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An Architect in the Classroom

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An Architect in the Classroom

Season 3 · Episode 16

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What skills does a professional architect bring to high school education? Guest Kelly Foster explains, as he shares his experience as both a practicing architect and a STEM teacher. He discusses his methods in teaching creativity and problem-solving in multiple areas of design, including civil and architectural engineering, architecture, and graphic design. He also analyzes the design of the new Central Library, part of the Austin Public Library system. Guest co-host Rachel also joins the discussion.

Our closing music is “Yes And” by Steve Combs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

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.


Pius Wong  0:00 

The powers of architecture, science and teaching, combine today, on The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.


Pius Wong  0:00 

Hey there, we've got a couple of people here today.


Rachel Fahrig  0:00 

Hi, Pius.


Pius Wong  0:00 

Hi, Rachel. And hi, Kelly.


Kelly Foster  0:00 

Hi. Good to be here.


Pius Wong  0:00 

Welcome to the podcast.


Rachel Fahrig  0:00 

Hi listeners. I always try to say hi.


Pius Wong  0:00 

That's right. That was Rachel Fahrig. I'm Pius Wong. And third was Kelly Foster. I'm your host and an engineer and educator. Rachel's your cohost and educational leadership pundit, and she's also a past colleague of today's guest: Kelly. Kelly Foster is an experienced engineering and architecture teacher in Round Rock, Texas. He's also a practicing professional architect. How does he do all that? We sat down with Kelly at the spacious new Central Library in downtown Austin, Texas, to talk about all this and more. Listen to out talk next


Pius Wong  0:00 

So Kelly foster is our guest. Thank you so much for joining us here at the Austin Central Library.


Kelly Foster  0:00 

Thanks for having me. Yeah, I'm Kelly Foster. I am not an engineer. I'm an architect. Did that for 15 years, registered in two states, and seven years ago became a high school teacher. So since then I've been teaching. I taught a little bit of science and math, taught lots of architecture classes and graphic design classes and then several engineering classes.


Rachel Fahrig  1:27 

I have a piece of Kelly's graphic design on some clothing that I own.


Kelly Foster  1:36 

That's right. I forgot about that.


Rachel Fahrig  1:37 

Did you forget about that? There were a group of us lady teachers who were doing a fun run, like a color run, or you know, one of those things where it's like a 5K, and they throw powdered dust at you or whatever. And we wanted logos on our T-shirts. It was just, like, three of us. And Kelly helped us out. So it had the hazardous materials...


Kelly Foster  1:53 

The caution sign with the four squares.


Rachel Fahrig  1:55 

Yeah. And then a girl with her ponytail streaming out behind her.


Kelly Foster  1:58 

Yeah, it was something about scientists...


Rachel Fahrig  2:00 

Right, running nerdy.


Kelly Foster  2:01 

Running nerdy. That's right.


Rachel Fahrig  2:03 

Running nerdy.


Pius Wong  2:04 

Is that a play on a music lyric or something?


Rachel Fahrig  2:08 

Yeah. Riding dirty. Riding nerdy, running nerdy. But the important thing is that the runner had a ponytail. We thought that that was an exceptional touch.


Kelly Foster  2:13 

It was a scientist with a ponytail. That was the cool thing.


Rachel Fahrig  2:15 

We loved it.


Pius Wong  2:16 

You invited me out a little while ago to see what some of your senior engineering students had designed.


Kelly Foster  2:21 



Pius Wong  2:38 

And I was pretty impressed. It's kind of cool what high schoolers are capable of, I feel like, and what were some of the things that you did with your students in that class?


Kelly Foster  2:49 

Yeah, so this is a class called Engineering Design and Development. It's all seniors. They've all taken three or more engineering classes at this point, and it just kind of gave them a chance to -- Small groups, groups of two or three, come up with, find problems they wanted to solve, and spend pretty much a full semester researching those problems. And then the next semester, coming up with solutions, building prototypes, all that kind of stuff. So it was, yeah, it was a lot of fun. This was my first year to teach. I've been teaching a civil engineering and architecture class for several years. So this was kind of expanding that engineering thing for me. It was so much fun, seeing the problems they were trying to solve. When they were exploring what kind of problems to solve, it was when floods are happening. So a lot of the problems they were solving had to do with that. And also there were wildfires happening. So they were kind of watching the news and saying, Oh, well, there's this problem and this problem, and sometimes they'd come up with a problem they want to solve. It's like, oh, somebody's already solved that. Or this isn't something we can do and build a prototype in our classroom over the course of a year. So it was really -- It was fun to kind of seeing him explore that. But it was cool because my my background is in architecture, and the difference between architectural design and engineering design is like, it's mostly the medium you're working in, not the creative process. The creative process is very similar. So just the thing I've learned from teaching design in all kinds of capacities, graphic, engineering, and architecture design, is just kind of teaching kids to slow down, teaching them to really research and understand things before they start coming up with solutions. They kind of think, Oh, I have to come up with a solution right now. And the first solution I could come up with is the only solution I'm ever going to come up with. So getting him to like, slow down, calm down, try lots of things. It's been really, you know, it's really fun to see them learn that, but it takes some takes a while to get the hang of that.


Pius Wong  4:54 

That was one of the things I was wondering, because you have taught design in so many different disciplines. Do you find that -- You said it's basically the medium that's different. But are there any other differences? Kids seem to face that same problem, then, in other classes, too, about like, just going with their first idea?


