially bigger companies will have somebody that you can talk to that’s kind of in charge of doing community outreach. And that might be another way to get engineers in your classroom. So I know Boeing obviously is really big, but they have a really big community outreach. They say you’re going to spend this much time a year doing things in the community, and one way to do that is to be in the schools or involved in PD. Because that one engineer maybe isn’t interested, but I bet there’s somebody. So if you ask somebody at a higher level, they might be like, so-and-so is always really interested in that kind of stuff, I’ll get you in contact with them. So that might be another way. But I think it is a lot of legwork that you really kind of have to be willing to invest.
[Pius] And there you have it. Teaching, even if it’s fulfilling and important and all that good stuff, can be a lot of legwork, especially if you’re an engineering teacher.
[Pius] A big thank you to Melanie Kong, a past guest who helped organize the guests you heard on this episode. You can connect to this podcast on Facebook, Google Play, iTunes, and other media. If you sign up for the newsletter, I can send you updates and future podcast plans. Check out the podcast website for all the links: www.k12engineering.net. If you’re on Reddit, I’d love to keep track of your engineering education news in the new subreddit r/EngineeringEducation, so check that out. You can find links to that and more in today’s show notes. Finally to everyone who’s shown interest in this project, you are awesome. Until next time.
[Pius] The views expressed in this podcast are our own, and they’re not necessarily the opinions of any schools or other groups with which we might be connected. Our theme music comes from “School Zone” by The Honorable Sleaze. Our interlude music is from “Theme P” and “Love is Chemical” by Steve Combs, and our closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleepter. All are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses.