Over the summer, Washington STEM, in partnership with Washington MESA, launched a new and innovative pilot program in order to give students the access and opportunity to explore their inner engineer. Teachers from the Yakima Valley and King County, along with undergraduate and graduate students from universities in Washington and professional engineers from around the Puget Sound, formed the inaugural Engineering Fellows Program (the Program).
These collaborators (the Fellows) came together to create design challenges that will introduce the principles of engineering in a variety of ways that align with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Students will engage in activities ranging from vertical farming to water filtration to designing unique circuits. These challenges are based around the core principles of engineering but are flexible enough for teachers to create a plan that is responsive to their specific communities and student populations. Over the course of the next school year, the Fellows will work together to implement, refine, and iterate their design challenges to achieve maximum efficacy, just like in the real engineering world.
During the Program’s first year, we’ll be following, listening, and discussing what it’s like to participate in such a truly unique program and evolving learning process.
For this update, we sat down with a few of our professional engineers from McKinstry and Coughlin, Porter, and Lundeen. We discussed what it means to have culturally responsive designs, engineering principles introduced at such an early age, the implications of that education on the workforce, working with teachers, and their hopes for the Program.
One of the most important aspects of the Engineering Fellows Program that all of these engineers agreed on is the flexibility and cultural competency of the design challenges. The challenges are designed in such a way that a teacher in South King County can design curriculum around these challenges but put it in the context of the community they are in.
“I think [cultural competency] is kind of paramount. There are so many points in a child’s education stream where doors can be slammed shut. You put things in front of them, and you don’t know what lever they’re going to pull. [We’ve] got to adapt and give them multiple levers,” said Michael Frank of McKinstry. Michael noted that right off the bat he was able to quickly recognize that it was 2 distinct regions from across the state that were coming together. But even more importantly, the differences between each region were recognized and incorporated into the work they were doing in a really positive way.
Whether students are in Yakima Valley or Seattle’s Central District these design challenges will be approachable. But the challenges should look and feel different for other communities because each community has their own realities and their own unique characteristics.
Cultural competency is just one component of the design challenges that have developed. Another critical component is something all of the engineers agreed on – the idea of failure.
“I loved how much people talk about failing forward and making failure acceptable. Failure [in school] was never acceptable for me,” Matt Nielson of McKinstry said. “Acceptance of failure as a part of the process, and as long as you understand its role, is just fine. I would hope that becomes part of the student’s reality, that failure is just a step up along the way”
“Speaking from my own experience, [failure] was not part of the education system. It’s the drive to success, get an A and if you don’t, what are you doing? And with the work that I do, everything is an iterative process. There’s always this try, fail, repeat process. And that’s just life, and if a future workforce came in with that understanding, that would be awesome,” said Michael Frank.
Teachers and engineers have come together to create some unique engineering challenges, but the students won’t be the only benefactors of this learning process. Teachers and engineers alike are exposing themselves to new concepts and processes too.
Laura Grignon of Coughlin, Porter, and Lundeen spoke to her experience assisting a teacher in creating a design challenge. “I could tell in just trying to talk about the design challenge that it seemed really overwhelming to her, and I thought, ‘Wow I’m not sure how to bridge this gap.’ But we started building a little water cleansing system, and as soon as we became three dimensional and started putting stuff together, we just clicked. She had all the ideas, and it was astounding to me that she really just learned things differently than how I was trying to talk or draw. And maybe she didn’t have the background to discuss the concepts but she intuitively grasped them and just needed a way to show that.”
Michael Frank gave a bit of insight into what he learned as well, “I think it would be kind of fun to do a few more structured events [like the design institute] that would help us learn a skill that, as engineers, we don’t currently know or do. We go to conferences and bring people in at lunch to talk to us. Doing a few more hands on things to understand how the learning process actually works is something that I did get a little spark out of.”
Matt Nielson teaches groups of new engineers basic concepts at McKinstry every Friday, but he may now have a new strategic approach to that learning. “I learned at the Engineering Fellows Design Institute I should be using all of the same skills to teach these engineers.”
One of the standout points around learning for engineer Matt Nielson was the responsiveness of the NGSS framework. “I’d never really thought about how things are taught. I never really thought about how I was taught, but it was really clear to me immediately how the [dimensions of the NGSS] just aligns with the way my brain works. I was impressed by that.”
Another common theme from the engineers involved were the transformative implications of having students introduced to engineering at such an early age. “I think having a diversity of people who are engaged and excited about it can really help reshape the industry for the better,” said Laura Grignon. And Matt Nielson jokingly said, “It’s great, but it’s really scary because I’m going to lose my job.”
Michael Frank is a mechanical engineer and the Director of Engineering at McKinstry, Matt Nielson is a Senior Mechanical Engineer at McKinstry, and Laura Grignon is a Civil Engineer and a Senior Civil Project Manager at Coughlin, Porter, and Lundeen.