Kelly Foster  5:13 

Yeah. No, it's the same. I mean, I get really different kids when I teach graphic design versus architecture versus engineering. You know, they're more comfortable right-brain to left-brain for the most part. They rarely fit the stereotypes of those things. But it does tend to be different kids. But yeah, the issues they deal with -- I mean, they're, you know, dealing with -- Engineering problems are different than graphic design problems. But they all have those things of, you know, wanting to come up with their first solution, not really wanting to develop things. Some of them, when you get kids that are sort of high-achieving in all their other classes, they're looking for the right answer, and getting them in places where it's like, there's not a right answer here. There's multiple good answers. And there's not a right one, and getting them to think that way is a good challenge.


Rachel Fahrig  6:06 

I think that's a common theme that we've come across, when Pius and I used to work together on the engineering curriculum that we were working with, that teachers often would say that I have students who are typically not successful, or they haven't experienced as much success academically, and they shine in those engineering and architecture and other courses, because there isn't one right answer. And they, you know -- If you can establish that good rapport or relationship with them, they'll go way out on a limb, and they just do such amazing things. And then the kids that are very stereotypically straight A's, very good at maybe rote activities or whatever, they really, really struggle in those classes trying to put together creativity and flexibility and freedom. And the unknown. I guess it's that whole being comfortable with going forward, not knowing whether it's gonna work or not. So, yeah, that's super interesting,


Kelly Foster  7:12 

Yeah, I really see both of those things happening. I mean, the students in really all of my classes where they realize they get to -- You know, they're not necessarily doing great in all their other classes, but they get to come to one class where they really just get to explore, where -- I try to make a safe and supportive environment for them so they can mess up, they can struggle, and it's okay, and they can help each other, and that kind of stuff, and there's a kind of slow and carefulness to it that they tend to to enjoy, and they tend to want to be there, and they tend to, like, sort of want to be in that environment and really try things out. And really the sort of overachieving student that's used to kind of getting everything right -- I mean, I've had a few students that are pretty extreme in that that way. And once they realize, Oh, I just get to play, I just get to do stuff, I just get to -- You see them just kind of open up and really develop and really grow fast. You kind of get that sense of, they've found this new freedom.


Pius Wong  8:18 

I wonder if the kids in your more artistic classes just come in assuming that they can play or that they can explore different ideas rather than in an engineering class.


Kelly Foster  8:29 

Yeah, I mean, especially when I'm -- I'm not currently teaching, graphic design, but those tended to be the more sort of students that were used to art classes and that kind of thing. And getting them to be disciplined in their work was more of a job and more of a challenge.


Pius Wong  8:43 

So you had to do both.


Kelly Foster  8:43 

Yeah. Getting them to be disciplined and getting them to explore at the same time, making sure that the problem you're solving is the actual problem that you were trying to solve in the first place and not just a thing you wanted to do. I mean, that's a struggle in all the classes.


Pius Wong  8:57 

So because in your engineering class, you had your students work for a long time on these projects, you kind of already tackled a problem that other people have told me about. Like, I've spoken to another guy who is trying to mentor high school students and younger to create their own design projects, very similar to what you've been doing. And his problem was, they found that they don't have as much success unless the students, or these young people, choose a problem that they are really invested in or interested in from the start. Otherwise it kind of just fizzles out. But it sounds like you found a way to have your students find that. How do you foster their selection of a good problem in the first place? A good design problem?


Kelly Foster  9:46 

I mean, something I'm working with a curriculum that's given to me, and I just went through training with Project Lead The Way. But a lot of it is just getting them to -- There's a whole process we go through where they throw out kind of all the ideas of things they're they're interested in. I kind of, over the course of several classes, I give them several prompts. And I say, okay, think about this and come up with 10 to 15 answers to it. And I know it's been a while, but I tend less to -- I think one thing, one tendency for teachers is to say, like, what are the things you're interested in? And I tend to try to -- I think teenagers are really good at being all about themselves and what they're interested in, and I don't think we need to encourage that. They're often awesome at that.


Pius Wong  10:39 

[laughs] But your your students were tackling, like, how to save flood victims' cars...


Kelly Foster  10:43 

Right, because -- Yeah, but none of them came into the classes being really into flooding car issues.


Pius Wong  10:50 



Kelly Foster  10:50 

So I was more like thinking, Okay, what issues are out there? Sort of get them to turn outside of themselves. Think about things in the world that fascinate you, and things that you see that concern you. Is there a community you care about? You know, just kind of getting them to think really outside themselves into the community into other people's lives that aren't their own. So there's still -- It's not that it's not a thing they're interested in, they're still interested in it. They just haven't come into the class and -- I mean, you know, I feel like if I asked them, like, what are the things you're interested in? Most of them would say video games. [laughs]


Rachel Fahrig  11:27 



Pius Wong  11:29 

I like video games.


Kelly Foster  11:30 

That's not a problem.


Pius Wong  11:32 

No, I get it. One of your most successful -- not most, but one of your successful groups, designed something that was kind of for them. They were a bunch of athletes.


Kelly Foster  11:43 



Pius Wong  11:43 

They designed like, a splint, kind of, a flexible brace for a jammed finger or something.


Kelly Foster  11:51 

Yeah, there were two groups that did different biomedical-type things. One of them was dealing with a finger. Basically with finger injuries they talked about using buddy taping to immobilize fingers, kind of the standard thing, and they wanted to come up with a better solution for that. And another group, one of them had, like, had knee problems for a long time. And you know, he's a big guy. And like, there's either sort of off-the-shelf knee braces or really expensive knee braces, and the off-the-shelf ones don't fit him and then the others are too expensive. So kind of finding a middle ground in that. But yeah, so they were working with sort of things that issues they've dealt with in their own lives,


Pius Wong  12:34 

It at least started with them. So they could be selfish, but you've managed to push them into something where it's helping more than just them.


