Engineer Turned Classroom Teacher
By Patrick Chan and Susheela Nath
I spent 18 years employed as an engineer. Teaching science was the furthest thing from my mind the day I walked into the president’s office to discuss cutbacks at the company where I had spent the past eight of those years working as a quality assurance manager. When I left the office, my name was added to the unemployment list. It was that moment, at the age of 42, that I decided to change careers and become a science teacher. I am now in my 14th year of teaching middle school science and high school physics. Reflecting on this recently, I have found several parallels between the two careers.
As a process engineer of the epitaxial silicon process at National Semiconductor, I would walk in the fab (short for fabrication) in my bunny suit to find that my process was down overnight and there were dozens of silicon wafers waiting to be processed. It would take me days to duplicate the problem in a manner that would allow me to identify what needed to be done to fit it. Keep in mind, this was a business, and in business, time is money. I soon realized that I needed to teach my operators (on all three shifts) to watch for potential problems. The more information my operators would give me at the moment the problem occurred, the easier it was for me to diagnose the issue and develop corrective action. No one in my department ever trained their operators on the importance of their part of the transistor and on the process of making that part. The operators had only high school diplomas. No one had trained them and entrusted them with this amount of responsibility before. It was a lot of work, but after training, the operators were now partners in problem-solving and helped minimize downtime for our process. This has caused me to reflect a lot lately – imagine how different this situation would have been if those operators had experiences in school where they were entrusted with the necessary skills to be part of the solution.
Students with good observation skills have an advantage in science and in engineering careers. Knowing this, I allow students time to determine what the important areas to observe are – what is important to pay attention to and what doesn’t need as much attention. Once they have identified key observation areas, they are able to focus on these spots during an experiment or test runs of a design. Students will know right away if the locations of observation are the right ones and, if not, make adjustments. Soon, students will be able to identify these key potential observation locations more accurately. Selecting key areas of observation is a very important part of the Science and Engineering Practice – planning and carrying out investigations. Students are also challenged to decide how they can generate quantitative data in these tests. Although qualitative data based on observation can be extremely useful as evidence, data generated by an experiment or test is preferred in science and engineering (a banner of “In God we trust, all others bring data” was in our QA department wall).
As an engineer, when the product of my department was sent to Scotland to be manufactured there, I became a quality engineer working for the company’s QA department. Quality circle teams were being created as part of our continuous improvement or Kaizen efforts. I worked with several departments to provide quality tools such as SPC (statistical process control) and statistical DOE (design of experiments). It is through this lens that I understand firsthand how important it is to provide engineers (and students) with the necessary skills to solve their own problems. The Engineering Design Process of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) reminds me of the parts needed to systematically solve problems. As an example, students in my class created a bottle rocket that was launched with a digital altimeter. Once the optimal amount of water was determined, they were to improve on the design based on research and retest the rocket. It is vitally important to train students not to focus on the symptoms of the problem but to zero-in on the root cause of the problem in order to efficiently and effectively solve it. A simple method to zero-in on the root cause is to ask “5 Whys”. First, ask the question, “Why didn’t the rocket reach 100 m?” When the students give the answer, then ask “Why?” of the answer, and continue until you reach the actual root cause.
Students are preparing to launch their rocket and collect data as a result of planning and carrying out an investigation.[/caption]
As I moved into quality assurance management in my engineering career, I had to learn to neutrally facilitate quality circles
or quality improvement teams. The problems belonged to the team and did the solutions. I was acting as a consultant that would guide the team through the process. My job was only to provide the right tool at the right time and to move the team forward toward resolution. This is absolutely true also as a science teacher with the NGSS. We also have to trust our teams (in this case, students) to make the correct decisions based on the information they have collected and observations made. It is natural for me to ask guiding questions for their next step or when they hit a “roadblock” because that was my role in QA. This is also true in a classroom where it is important to have guiding questions planned ahead of time to assist students when they get stuck. As the quality engineer, I don’t own the problem or the solution. As the teacher, I don’t own the learning of my students. My role is a facilitator of a process that they will learn to use for any problem. The exit tickets at the end of my classes lately have shown that student retention of science concepts as a result of student ownership of their learning has dramatically improved.
Students using the engineering design process are empowered in their science classes to create products, collect data, and analyze areas of improvement and redesign. We, their science teachers, need to allow them time to adequately plan, analyze, and solve real problems in a safe and supportive environment, then get out of their way.
Patrick Chan works for Aspire’s secondary school, Benjamin Holt Middle School teaching integrated science-8, is a teacher leader for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a member of CSTA. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Susheela Nath works for Aspire Public Schools as the multi-regional science director, is a project director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation, and a member of CSTA. Her e-mail address is email@example.com