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Why K12 Engineering?

Season 1 · Episode 1

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In our inaugural episode of The K12 Engineering Education Podcast, guests Rachel Fahrig and Sadhan Sathyaseelan speak with host Pius Wong about the importance of teaching engineering at younger ages, and the questions we'd like to answer about this field in the future.

Thanks to Jeff Munn for help on sound. Our opening music 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: http://www.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


Why K12 Engineering? (Pilot)

Release Date:




[Pius Wong, host] You’re listening to the new K12 engineering education Podcast for May 31, 2016. All you educators, engineers, entrepreneurs, and parents out there who are interested in teaching engineering better at younger ages – this podcast is meant for you. I’m your host Pius, a biomedical mechanical engineer. Today’s guests are Rachel and Sadhan. Rachel’s a science teacher, and Sadhan is a mechanical engineer. The three of us have worked together for a number of years creating engineering curricula and training teachers around the country in it. Today we’re talking about general perceptions about teaching engineering in K through 12. And as we start just a disclaimer: the views expressed in this podcast are our own, and they are not necessarily the opinions of any schools, universities, or other organizations that we might be a part of.

[00:47] [music]

[Pius] Welcome to episode one of the K-12 engineering podcast. I’m Pius Wong, and I’m here with two other guests today.

[Rachel Fahrig] Hi. I’m Rachel Fahrig.

[Sadhan Sathyaseelan] And I’m Sadhan Sathyaseelan, from India.


[Rachel] He’s not calling in from India. He’s in Austin with us.

[Pius] We are recording in Austin, Texas, keeping it weird in our makeshift studio. We all have worked with each other in the K-12 engineering space. And the whole idea of this podcast was, at least for me – I am engineer – and I’ve worked in engineering industries, but when I worked in education there were all these questions that I had about how to teach engineering, and we would always have these interesting conversations at work, I think. And it’d be awesome if other people could hear some of those conversations, especially if you’re interested in engineering education. So this is an experiment. Thank you Sadhan. Thank you, Rachel, for helping me on this podcast.

[Rachel] Thank you, Pius.

[Pius] Why is this topic – Why is engineering for younger people even important to you?

[Rachel] To me personally, so I majored in science. I was always good in science in school. And I became a science teacher, and I saw so many kids that typically had struggled with science and yet they would go through my class and have a lot of fun and learn a lot of things. And then there was all these mandates and initiatives from the federal level on down. And so understanding how to merge or really integrate STEM – meaning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – and not just have each field be its own thing, but how to teach kids how to do science in the context of engineering. Or where science and engineering overlap. Or why engineering and math go together. Things like that. Was always really important, in order to make those mandates and initiatives fun and engaging for the kids. So it wasn’t just one more thing that we had to do at the district or campus level. It wasn’t some other hoop that we had to jump through. It was real. And it was fun, and the kids learned from it, and they got different kinds of educational exposure. That was, I think that was key for me.

[Pius] OK.

[Sadhan] All right so that’s interesting because both of you guys you’re being, brought up in the U.S. and your education system has been very different from what I’ve been through, in India. So there are a couple of reasons why am I in engineering education. And the very personal reason is: I was a college dropout before I joined engineering. And I went through an engineering college that was really really bad.

[Pius] You don’t want to say the name…


[Sadhan] Yes. I’m not gonna say the name. That would be bad. Actually I can. I should, actually. Yeah. But…

[Pius] They could look you up on the internet.

[Rachel] Throw that gauntlet down.

[Sadhan] OK. No. I’m not going to say that. But so, it was so bad that even the professors who were teaching it did not know what engineering was. So for me I felt like I need to personally do something about it. So that was the drive for me personally. But also in a bigger picture, I think engineers, they’re just problem solvers. And we are at a point where we need problem solvers. Not just in terms of politicians, but we need actual problem solvers that can solve problems. And engineering seems to be the best way to do it.