Kelly Foster  12:40 

Helping more than just them. It's really, yeah -- teaching them that you matter, but it's not all about you. [laughs]


Pius Wong  12:45 

That's an interesting teenage lesson, overall. I feel like non-engineering teachers should push that, as well.


Rachel Fahrig  12:51 

I think a lot of people should push that.


Pius Wong  12:56 

You also mentioned that this is a newer class for you. You had also been teaching the architecture and civil engineering classes.


Rachel Fahrig  13:02 



Pius Wong  13:03 

What's the difference between that set of classes and this design class?


Kelly Foster  13:08 

That class is really a survey of -- It's probably misnamed, because it's not all of civil engineering. It's basically the parts of civil engineering that connect with buildings.


Pius Wong  13:18 

Structural engineering.


Kelly Foster  13:19 

There's structural engineering. We do surveying. We talked about framing, and there's a whole lot of just sort of the technical. We're kind of going back and forth between the design aspects that an architect will deal with and then the more technical aspects that an engineer would deal with.


Pius Wong  13:34 

Do they do design problems or design projects in that class, too?


Kelly Foster  13:38 

Yeah, I mean, there's a given curriculum for that, but I've restructured it a little bit so that the first semester is all about getting to the point where they can design a house, so that they both understand, like, what matters to the layout of the house, but also they've really understood the framing issues and the thermal issues and all sorts of technical stuff having to do with it. And then the second semester is all focused around designing a commercial building. So they're kind of designing this building, but they also go through the process of selecting a site and selecting a program. And then they do the land surveying. We go outside, and this year it was like 28 degrees outside when we went out to do land surveying. It was awesome.


Pius Wong  14:20 

If they do it now, it wouldn't be any better while it's a hundred degrees.


Kelly Foster  14:24 

This is true. Yeah, I had my observation on the day they were [laughs].


Rachel Fahrig  14:31 

Yes, you're doing fine. I gotta go back inside. [laughs]


Kelly Foster  14:33 

That's exactly what happened.


Pius Wong  14:36 

Tip for future architecture and engineering teachers


Rachel Fahrig  14:40 

How to guarantee that you will be invited back as a teacher. Punish your administrator by making them go outside.


Kelly Foster  14:50 

In 28 degree weather.


Rachel Fahrig  14:51 

So noted. Got it.


Kelly Foster  14:52 

But yeah, so in that one, when they're in the commercial building, they've both planned the building and put it on the site and that kind of stuff. And they've designed all the structure for it and actually surveyed the land that it would go on and that sort of stuff. It's really -- I find I get -- Because you know, students at our school, they can just go straight architecture and take those classes from me, or they can go the engineering route and take this class. So I find I get a lot of students in that class that are trying to make up their mind between architecture and engineering, which is where I was. That was what I was trying to figure out in late high school, even into college. I started as an engineering major, switched to architecture. But by the end of that class, they usually know, because they can look at the stuff they've done, and are they more comfortable, proficient when they're exploring the design of a building? Or when they're in the weeds of the calculation to figure out the loads on a beam and how that transfers down? And by the end of the class, they can look at that and see -- and I have lots of students that have said, Yeah, I kind of was thinking I was going to go this way, and I decided to go this way from your class, in both directions. Like, I have students coming in thinking they want to be an engineer and switch to architecture and vice-versa.


Pius Wong  15:59 

So as a professional architect, yourself, you see probably directly the differences between your professional work and what you have to teach. Are there any differences? Do your kids really get authentic practices in architecture and engineering, you think?


Kelly Foster  16:15 

Yeah, I mean, I really gear the class so that it's as much as possible. I mean, there's there's limits. I mean, these are fields where it takes years to develop the skills and stuff, but I try to give them enough of a taste of each to know if it's something they want to do. But yeah, it's pretty there. In all the classes, they're using the software they would use in the industry. Yeah.


Pius Wong  16:39 

Part of the reason that we're meeting in the Austin Public Library, the new downtown Austin Central Library, is because the architecture here is somewhat unique for Austin.


Kelly Foster  16:49  

It is.


Rachel Fahrig  16:50 

I just realized that the staircases remind me of Hogwarts, and it would be really cool if they moved.


Kelly Foster  16:58 

It would be.


Rachel Fahrig  16:59 

But they look like it.


Pius Wong  17:00 

Yeah, from this angle, I'm thinking of Escher's drawings, as well.


Rachel Fahrig  17:03 

Yeah, same. I love it.


Kelly Foster  17:05 

There's a there's a 19th century artist named Piranesi that did these sort of networked prison-type things that has a very similar look to it, as well.


Rachel Fahrig  17:14 

I'll have to look that up.


Kelly Foster  17:15 



Pius Wong  17:15 

Yeah, we need to get your opinion on this as the resident architecture eye here. So we're all somewhat new to this space.


Kelly Foster  17:24 

Yeah. This is my first time I've been. I've been meaning to come since it opened, what, six, seven months ago?


Rachel Fahrig  17:30 

Seven months ago, I think. Yeah, I haven't been here either. It's my first time in the building today as well.


Pius Wong  17:35 

So what are your judgments or criticisms or joys, I guess, that you see?


Kelly Foster  17:40 

I was just struck by -- like, there's no -- You come in, I came in probably the back entrance, but there's kind of not a -- There's not a clear -- It's kind of porous around the outside. You kind of find your way in.


Rachel Fahrig  17:53 

There's a sign -- The elevator that I came in, there's a sign that says specifically, enter on X Y Z streets. And I chose to ignore the sign and just take the elevator to the second floor, because I knew that's where Pius was. And there was an entrance right there. Not on the street that the sign directed me to, but it was open. I mean, the doors weren't locked. You do walk through some sort of sensor, detector, I don't know if it's for books or for metal or for both. But it was open. It's accessible.


