5-Minute PD: Engineering Classroom Success

by | 01.10.18

5-Minute PD is a series in which educators share some of the revelations that have helped shape their practice – and the stories behind how they arrived at those revelations. Educator Ben Owens, a math and physics teacher in Murphy, N.C., contributed this one.

I spent 20 years working as an engineer before I started my second career in the classroom. After more than a decade teaching high school in rural Appalachia, I can tell you this: Engineering is hard, but teaching is harder.

It’s easy to see why. As an engineer, my daily problems were inanimate objects like failing pumps and temperature controllers. As a teacher, my focus each day isn’t “problems.” It’s people. Raymond. Claudia. Taryn. And just like the countless dedicated teachers I’ve worked with, it’s simply not in my DNA to do something short of my absolute best each day. For each class. For each student.

I don’t want to diminish the challenges and rewards of my engineering career. My colleagues and I constantly faced complex problems. We had to rely on our technical merit and a culture of intense collaboration to gather and analyze data, perform sophisticated calculations, and devise novel solutions. And we had to clearly articulate our recommendations for meeting mission-critical demands.

This all pales in comparison to the dedication needed to be the kind of teacher my students, my school, and my community deserve – but over the years, I’ve begun to see all the ways in which these skills are related.

Advanced differential equations notwithstanding, we teachers use the core of the engineering design process in our classrooms every day. In many ways, teachers are engineers.

We look at the needs in front of us and ask critical questions about the path forward:

  • We define problems based on observation and research: What does each student know now, and what do they need to know?

  • We brainstorm with our colleagues to develop a variety of solution options: What are the best ways to address each student’s individual knowledge gap?

  • We develop a plan of growth and success: What specific actions are needed to relate the content to what each student cares about?

  • We test and retest our plans: What data and evidence is needed to determine the effectiveness of the plan – i.e. what worked and what didn’t?

  • We iterate to continually improve: What adjustments can I make to maximize the growth and enable the success of each student?

My former engineering colleagues will immediately recognize this approach as the backbone of our relentless process improvement.

My teacher friends will simply see this as a list of what it takes to be an outstanding teacher.

Doing this work well takes an enormous amount of thought and focus. It’s certainly the hardest work I’ve ever done. And it’s worth it every day.


About the Author


Ben Owens
Ben Owens

Ben Owens teaches math and physics at Tri-County Early College High School in Murphy, N.C. He was the recipient of the 2017 Bridging the Gap Distinguished Teaching Award in STEM Education by the North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research, is a virtual community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality, a 2014 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow, and a former member of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. He is also the co-author of a soon-to-be-published book on how open source learning can transform education. Follow him on Twitter @engineerteacher.


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