How Does an English Major end up Teaching Engineering?
I grew up the youngest of seven in a large and rather entrepreneurial family. My father owned his own business, and three of my brothers and a sister have run their own companies. As a kid, my interests were deeply rooted in reading and writing – I spent little time on tinkering or technology. I graduated college with degrees in English, writing and art history. The first ten years of my career focused on strategic communications and in 2010 I started a nonprofit that leveraged digital pictures, music and home movies to help patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. Robots and engineering were science fiction to me – and I definitely hadn’t considered making a career out of either.
About six years ago, a friend of mine ended up as head coach of his high school alma mater’s robotics team and informed me he desperately needed some help. This friend had always helped me, and I figured I could write emails to coordinate the team if nothing else, help with planning - something.
Instead, I discovered robotics allowed me to be a student again and everything about designing, building and programming robots fascinated me. Right away, I noticed incredibly curious and dedicated students - yet they were tentative with their ideas. They seemed seriously afraid of being wrong, of not knowing the “right” answer. Failure felt like a dirty word. I knew nothing about robots, but I had loads of experience on communication and problem solving. I fell in love – everything about the team and the work was filling me up.
Teamwork, problem solving, and communication were powerful accelerants for smart students – the team started growing, I took over as head coach, and we saw some success in competition. I took graduate classes in Engineering Education and shortly after I founded the Nativity Creative Learning Lab (a STEM initiative at a large Catholic elementary school) focused on preparing our youngest students to be fearless and persistent learners. In summary, six years ago I was a self-described writer who loved books and today I’m an engineering teacher/coach who deeply loves problem-solving.
My time playing with robots and working with students led to deeper, more essential questions:
Are we thinking critically about how we deploy technology in the world?
Are we educating compassionate students who will be capable of managing the accelerating pace of technological innovation?
These questions motivate me because we’re on the edge of something big here. Powered by artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, robots and other breakthroughs, technological evolution will make the Industrial Revolution look like the Ice Age.
We may not be able to predict or agree on exactly where technological innovation will take us, but we do know for certain that human skills like communication and teamwork will matter immensely. Cultivating lifelong, adaptable learners has never mattered more.
I came to Benilde-St. Margaret’s this year because I believe these kinds of questions are at the heart of BSM. The engineering program at BSM provides a unique opportunity to foster creative problem-solving skills and is unlike anything else available in Minnesota.
BSM has been ground breaking on this front for more than 20 years. We had one of the first ten high school teams in the country competing in robotics. Today - our students compete in the international RoboCup Rescue Challenge.
Students can experience four years of curricular engineering including Solidworks certification (Design in 3D!), Python programing (Teach analogue to play with digital!) and real-world exposure to the Agile development process (Unify and accelerate your team!). But even more importantly, project-based learning challenges students to think for themselves, to trust themselves and to work well in teams under pressure.
We provide real opportunities for students to take risks and learn from failure and this fosters authentic creative confidence. When students leave here, they might not all become engineers or keep building robots, but they will be capable servant leaders for a global society. They can dream big, communicate with others, fail gracefully and work as a team. I can’t think of anything more important for our world.