Kelly Foster  18:28 

Yeah, it feels very much sort of porous into the city, and you just kind of find your way in and find a way around, which is really different from the old Central Library, this 1970s concrete brutalist building where you come in and it's like, all there, all at once. And I came in probably 45 minutes early just to wander around and kind of wander the building, and it just struck me that it's very story-like. It's very like --


Pius Wong  18:53 



Kelly Foster  18:53 

Like you feel like...


Pius Wong  18:54 



Kelly Foster  18:55 

Like Hogwarts, yeah.


Pius Wong  18:56 

Harry Potter. OK.


Kelly Foster  18:58 

Yeah, like a story like. There's a kind of narrative. You just kind of wander through and find your way through. You don't see it all at once. It kind of unfolds as you come through it. You kind of find your way into the big tall atrium space.


Rachel Fahrig  19:08 

Choose your own adventure, Austin Public Library style.


Pius Wong  19:11 

I feel like we're doing some reverse engineering of the design that we see, because we don't -- We haven't spoken to the architects of this, but I feel like you can kind of figure out what the intention of it is. And that's interesting that you point out the multiple entrances. We're sitting in another entrance, which I don't even know if that's supposed to be an entrance. And what's the point of that? Like why would designers or architects want that ambiguity in the exits and entrances?


Kelly Foster  19:42 

Well, Lake Flato designed this. Their San Antonio-based firm has been doing great work for decades. I was really excited when I found out they would be doing this building. I don't really know buildings of this size that they've done. I just haven't kept up close enough with their work. I know a lot of houses that they've done that are just gorgeous. They've always had a kind of regional bent. A lot of local materials, sort of picking up on local building types and bringing them into all of their work. But they're still so modern. The spaces are very modern. The materials are a mixture of really textural traditional materials but used in a used in a contemporary way. So I just get the sense that the kind of porosity to it, it feels -- Like, I was reading an interview with one of the principals recently, and he referred to it when he came in, and it was mostly done. He said well this is the largest lake house we've ever built.


Rachel Fahrig  20:48 

It is.


Kelly Foster  20:49 

It really feels like it.


Pius Wong  20:50 

Yeah, because of all the windows and...


Rachel Fahrig  20:53 

Dock right over here.


Pius Wong  20:55 

Rooftop gardens.


Kelly Foster  20:56 

Decks everywhere, every place you want to go and hang out and rest.


Rachel Fahrig  21:00 

Concrete and tile.


Pius Wong  21:01 

People feel comfortable to, like, sit on the couch and talk, record a podcast.


Kelly Foster  21:08 



Pius Wong  21:08 

And they're there with their drinks and their family, their little kids.


Kelly Foster  21:13 

There's just kind of a casualness to it that feels -- To me, it kind of makes me feel like slowing down and resting.


Rachel Fahrig  21:21 

It's comfortable and inviting. You want to hang out.


Pius Wong  21:24 

As opposed to other libraries that you mentioned, the old one. And I know Rachel, you were talking offline about another library that you had known and, like, how this is supposed to be inviting people to make a little bit more noise, as people listening to this podcast might notice. Speaking of the noise, actually, there is noise where we are right now. But I noticed that it seems intentional that there are specific places where you can make noise and it's okay. And then as soon as you walk into a certain part of the library it becomes naturally quieter. Whether it's because people don't -- they feel like they shouldn't talk or if it's the way the layout of the walls are. I'm wondering if you noticed any reasons why, or how, we can control the sound quality in the different spaces.


Kelly Foster  22:15 

Yeah. I think there's two parts to that. I think there's the -- this is where my architecture and engineering brain come in at the same time. So for the listeners, we're in a space that I think is five stories tall. It has different -- The upper levels are all kind of cut out. You can see across all of the stairwells. As you go through you can see the different floor levels coming out. You kind of meander your way up through the stairs to the upper levels. And then when you go into the side rooms, some of which are the stacks with the books, or different reading rooms, or those kind of things. They're all one-story spaces. The scale of them is very different, and I think just the kind of -- as you move through it I think it makes you feel like, okay, I've gone from this big space, and now I've gone into this small space. It makes you -- You kind of recalibrate how you think and function in that.


Rachel Fahrig  23:11 

Based on intimacy of your surroundings.


Pius Wong  23:13 

Like, the size of the space itself, because we are in a larger space.


Kelly Foster  23:15 



Pius Wong  23:16 

And the materials are harder, too, I realize, so the sound is going to bounce off more.


Kelly Foster  23:21 

Yeah. But then also, they have done things here which I was reading about and don't remember all of what they are. But it's difficult in a space like this to not make it seem -- to not make the acoustics feel like an echoey gymnasium. So they've done quite a few things to sort of deaden the sound or create zones --


Pius Wong  23:39 

Is the texture of the wall that we're sitting next to, that contributes to the sound quality.


Kelly Foster  23:43 

That's part of it. I mean, it's a hard surface. It's, for people that can't see this, I think it's an ash wood that's in horizontal things, but it's out at different levels that sort of -- Some of them stick out from the wall. Some of the strips are recessed. But anything you can do in a space like this to vary the surface keeps all the -- You know, if you think of -- The worst acoustics are like a high school gymnasium where there's a big solid wall and all the sound is bouncing off the same surface at the same time. So in a space like this, if you can -- Both having this at the small scale of this wall, having that kind of texture, but also sort of breaking up the space as you go up. It's also going to break up a lot of the sound.


Pius Wong  24:26 

And I guess that makes me think in the smaller areas with the books, the bookshelves themselves are probably muffling a lot.


Kelly Foster  24:33 

They're pretty effective sound deadening. Yeah.