[Pius] Cool. Cool. Thanks. Yeah, I would say that’s something similar for me. I wouldn’t say that I had a bad engineering education. I really appreciate all of teachers and professors that I had. But there were definitely some who were not up to par. And I would say that after I started working, that was actually where I learned a whole lot more in engineering. And some of those things like how to design stuff, or how to manufacture stuff, and how to work with other people and all the things that make you successful. I feel like you could learn those things at a younger age.

[Sadhan] Right. That’s very true.

[Pius] Yeah. So that’s why, anyway, I think for me that’s why K-12 engineering is important. Just learning how to design stuff, I think, is really important. And personally, I mean, I started out not even knowing that I was gonna be an engineer. I kind of got into the field not think I was going to be an engineer. And so it’d be cool if I had more guidance at a younger age. And similarly I think if kids learned more about good engineering and how to have fun while being an engineer, that’d work.

[Sadhan] And also, kids are natural, naturally engineers. They like building stuff, experimenting with stuff.

[Pius] They like destroying stuff.

[Rachel] I would say they like destroying stuff more than they like building.

[Sadhan] Same learning. [laughs]

[Rachel] It is the same.

[Sadhan] It’s all an experiment.

[Rachel] It’s ju—yeah. It’s a big messy experiment all over my living room.

[Pius] Ah, nice. So you have a kid.

[Rachel] I do. He’s six-and-a-half.

[Pius] Is he good at destroying things? [laughs]

[Rachel] He is great at destroying things. Although recently he tried to put back together a little, like those 50-cent fake cameras that you can get…

[Pius] Yeah.

[Rachel] …and they’re plastic, and you push the button, and really all it is, is a – on the inside is a little, maybe, kind of looks like a roll of film, but on the inside it’s pictures of nature, animals, or whatever it happens to be.

[Sadhan] Oh yeah, yeah.

[Rachel] And his broke, and he is trying to fix it currently.

[Pius] Nice.

[Rachel] Yes.

[Pius]. Well maybe that’s what we need. We need more things being destroyed, and then being fixed or something, maybe kids will be more interested.

[Sadhan] When you’re a kid. [laughs]

[Pius] I don’t know. Personally I didn’t fix anything when I was a kid, and I’m still an engineer. I hope that doesn’t mean I’m a horrible engineer.

[Sadhan] No, you’re not, but I would tell you that I fixed a lot of stuff when I was a kid.

[Pius] Well there you go. Yeah. They say that, yeah, if you liked Legos, or took things apart and tried to figure out how they worked and tried to fix them again, that might be a sign that you might be a good engineer. But I would say that’s not the only sign, actually. I don’t know.

[Rachel] I would agree. I didn’t take many things apart as a kid. I was content to just sit in my room and read. But I did cheat at the Rubik’s cube because I couldn’t ever figure it out…


[Pius] Oh, yeah.

[Rachel] So I just took the corner piece off and took it all apart and put it all back together…

[Pius] Yes, but I did that too. I was like, why waste time…

[Rachel] I was way faster at that than…

[Sadhan] How old were you then?

[Rachel] Oh I don’t know. Somewhere between like 7 and 10.

[Pius] There you go.

[Sadhan] Oh OK. That’s clever. Yeah, for a 7-year-old that’s clever.

[Pius] But that’s efficiency, and I think that engineers sometimes do that, whereas if you were a mathematician, you’d be like, no, I’m going to figure it out based on these rules, and do it.

[Rachel] Yup. “What is the proper algorithm to make this happen.”

[Pius] Broke the rules. Just pulled off the stickers and did not do it how you’re supposed to, quote-unquote.

[Rachel] That’s correct.

[Pius] But in any case, I think that there’s a lot of questions about it. That’s all I’m saying. We don’t necessarily know how to make better engineers at a younger age, or how to get more kids interested in it. And I think that part of the reason for having this podcast is that, there’s a huge push nowadays, I feel, to get more engineers to solve those modern problems, whether it’s in the US or outside the US, in India, or wherever. Also…

[Sadhan] Well India is a little different. [laughs]

[Pius] Oh? Yeah, no, exactly. I don’t know. That’s the thing. These are more of those questions that I’d like to hear about, to explore. So in general then, why is it important – why should other people care about educating more engineers, and getting kids interested in it specifically, and high school students?

