Reflections on K-12 outreach with YPSD
For the majority of my tenure as a graduate student, I was fortunate to be involved in a partnership between the University of Michigan and the Ypsilanti Public School District (YPSD) as a "Teaching Fellow." This was an opportunity that I heard about during my first semester at Michigan, and it was a chance to give something to the secondary education community while also gaining valuable teaching experience. I applied for the program and began it in my second semester, and over the next two and a half years I worked alongside math teachers at Ypsilanti High School; then, for the year following that I worked with two seventh-grade science teachers at Ypsilanti Middle School. My job, in short, was to bring fun engineering concepts into the math and science curricula, which would serve two purposes: It would add some real-world applications of the class material and hopefully strengthen the concepts for the students, and it would introduce the students to the idea of a career in engineering. I felt like these objectives were largely met, and I'm proud of my work as a teaching fellow. Throughout those three and a half years, I kept a blog to show what I was doing, what was successful, and what could have been improved.
The program itself was administered by the University of Michigan Office of Engineering Outreach and Engagement, but it was a new program and the expectations were rather loosely defined. This gave me the freedom to define my own role in the classroom and try things in the classroom that I wanted to try. In the high school classrooms, I went once a week to visit with four different classes, and in about half of those weeks I would lead a discussion using PowerPoint that related the algebra or geometry course material to some real-world engineering or design concept. I don't use the word "presentation", because I wasn't trying to present things to the students - my goal was to have a discussion and get the students to come up with the ideas, so that we would talk about these concepts from their perspectives and in their words. These discussions included examples of projects that I did in my undergraduate and graduate coursework, my research in design, cool engineering projects that I had heard about in the news, and everyday "stuff" that we all interact with. I tried to pose questions about how things work and why things are the way they are, because this is the type of thing that an engineer needs to understand, and this is the type of thing that can explain how math and science have improved all of our lives.
Working in the high school over the course of three separate school years helped me to develop my skills as a teacher. When I first found out that I would be working in some of the same types of classes year after year, I was afraid that I would get complacent and just recycle the discussions that I had used in previous years. However, this was not the case. In my second and third years, I was able to build off the experiences of the early years by constantly improving on my communications skills, enhancing the effective discussions from previous years, and coming up with new and more relevant and interesting applications to talk about. I consider it an iterative approach to teaching, much like we use iterative algorithms in design optimization (my research area). Each year's discussions iterate on past outcomes, making each year a better experience than the last.
In my final year, the program was modified to focus on engaging middle school students with engineering concepts in their science classes. My involvement in the classroom became much less time intensive, and the idea was to develop two-day lab activities for seventh-grade Earth science classes that would reinforce their classroom learning with engineering design activities. Over the course of the school year we did two of these activities: The first was on building and testing earthquake-proof structures, and the second was on designing a water filter. In this case, even with only two attempts, I was able to iterate on the first activity to make the second one much better tuned to the students' abilities and interests.
Overall, this was a great experience. I was able to show young students some of the joys of engineering and applied math and science in ways that I didn't understand at their age, hopefully encouraging some of them to consider engineering down the road. Along the way, I built my teaching and communication skills and gained a newfound respect for secondary education teachers.