Pius Wong  24:36 

Actually, while I was up there, I also saw the Technology Petting Zoo, which is not a phrase I've ever heard before. Had you heard of that?


Kelly Foster  24:42 

No, I saw when I went by. That looked like fun.


Pius Wong  24:44 

Yeah, they had a 3D printer and Google echo or something, whatever it's called. I'm mixing my technology. Whatever, the thing you talked to.


Rachel Fahrig  24:53 

An Amazon Echo, and Alexa.


Pius Wong  24:55 

And they had a bunch of things you could play with.


Rachel Fahrig  24:57 

We have a kid in our house. We have five Echo devices. [laughs]


Pius Wong  25:04 

Do they talk to each other?


Rachel Fahrig  25:05 

No, I can't wait for that to happen, though.


Pius Wong  25:08 

They're going to plot against you.


Kelly Foster  25:09 

A lot of libraries are bringing on, like, makerspaces and kind of spaces to explore. In fact the library at the high school I teach at, we're fitting out one of the rooms as a makerspace. Should be ready ready in the fall. But yeah, 3d printers, laser cutters, sewing machines, large format printers.


Pius Wong  25:27 

So your engineering students will use all of that stuff as well.


Kelly Foster  25:33 

Well, a lot of that stuff we already had in my classroom so they're they're pretty proficient already, but some of the equipment they have is a little better. And it also lets us do more than one thing at a time because 3D printing is slow. But yeah, a lot of this stuff that you saw the prototypes of, those were -- like, the knee brace, that was done on the laser cutter.


Pius Wong  25:54 

Was it a nylon or acrylic material?


Kelly Foster  25:56 

Well, the sort of clear plastic, that was in acrylic, cut on the laser cutter. And then a lot of the stuff was sewed. Like, with the beginning of the year when I was teaching the class, they're like, they're coming up with ideas and they're like Mr. Foster what if we have to sew something? I'm like, Okay, I've got the budget. We're getting a sewing machine. I'm gonna teach you guys how to sew. They're like, you know how to sew? It's like, Yes, yes, I do. So I was teaching football players how to sew. It was awesome.


Pius Wong  26:21 

I was wondering when I saw them present, it was a bunch of football players, and they're presenting like, how they sewed everything, and they tensioned everything just right. So that was kind of neat.


Kelly Foster  26:30 

It was awesome.


Pius Wong  26:31 

And likewise, you had another team who -- they made a facemask.


Kelly Foster  26:35 



Pius Wong  26:35 

To protect against...


Kelly Foster  26:36 

Yeah, that was a brilliant little project. Yeah, they were looking at how, in wild wildfire situations, people tend to go to the hardware store and get the masks that are just made for painting, and they're completely ineffective. And then there's these really expensive masks that are very effective. Part of the problem with this class is I had eight different projects, and I was trying to keep up with all of them, and all the students were experts, and I couldn't honestly become educated in all this stuff they -- So it was great to see them -- Once they realized I didn't know all these things, it was great to see them take it on. And you saw when they presented, you could ask them questions about it, and they could just answer. They just knew this stuff. Because they realized, you know, that was their thing. With these masks they were trying to find something that would be affordable, people would actually wear and use but would be effective. And so it was two young women, and they explored all of the things. I think part of theirs was sewing and then they had an idea of how the thing is clipped on...


Pius Wong  27:41 

Yeah, they had a ergnomics problem.


Kelly Foster  27:43 

Yeah, we're both pointing to the back of our heads. They had a -- How do you tighten the mask so that it's tight enough to be effective and it's still comfortable? And they came up with -- They used the idea of the way, like, trimmers for yards, the way when you bump -- Yeah, weeders where you bump the bottom and they loosen. They looked into how just the geometries of that, in between the 3d printer and the laser cutter and some string and some sewing, they made an effective version of that. So you could just twist it to tighten it. Or you could just bump it to loosen it if it got too tight. And it works. And it was beautiful. And they did it in really cool colors as well.


Pius Wong  28:23 

Yeah, it was really cool. I was impressed.


Rachel Fahrig  28:25 

Coming soon to an Ace Hardware near you.


Kelly Foster  28:27 

It was really amazing.


Rachel Fahrig  28:28 

That's neat.


Pius Wong  28:30 

I think was the two young women who worked on that, like, I remember asking them all these questions. And you were saying how that project involves so much. There's the mechanical side, the biomedical side. And I asked them a question about, like, the chemical environmental side. And it's like, in my head, I was thinking how could you possibly create a chemical filtration system on top of all this other stuff? And it turns out, I mean, they didn't because of the limited time and budget, but they still knew about it.


Kelly Foster  28:54 

They knew how to do it.


Pius Wong  28:55 

They could answer the question.


Kelly Foster  28:56 

They very much knew how to do it. And some of it was they were using off-the-shelf things that they'd found could work and be adapted to this. But they knew all of it. They were brilliant.


Pius Wong  29:04 

And you talk about how you as a teacher, you can't really truly be an expert in all these different fields and projects, and you're relying on the students to be the expert. How do you get over that, being not in control, really, in some ways?


Kelly Foster  29:18 

Really, to me, it's crazy fun. I mean, I get to learn all these things all the time. I just get to be curious. But I just remember early on in the class, the students are used to when a teacher asks them a question. They're trying -- The teacher's trying to get the student to give the answer that the teacher wants. And it often -- not always, but often -- In this case, I would be asking these students questions, and they'd answer, and then they kind of look at me, like, Is that the right answer? And I'm like, Oh, you think I'm asking you this because I know the answer. No, I'm asking you this because I have no idea. And then, and they're like, oh, okay, and they just ran with it. And as far as I know, nobody was making things up, but they had to show a lot of their research and they had -- They knew we were bringing in people that would know things.