[Sadhan] Hm. OK, so again, going back to the point I was saying, the big picture is – other than what we personally want to drive us – the big picture is: we are definitely at a point of time as a whole society that we have a lot of problems, in terms of – that can be solved through engineering and also can be solved through other humanity aspects of it. But a simple problem, like global warming. There’re so many deniers of it. So this fight is not just about teaching, you know, just science or engineering. This is also a fight about teaching ignorance. And people who are in denial about those things.

[Pius] Like teaching against ignorance?

[Sadhan] Yeah. Yes. So pretty much the way I feel a science education – it’s not really about memorizing those formulas. It’s just about asking the question, “Why?” It’s just about asking the question, “Why?” So “Why?” is pretty much the base question for critical thinking. And if you want to fight ignorance, you need critical thinking. So science, engineering, they’re all on the same side of the coin. So I think this is the reason why I think people should care about teaching kids early on science, engineering, any of that.

[Rachel] Well, so I think to – There are so many deniers of science, because, especially here in the states, we have such a – We really hold to the idea that I can believe anything I want to believe. I can see my truth differently than you see your truth, and that’s OK. We’re supposed to be accepting of that. I think where science and engineering differ – and this is I think a pretty strong distinction – is that science, somehow in people’s minds, tends to be loft, and unreachable, and is focused on research and theory, and people struggle with science. And “science is hard”, and “science is intellectual”. Engineering is real. It’s tangible. Engineering is what makes things happen. People can touch engineering. Now, keep in mind, I’m saying this as a scientist. I can touch science as well, but I’m comfortable with science. And I know science facts, and, you know, I don’t deny factual evidence because I have some outside belief system. Engineering just, I think, to me, anyway, brings that scientific reality to someone in a way that they cannot continue to deny what is actually occurring. So if someone, for example – we’ll stick with that same climate change belief – if someone refuses to believe that humans are one of the primary causes, or at least exacerbating climate change, there are engineering practices that can at least demonstrate to that person: you may not believe in human-induced climate change, but we’re gonna go ahead and put these practices into place. We’re going to make these technological changes. We’re going to generate, I don’t know, some new fuel source, or whatever it happens to be. And we’re just going to do that anyway. You don’t have to change your beliefs now. You can still believe that humans are not exacerbating or causing climate change, but you’re still going to have this benefit that was brought to you by engineering. And chances are you’ll embrace, because there it is. It’s cheaper fuel, or it’s more efficient homes, or whatever it happens to be.

[Sadhan] But that’s a very interesting point that you – I never thought about it. Engineering gives you access to science, like – Science is very abstract. That’s very right. Engineering gives you…

[Rachel] Great word.

[Sadhan] …access to science like nothing else.

[Rachel] I agree.

[Pius] They would say that engineering is the practical side of…

[Sadhan] Applied science, yeah.

[Pius] …math and science.

[Rachel] Yes.

[Pius] Yeah and sometimes it had that connotation of it being dumbed down, but I don’t think so.

[Sadhan] Oh really?

[Pius] Well yeah, the word “applied”…

[Rachel] Yes, no, I agree.

[Pius] …at least in the American educational system, it’s always like “Oh”…

[Rachel] Yeah, applied math and science is…

[Pius] …Is treated as lower-level for some reason?

[Rachel] Yes.

[Pius] I think in some circles, not for everyone.

[Sadhan] That’s very interesting, because that’s the complete opposite … where I come from.

[Pius] OK. Right, right. And so that’s why the American system is very interesting. I don’t think that either. “Applied” doesn’t mean dumber.

[Rachel] It doesn’t mean simpler. It doesn’t mean easier.

[Pius] It has a different purpose, I think.

[Rachel] Yes, exactly.

