Taylor Miles is in her second year of teaching at ITW David Speer Academy, a STEM-focused high school in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood of Chicago. She teaches all the freshmen at the high school a required engineering class. The class is focused around various engineering disciplines with 2 to 3 projects aligned with each discipline.
Taylor began the journey towards becoming an engineering teacher in middle school when she enrolled in the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP),an initiative that encourages youth in Detroit to go into STEM-fields. Because of this program, she majored in Industrial Engineering at the University of Michigan and after graduation, she spent some time working in the field. During her stint as an industrial engineer and later in the IT sector, Taylor maintained her connection to mentoring students through the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and outreach programs organized by her work. After volunteering as an ACT tutor and in a summer camp for 3rd-6thgraders, Taylor realized that her passion laid in teaching and mentoring kids, so she went back to school through a teacher education program at the University of Michigan. Once she graduated, she found the ideal combination of math and science teaching engineering at Speer.
Why engineering is important
Taylor believes that engineering teaches important skills to all students. Engineering forces students to think outside the box, develop teamwork, and demonstrate strengths in a variety of different capacities. She says that her class has something for everyone: if a student is interested in the arts, there is design and sketching. If a student is interested in public speaking, there is discussion and presentation. If a student is interested in reading, there is research to be done. And if a student is interested in math and science, her class is a playland for them.
Curriculum and design process
The first unit of the year, Unit 0, is all about the design process. The design process is key to every project that Taylor does in her classes. She has the students find something in their lives, ranging from making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to building a car, and model it with the design process. After this, the students go through many examples of the design process to ensure they are ready to apply it in the units throughout the rest of the year.
Each discipline-led project starts off the same way: the students define their problem by asking “what am I trying to solve.” Then, they step through the design process model; students start developing solutions, researching, planning, and creating.
Throughout the year, Taylor does around 9 projects based on four different engineering disciplines. During the first unit on Aerospace engineering, student projects include flying tethered planes and water rockets. The second unit focuses on Civil engineering and students design popsicle stick bridges and skyscrapers. The fourth unit is centered around mechanical engineering and is taught by completing the egg drop challengeand designing roller coasters. The fourth and final unit is about Naval engineering, and students build small and large cardboard boats and speed boats. For each project, Taylor provides students with design constraints. For example, the roller coaster must have at least one loop. Taylor designs tests for each of the projects so that students can evaluate their work. For example, the popsicle stick skyscraper must withstand a certain amount of weight and pass an earthquake test. During the naval engineering unit, the large cardboard boat must hold one student without sinking into a pool for a few seconds.
An aspect of the design process that Taylor wants to focus more on this year is the improvement step. This is a very important aspect of engineering, as most projects won’t work on the first try and she wants to impress upon students the value and responsibility of following up on their evaluations as opposed to just moving to the next unit with loose ends from the last. She plans on returning to some projects that contained ample opportunity for improvement and having students iterate to advance.
Pieces of advice
Though Taylor is only in her second year of teaching, she has wise words for other educators preparing to take on the challenge of an engineering class. Her suggestions? Embrace the fact that you are going to look foolish or unsure sometimes, or even often. To teach engineering requires flexibility and humility. Students will ask questions that you do not know the answer to. Projects will go poorly. Tests will fail. Taylor recalled a time when her class was testing bottle rockets and the entire testing apparatus was broken. Instead of delaying the testing, Taylor tested each rocket herself, getting covered in water in the process. Her students recognized and appreciated her vulnerability in admitting that something was wrong, and respected her decision to push through regardless. As an engineering teaching, accepting the unexpected and modeling failure will allow students to do the same, making them better engineers in the process.