Pius Wong  29:37 

Not just me, but people who knew what they were doing, and asking them questions. And so that was cool. And I feel like your students still felt a little bit of pressure.


Kelly Foster  30:17 

Yeah. And I tried to -- This is where I think my my architecture background was helpful for it, because as an architect you -- In school and as a professional, you're presenting to people all the time, and it's often very high-pressure kind of situations. And the only way to get better is just to do it a lot. And so I really designed the class so they will have presented to me or their peers many times in a safe environment so that they're very comfortable with it.


Pius Wong  30:48 

How many is many? Because I know I only saw one time, but then how much did they prepare for that?


Kelly Foster  30:52 

Well, they had given -- Actually in the future I'd like to do more, but they hadn't, like --They'd given a major presentation at the semester mark. That was their final exam, was a major presentation defining their problem. But even between that I would have them present to other groups different phases of the project, present their research, present their -- when they were exploring design solutions, present all the solutions to other people. So they're just really, like, being in front of people talking about their stuff was really just a big part of the class. And I had them come up with both a complex problem statement plus an elevator pitch. So when somebody asks you to ask you what your problem is about, you need to be able to answer them really quickly. And I also taught them a lot of visual communication stuff. I had to make posters and do slide presentations and gave them a lot of -- Basically I was teaching graphic design and public speaking and random things.


Pius Wong  31:48 

There's a lot of stuff in this class.


Kelly Foster  31:50 

I've heard enough engineers present stuff that I'm like, I'm thinking they don't teach this in the college level. So I probably should get this at the high school level.


Pius Wong  32:00 

They're starting to do it a little more, but you're probably right for a lot of professional engineers today. So I thank you for that. I think, in general engineers probably could create a better reputation for themselves.


Kelly Foster  32:11 

I mean, as an architect, you work with engineers all the time. And I have -- There's been engineers that I have worked with that have just -- where we'll go, and as a team we'll go present to a city or a zoning review board or something like that. And there's engineers that can present really well. I've seen it happen.


Pius Wong  32:33 

Why did you choose architecture over engineering?


Kelly Foster  32:36 

Yeah. See, I went to school -- You know, all these classes I teach, I try to teach the class that I wish I'd had. I did take drafting in high school, and it made me think -- like, I decided I want to be an architect, and then I took drafting. I'm like, Okay, this is good. I kind of like it. But is this all you do? And so that's when, like, I was a junior, senior in high school. I didn't know what an engineer did. All I knew was, if you're good in math and science, you should be an engineer. That was about the extent of my logic. Went off to A&M. I did fine in my classes. I liked my math and science classes, loved calculus, took all the calculus I needed to be an engineer before I switched to architecture.


Pius Wong  33:21 

Oh, no, you did all that work.


Kelly Foster  33:23 

So yeah, differential equations didn't really help me, doesn't really help me much as an architect, but I loved it. But I just, like, I was doing fine in them. But I was enjoying my humanities classes a lot more, and I was, like, I really think I need something more creative. More -- I need to not use that term. I don't like the way people describe, like, artsy things is creative and engineering things as not creative.


Pius Wong  33:49 

I agree.


Kelly Foster  33:49 

It's, I needed my creativity to be in the aesthetic realm as much as in the technical realm. And so that was when I was, you know, when I switched -- Went back to what I'd wanted to do in eighth grade and went to the went to the architecture school. And you know, the studio environment of architecture school -- Since architecture education is unique. And I remember when I started getting into K-12 education, everybody's talking about project-based learning or problem-based learning and where you're given a problem to solve, and it's open-ended. And, you know, it's designed so that over the course of the project, you learn the material you need to learn. I was thinking, this is the way architecture has been taught for like 200 years, at least.


Pius Wong  34:35 

Really, I didn't know that.


Kelly Foster  34:36 



Pius Wong  34:36 

You always do design projects, I guess.


Kelly Foster  34:38 

You're always doing design projects, and all the projects are designed where you set the variables -- By the problem you create, you set the variables so that students need to explore this one thing, or two things, or three things. They get more complicated as you go along. But yeah, it's like, I get this. This is how I was educated. I loved that as a college student, and I've really made all of my classes into design studios in this way, including my engineering classes. They're much more modeled on my architecture classes then on anything I -- I mean, I wasn't in engineering for very long, but they're modeled on sort of the way an architecture studio is taught.


Pius Wong  35:26 

You mentioned that you started teaching later. I mean, you started out as an architect. So why did you get into K-12 education?


Kelly Foster  35:35 

Well, I had worked in the field for a long time. I had done residential architecture, I'd done commercial architecture. I had worked in Houston and Boston and Austin and this little thing happened in 2008. I was designing houses for a living, and then the economy crashed led by housing.


Pius Wong  35:55 

Ah, okay.


Kelly Foster  35:58 

And that was -- You know, that was a good -- A lot of architects did a lot of soul searching at that time. [laughs] And I was like, Well, what do I -- the stuff I was doing kind of fell apart. And it's like, well, what do I really want to do? There was the option of going back to work for a big firm. I had a partner, and then was working on my own for a little while, but like, everything I enjoyed the most in the field had been, like, mentoring younger people, educating clients about stuff, even volunteering in my own kid's school, like, the things where I just came to life were where I was teaching. I was like, really the idea of teaching teenagers is the most appealing thing to me right now. But then I thought, yeah, but nobody teaches the things I do. Nobody teaches architecture in high school. So I found a certification that's math, physical sciences, and engineering, that I had all the right classes for, and I could teach geometry or physics or something like that. Those are all very close. I mean, I can think of millions of examples from my work as an architect that uses both of those things. But then stumbled on a high school that wanted to -- It was a new high school, and they wanted to start an architecture program. And they just had one architecture class, but they're like, Hey, we could also have you teach science. And that was when I ended up teaching with Rachel.