[Pius] You were saying that science might ask the question more of, “Why?” Engineering might just be, I don’t care about why. Let’s just deal with it.

[Rachel] Here’s how it’s done. Let’s just do it.

[Pius] Let’s peel those stickers off the Rubik’s cube and get it done.

[Rachel] Yup.

[Pius] But yeah. And I’m not saying you should get rid of they “Why?” question or any of that. It’s just that engineering tends to deal with, OK, this is the reality, and we got to deal with what’s here.

[Rachel] This is what’s here. This is what we’re given. And again it’s those requirements, constraints, customer needs, you know, all those things that we talk about where we have all worked together. We take all that into consideration, and that is the fact, and we just go forward with that, and make whatever needs to happen, happen.

[Pius] At the same time I don’t want to give the impression that engineering for younger kids teaches them to just, like, see a world of black-and-white, and they’re totally uncreative, and they’re bored, and they don’t dream. They don’t ask the big questions. That’s not true either. I think engineering just as much as science or the arts or whatever can make a kid dream, and be able to think up of this new awesome way to cure cancer, and reach the moon, and all this stuff, too. So I don’t know. It stretches the brain in a different way. That’s all I’m going to say.

[Rachel] I wonder, so if science maybe says, “Why?” I wonder if engineering says, “What if?”

[Sadhan] Hm. So that’s a pretty clever way of putting it.

[Rachel] Thank you!


[Sadhan] What I was gonna say was, you know how we were talking about applied science? Engineering is. There’s another way of looking at it. So science is there. It’s “why” questions. And then you mix them up with your creativity to build something. So engineering by itself is creative in nature.

[Rachel] Yes.

[Pius] Do you think that American kids today, or maybe kids in general, need more education in how to be creative, or how to solve problems in that way? Or is this just an ongoing problem that’s always been? I hear all this talk, for example, in our line of work about: “Kids must be creative.” They must learn to be 21st Century thinkers, whatever that means.

[Rachel] Sure, yeah.

[Pius] And I get the impression that some people think this is a new problem. Like kids especially nowadays urgently need design thinking skills or creativity skills or whatever. And maybe that’s true, maybe not. I don’t know. Do you think that…

[Sadhan] OK, so I think kids are creative, by nature. I just think ascent of the way education system right now doesn’t allow that to happen.

[Rachel] I would agree.

[Sadhan] Especially that’s why we want to allow engineering in high schools at an early age because of – Listen you don’t need to just learn these math formulas and do nothing about it. This is of your pride. Be creative with it.

[Pius] So Rachel you’re a teacher, too.

[Rachel] Yes.

[Pius] Teaching science – not engineering per se but…

[Rachel] No. Right.

[Pius] And so, do you think that that’s – what Sadhan is saying – do you think that that’s a phenomenon just today? Or...

[Rachel] Hm. I know that the face of education has changed so much in the last five years, let alone ten and twenty years. What we all did when we went to school, you excepted – You had a vastly different experience, Sadhan. But what we all did when we were in school twenty years ago was very different from what we do today. And what I – My own educational experience was much more integrated. We had to demonstrate creative thinking and critical thinking in math, English, science, social studies, all across the board. And our teachers actually over-taught us, so that when we got to the end of the year and took our standardized exams, they were somewhat easy, for struggling learners. The exams weren’t that big of a deal because we knew more than what we needed to pass those exams. And now the focus is so much on that exam prep and learning how to understand the exams, and learning what distractors are, and learning how to navigate the question. You actually spend valuable classroom time doing that, when you could be, instead, getting your kids to think of creative ideas on how to solve a problem. Nope. That’s not what we do in, I would venture to say, all 50 states. At least in the public sec – in public schools.

[Pius] So is engineering not a part of these tests and standards that kids have to follow nowadays?

