Todd Matia gave his freshman class at Sand Creek High School an unusual back-to-school assignment: redesign their desks. The desks are big and bulky, take up a lot of room, are difficult to move, and not easy to arrange in different configurations.
“The redesigned desks will need to be able to fold up, mesh, and be moved out of the way so that we can use the rest of the space in the room,” explained Matia, who has taught preengineering courses at the high school in Colorado Springs for the past 14 years. “The desks are going to have to be designed ergonomically to allow for comfort and good posture for [the students’] backs, but also they need to be designed to be utilized both in a sitting or standing position, depending on how the students feel that day.
“Following the design phase, the students will actually build the desks. So they will experience the whole process in terms of building a prototype – seeing what does and does not work, and ultimately taking all the work they have done and creating a final product that they will be able to use every day.”
Matia is among a growing number of educators who are going beyond the traditional approaches to teaching math and science to bring engineering to the K-12 classroom. What sets apart these teachers is that they recognize that engineering can challenge their students to engage in creative problem solving, teamwork, and hands-on learning.
To recognize and support the work of these teachers, the DiscoverE Foundation (formerly the National Engineers Week Foundation) established the DiscoverE Educator Awards, which are sponsored in part by ASCE. Now in its third year, the program recognizes educators teaching grades 6 through 12 for their hard work in getting kids interested in engineering, math, and science. Winners are nominated by engineers, either former students who went on to become engineers, or engineers who work in partnership with the teachers in their programs.
Matia was honored in 2014, along with Romeo Valdez, who teaches at Harlendale STEM Early College High School, in San Antonio, Texas, and Stephanie Cross, the head of science at the Lawrence Family Development Charter School, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Cross was nominated by ASCE member Edward J. Hajduk, D.Eng., P.E., M.ASCE. Matia and Valdez both teach in schools that participate in Project Lead the Way, an engineering-oriented curriculum taught in more than 6,500 schools in the U.S. Cross is the head of science at a K-8 charter school. Her program is largely based on the Engineering Is Elementary curriculum developed by the Museum of Science, Boston.
“Engineering is not just something that the students just learn in textbooks, but something they can do with their hands,” Valdez says. “The great thing about teaching engineering is [that] the students learn there is not one way to solve a problem, there are many different ways. And of course the students are working in groups so there is a little friendly competition when you do it, which always brings the best out of students.”
‘The Atmosphere Was Electric’
For help in attracting students to engineering and developing a curriculum, Cross turned to ASCE’s Boston Society of Civil Engineers Section (BSCES), the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and local businesses. Through these partnerships she created a thriving after-school program where her students were mentored by engineering college students. To cap off their accomplishments, Cross organized an Engineers Week celebration at the school one evening in February, where the students presented their work to their teachers, parents, mentors, and community leaders.
“It created a lot of excitement,” recalled Cross. “We must have had close to 150 people at this event, including all the college students who had mentored our students and the professor [Hajduk] who spearheaded the whole program. The atmosphere was electric as the bridges the students build were being smashed [to see how much weight they could hold]. So to me, I think that the phenomenal thing was getting the community very excited about engineering.”
Cross said that one of the most exciting things about the after-school engineering program at the school is that, thanks to help from BSCES and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, it has grown in three years from just 12 students doing bridge-building exercises to 45 students designing cities in their own Future City competition.
This year, in their regular classes, the first- and second-grade kids will be working on agricultural pollination in the school garden, magnet-type trains designed to move objects around, windmills designed using juice cartons, and acoustic engineering made familiar through various sound exercises.
“I am not an engineer so I would like to thank all the civil engineers I’ve come into contact with at [BSCES],” says Cross, who started her professional career as a research scientist. “They are all a very encouraging group of people.”
Consider nominating a teacher for the 2015 DiscoverE Educator Awards. Applications will be available in January 2015.