Pius Wong  37:18 

The same high school that you're at right now. S


Kelly Foster  37:20 

The same high school. Yeah.


Pius Wong  37:21 

Where Rachel was.


Rachel Fahrig  37:23 

That's the high school I came from, yup.


Kelly Foster  37:26 

Yeah. So I've been there for seven years now. And the architecture program, I started from scratch there.


Pius Wong  37:33 

And so Rachel, since you saw -- You saw Kelly when...


Kelly Foster  37:38 

You saw me as a new teacher. [laughs]


Pius Wong  37:39 

This is a good question. Did you see each other's classes at all? Did you know that Kelly was a new teacher?


Rachel Fahrig  37:46 

I did. We knew he was a new teacher, but he was a great teacher, but my interaction with him mostly was as a science teacher. So I had been the lead of the professional learning community for physics, and so we interacted a lot for that, doing common planning, but I was always just curious what other teachers were doing in their classrooms. So on my conference period, I would just pop down there. Like, I mean, he wasn't the only teacher I visited. But if I had free time, I would go see what's going on in his classes. What are the kids doing? What are they talking about? What's he doing differently than I do that I can, you know, steal as either a better instructional method or something different to try? So we didn't work super closely together. We weren't partnered teachers are anything, but definitely...


Kelly Foster  38:38 

We almost were. I almost was a physics teacher, and then they said, no, you're teaching chemistry.


Rachel Fahrig  38:42 

No, you're going to teach chemistry instead.


Kelly Foster  38:43 

I know physics better, but...


Rachel Fahrig  38:46 

In fact, I think he was teaching chemistry because I said I could not. [laughs]


Kelly Foster  38:55 

So it's your fault.


Rachel Fahrig  38:56 

My discomfort with the curriculum could not benefit the kids as much as someone who either was more comfortable or had more experience with the content.


Kelly Foster  39:08 

I was the one that was more comfortable and more experienced in chemistry?


Rachel Fahrig  39:11 

Apparently. Or maybe just more willing? I don't know.


Kelly Foster  39:14 

I had student-taught in a chemistry classroom for two weeks.


Pius Wong  39:15 

Who's teaching chemistry now? That's what I want to know.


Kelly Foster  39:20 

By the end of the year, I loved chemistry, and like, Oh, I'd like to keep teaching this. But by that point, I was -- The architecture program was growing, and I was also online to start teaching engineering and graphic design at that point. So I really just taught chemistry for one year. But I loved it.


Rachel Fahrig  39:33 

Yup. The campus really expanded their career and technical education options for students. And there was -- I mean, there was a push, there was a need. The kids were asking, parents, too, but the kids were asking for more architecture, more engineering, more technical programs, or more technical classes. So he came at a great time. He was able to kind of build that program from scratch or from the ground up. He did have a couple of partner teachers for a couple of years. But I mean, really, I think he's kind of been the foundation for a lot of that program.


Kelly Foster  40:13 

It's been fun, because it's felt like -- Designing a lesson, designing a class, designing a series of classes, a four-year sequence of classes, they're all design projects. And when I got into teaching, and they started talking about how you design this thing, it's like, oh, it's design. Cool. I know this thing.


Pius Wong  40:37 

Yeah, we've had this discussion.


Rachel Fahrig  40:38 

One of the things that I present about when I'm instructing other educators or principals or superintendents, really, is that the continuous improvement cycle is a design cycle.


Kelly Foster  40:51 



Rachel Fahrig  40:53 

And the parallels -- I mean, I've even gone so far as to pull different design processes or design cycles, just images, Google search, you know, whatever, and plunk it right on top of, what does continuous improvement look like? The words are different, because every industry has their own buzzwords, but it's the same exact thing.


Kelly Foster  41:14 



Pius Wong  41:16 

How do you think you've changed as a teacher then since then? Or even as a professional? Maybe as an architect, you've changed, I don't know.


Kelly Foster  41:26 

That's a good question. How have I changed as a teacher?


Pius Wong  41:31 

Unless Rachel noticed it.


Rachel Fahrig  41:32 

It's like Barbara Walters.


Kelly Foster  41:34 



Pius Wong  41:34 

I didn't know it we're going to get deep.


Kelly Foster  41:35 

I mean tat first year I was, like, the Chemistry Department was kind of new. It felt like we were building the ship in the water.


Rachel Fahrig  41:43 



Kelly Foster  41:43 

And I was teaching four sections of that, and then creating the architecture program and teaching an engineering class that was new, and I just -- I felt like I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off the whole year.


Pius Wong  41:56 

Classic first year teacher, the way you describe it.


Kelly Foster  41:58 

With three preps, two of which I was making up by myself.


Rachel Fahrig  42:01 

Yeah. And that was -- He was a first year teacher on a brand new campus. You came the second year the school was open.


Kelly Foster  42:09 

The second year, yeah.


Rachel Fahrig  42:10 

So the school had only been in operation for a year. Tt still wasn't filled to capacity because we didn't have seniors that first year, or the second year either. And so, you know, he's dealing with a younger student population, first-year teacher out of an alternative certification program. So the time that you spend in classrooms is not -- You're not -- If you go through an alt cert program, you're not spending four years in different classrooms...


Kelly Foster  42:43 

You spend two weeks.


Rachel Fahrig  42:43 

Observing and being mentored. And then on top of that, they didn't say, okay, well, you're just going to teach this one subject. And we're going to give you easy kids to deal with. No, no, no. He had none of that.


