When I was in high school, my Calculus teacher approached me and told me that I really should take his Physics class. He said he was pretty sure I would like it. I had taken several classes with him and really liked them. I decided to go for it even though I had already taken more science classes than I needed. Within a week, there was this amazing aha moment. It was an epiphany. I had always really liked math but this class connected it to the real world. This was what I could do with math. It was the beginning of my path into engineering.
Giving a young woman that moment, that awakening to the possibilities that come with math, is my favorite thing. (I like to see my boys have that moment, too. As a female engineer, though, reaching a girl is magic for me.) I embed engineering in my math instruction wherever I can. I’m limited by the constraints of squeezing a lot of curriculum into what feels like a little time, but I bring in engineering wherever I can.
- Electrical Circuits
During our unit on fractions, I introduce my students to some basic electrical circuitry. I teach them how to build series and parallel circuits on breadboards and how to use a multi-meter to measure current and resistance. Naturally, they must do the math (which involves fractions) to calculate the expected result before taking the measurement. Otherwise, they won’t know which scale to use on the multi-meter. They then compare their measured results to their theoretical results and we talk about why they differ a little bit. Several months after we did this, I found out that a couple of my girls took their experience home with them. Not long after the unit, they had a problem with lights in their house. When their dad got out the multi-meter to figure out what was wrong, those girls were right there with him testing circuits.
- Video Game Development
The week before winter break, I teach my students how to do some simple coding using SCRATCH (a visual, object-oriented programming language developed by MIT). I also bring in a guest speaker who is a co-owner of a video game company. He talks to my students about the process involved in creating a game: the necessity for a plan, the importance of perseverance, the need to test the code both for errors and for playability, the importance of balancing reward and challenge for the player. Last year, he spoke to my students via Skype (the benefits of a technological age). This year, he happened to be in town, so he spoke to my students in person. In another week, my students will start to work creating their own video games as a joint project with their social studies class (the game has to relate to a civilization studied in social studies). I do the upfront work teaching the coding before winter break because it is highly engaging at a time when student engagement levels sometimes go astray. It also gives them the long winter break to play with the ideas they have learned if they are so inclined. Later this spring, when the video games are completed (and we have once again regained access to computer labs after testing), we will have a video game expo to showcase their work.
I love this project because learning does not get any more authentic than this.
Early in January, I host an event in which each one of my girls interview a female technical professional. Each girl meets 1:1 with a female who works in a STEM career. The girls interview the women to find out about their work, their interest in math, and advice they might have. (The interview will later be turned into an essay for their Language Arts class). After completing their interviews, the girls have lunch with the women who have come for the event. The lunch provides time for the girls to interact with the women on a less formal level and also provides the opportunity for the girls to talk with several other women and hear about their work/experiences. I am very intentional in doing this as an event. I think it is incredibly powerful for these girls to see a room teeming with women who work in STEM.
- End of Year Project
Every year, I spend the last three to four weeks of school engaging in an engineering project of some kind. The project varies from year to year. Sometimes, it is an airplane project where we learn about flight, aspect ratios, and make models that we test. Sometimes, it is making trebuchets and studying the flight patterns. Sometimes, it is making a motorized toy. Sometimes, it is a hydrogen fuel cell powered toy. The goal is to engage students in some kind of hands-on engineering before I let them go for the summer.
My favorite thing, it goes something like this.