[Rachel] There are no, as far as a know, there are no standardized, say, end-of-course exams for engineering classes. Typically you’re going to see them for at least two math classes, usually biology and chemistry, or you know, two or three sciences. And then you usually have some kind of an exit level social studies and foreign language, and English classes. But as far as engineering, to my knowledge, unless they’re doing an AP thing, and I don’t know that much about the College Board offerings, there’s no end-of-course exam for that.

[Pius] Part of – One of my goals for this podcast, I think, is to help answer the question of, “How do we get engineering skills into maybe the requirements of students in the American public school system?” Or answering the question, “Is that even appropriate?” Maybe it shouldn’t be required. Maybe it should be an elective. I don’t know. And I don’t know how we would answer that question, but maybe there’s people out there that could help us answer that question.

[Rachel] Yeah.

[Pius] Are there other questions about engineering education that you would like answered by experts or just things you’ve been wondering? I’ve got a whole list of them myself.

[Rachel] Yeah, I can only – I mean, so as an educator, I think it would be important to have a conversation where industry professionals somehow can help bridge that gap. What is it that people need – students, interns, whatever it is – what do people need to be able to know and understand and do prior to entering engineering fields? Now, that could be as an engineer. It could be an engineering technologist. It could be an intern. So at various levels, what knowledge or skills do they need, and how do we get policymakers, the people that actually write these standards and things, how do we get them to understand and implement what is needed? And then what industry support could be given to public schools to be able to help foster kids through the process?

[Sadhan] So I have a question in terms of like – You know how we were talking about engineering education in high schools. We’re not just talking about teaching the kids. We’re also talking about training the teachers, in terms of – I mean that’s where it starts. It’s the first line of, where you attack. It’s a fight.


[Sadhan] I’m using the terms “fight against ignorance” right?

[Rachel] Teachers as pawns in the engineering education war.

[Sadhan] The question that I’d want to be answered is: How exactly do we do that? I mean right now we work in a company where we do that, but I’m not really sure if that’s really efficient to do PD, professional development classes. I mean if you want to scale up, how do you do that? Like I’m not really sure.

[Pius] How do you teach America how to actually…

[Sadhan] Teachers, teachers. Kids come secondary. They, the teachers teach the kids.

[Pius] Yeah. Right, right.

[Sadhan] How do you first of all get the teachers into this? The way of thinking of an engineer.

[Pius] Yeah, because, like you said, even in my college, there were definitely professors who weren’t trained as teachers, and so they weren’t the best.

[Rachel] Yeah.

[Pius] And it already takes kids five years to get an engineering degree now. I’m sure there’s stuff that you could be learning at younger ages to decrease that education time, and so if you’re gonna do that, you have to figure out how to teach the teachers.

[Sadhan] Maybe we should have a teacher on the podcast, who teaches engineering.

[Pius] Yeah, maybe. No, that’d be a good idea. Thank you, Sadhan. I hope we can find some. And we are about up in our time of twenty minutes. And if there are any last recommendations you have or any last words, do you have anything to share with our listeners, hopefully?

[Rachel] I would just like to thank everyone for being here. You all, of course. Thanks to our tech support this evening. But thank you all for listening in, and I hope that we can receive feedback from our audience, as well.

[Sadhan] Yeah, I wanted to say thank you as well. Thank you, Pius, for inviting us. Thank you, Rachel, for being here.

[Rachel] [claps] Aw, thanks, Sadhan.

[Pius] So I am looking forward to talking more about this. I do have a lot of points on this. Hopefully I want to – do talk about the difference in education in between here, in the US, and India, in terms of engineering.

[Pius] Yeah.

{Sadhan] That’s something that I want to discuss, maybe in the future.

[Rachel] That’s a good one.

[Pius] OK. Yeah, thank you very much. Thanks for being here. We’ll talk again soon.

[Rachel] Thank you.

[Sadhan] Awesome.

[Pius] Bye, everyone.


[Closing music plays]

[Pius] Thank you to Jeff Munn for helping with sound today. 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 Creative Commons Attribution License. Let me know what you want to talk about about in engineering education by connecting on Twitter: @PiusWong. Thanks for listening.