Pius Wong  42:58 

A different discipline from what you thought...


Rachel Fahrig  43:00 

Also you probably have two classrooms, and you're gonna have to go from on to the other.


Kelly Foster  43:04 

Oh they gave me three at first, and I whittled it down to two. No, it was it was an insane year.


Rachel Fahrig  43:09 

And it's a big campus. So, yes, you have to go from that end of the building to this end of the building in four minutes.


Pius Wong  43:15 

Yeah. When I visited your school, it's a big school, a big Texas school, bigger than all the schools I'm used to.


Rachel Fahrig  43:20 

Huge. It is huge.


Kelly Foster  43:22 

So at this point, like, I mean, I'm teaching -- I taught five preps this last year, I'm teaching five preps, slightly different preps next year, down from -- I was teaching seven for one or two years.


Rachel Fahrig  43:33 

And Rachel is just, like, retching.


Kelly Foster  43:35 

Some of them stacked. Some of them double blocked. But these are all CTE classes. They're electives, and the pace is very different from a core class. I consider, like, probably three preps for CTE class is equivalent to one core class. It's just really different.


Rachel Fahrig  43:48 

Because there's -- He doesn't have the high-stakes testing.


Pius Wong  43:51 

Oh, and the standards that you would have to meet for chemistry versus the engineering is just different.


Kelly Foster  43:55 



Rachel Fahrig  43:56 

Yeah. So the standards are still outlined in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, but they don't have the STAAR test.


Pius Wong  44:03 

Yeah. Which is the the state test that your kids have to take.


Kelly Foster  44:06 

Yeah, so a lot of it for me is coming up with projects and then coaching them through projects.


Pius Wong  44:11 

That sounds like fun, in a way.


Kelly Foster  44:12 

It really is, yeah.


Pius Wong  44:12 

You're designing cool learning experiences.


Rachel Fahrig  44:15 

He's the cool teacher.


Kelly Foster  44:16 

I'm the cool teacher.


Rachel Fahrig  44:17 

I was the one looking for the right answer.


Pius Wong  44:20 

More teachers should become that cool teacher.


Kelly Foster  44:22 

I'm the very nerdy cool teacher.


Pius Wong  44:23 

I feel like you didn't just jump in blindly, though, because you did talk about how you had volunteered, and...


Kelly Foster  44:28 

I had worked with kids a lot. Yeah.


Pius Wong  44:30 

So that helps.


Kelly Foster  44:31 

It helps. Yeah. And it's, you know -- I just really -- Teenagers crack me up. They either drive you crazy or they crack you up. I don't know there's any place between.


Rachel Fahrig  44:43 

Or sometimes both.


Kelly Foster  44:44 

Or sometimes at the same time,


Pius Wong  44:45 

You have to laugh instead of cry, I guess.


Kelly Foster  44:47 

No, I just have so much fun teaching. As I become -- As I've been doing it for longer, I'm kind of more more comfortable in my own skin. And I think I feel a little more natural in the classroom, and the students respond better to that.


Rachel Fahrig  45:01 

Authenticity is helpful. And we're going to talk about you like you're not here now. Kelly has always been able to establish a really healthy relationship with his students where they do feel comfortable taking risks in his classroom, offering solutions that, you know, maybe they don't know what the outcome will be. But I mean, anytime I would go and observe his classes, the kids were learning, and they were having fun. They were well behaved. And, you know, it was very evident.


Kelly Foster  45:35 



Pius Wong  45:36 

Props to Kelly.


Kelly Foster  45:37 

Kelly's blushing right now.


Pius Wong  45:38 

You know, I think that we'll have to leave it at that. Kelly, thank you so much for talking with us. And I think we've learned a lot about architecture and what it's like to transition into teaching. And I hope we can talk again sometime.


Kelly Foster  45:53 

That'd be great. This was fun. Thanks so much.


Rachel Fahrig  45:54 

Thank you.


Pius Wong  45:58 

That was Kelly Foster, engineering and architecture high school teacher and professional architect, joining Rachel Fahrig and myself in today's conversation. Check this episode show notes for a link to download a free digital copy of a poster that Kelly designed for his classroom several years ago that says, "Caution, science teacher at work." Yes. The stick figure in Kelly's poster has a ponytail. That poster link along with a bunch of other episode notes are also at the podcast website. Visit k12engineering.net. That's k12engineering.net.


Pius Wong  46:35 

Please help me share the show with other professionals, educators and parents. Leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to this show. And follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Finally, a special thank you to my supporters on Patreon. Whether it's $1 or $20 a month that you've pledged, your donations have kept this podcast going. I'm extremely grateful. If you'd like to tell me that you're a listener or a supporter of any of my projects here at Pios Labs, then you can send a dollar online at patreon.com/pioslabs.


Pius Wong  47:10 

Our closing music today is from the song, "Yes and" by Steve Combs, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent studio Pios Labs here in Austin, Texas, where I work on several digital projects like this show. Thank you for listening, and please check it out again soon.


Pius Wong  47:38 

Pius here again. It's time for the post-show notes. Thanks to everyone who voted for us to be a part of South by Southwest and South by Southwest Edu in March 2019. Rachel and I are extremely grateful for your support. Not sure what the results are yet, but whatever happens we will update you, and regardless, no matter how it goes, we are truly grateful for all your help and all your belief in us. In other news, I might finally have the time and ability to overhaul the podcast website a bit to make it more user-friendly. You can keep tabs on that project over on Patreon, where I'll have some posts just for Patreon supporters so that you can join me on nerding out on web design and user experience and full stack development and all that. Hope to get to that and get all that finished by spring. Thanks.