“Traveling the Road from Industry to Education” was written by Shelley Stracener, SWE Editorial Board.
Serving as a trusted source can be a tall order. Some SWE members have accepted the challenge by taking their industry experience and insights to academic classrooms. I interviewed several SWE members on their experiences traveling this road of reinvention and asked about their motivations, challenges, lessons learned, and results. Those who transform their careers from industry to education find great joy in benefiting their communities, sparking the curiosity of young people, and inspiring students to be lifelong learners and critical thinkers.
The motivations behind these career evolutions vary with an individual’s engineering discipline, industry background, career stage, and personal life events. Many of the engineers and scientists I spoke with developed a passion for STEM education while volunteering for events organized by local SWE sections, other nonprofits, or K-12 schools. Others entered the education space through their involvement with local STEM-focused charter school programs or their industry employer’s sponsorship of established STEM programs and competitions. Still others felt a calling to give back to their post-secondary educational institutions through part-time work as adjunct professors.
Each of these entry points required giving up some of their personal time to familiarize themselves with the theory and practice of education, understand the needs of their community neighbors, and forge their own paths to impact young minds with their STEM knowledge.
I also asked our SWEsters how they selected the methods and age ranges they wanted to influence through education. Some had a passion for early academic interventions that are so important to development of future STEM interests and establish confidence for minority students to overcome biases later in life. These folks tended to start their own STEM outreach nonprofit organizations or work through local school districts on existing educational learning objectives. They focus on hands-on activities that augment the teaching of STEM fundamentals while sharing the wealth of stories and examples from their industry careers.
Others were inspired to share their career mentoring insights with high school or college students through forging job-shadowing connections, teaching resume and interview best practices informed by industry experience as hiring managers, and providing opportunities to learn practical applications for the math and science theory of traditional STEM education programs.
Despite its lofty purpose, the transition from industry to education is not without its challenges. The timing of entry into a formal educational environment is often limited by an institution’s hiring cycles, some evaluating new hires only once per school year. The time commitment required to generate lesson plans and grade assignments in addition to putting in a full day of teaching in a traditional K-12 education environment was a big change, even if new educators were previously accustomed to working more than 40 hours per week in industry. By contrast, those who chose to serve in nonprofit organizations or in a volunteer capacity enjoyed the flexibility that controlling their own hours provided.
Unfortunately, the switch from industry to education often comes with a cut in pay, but our SWEsters assured me that the trade-off of doing work they’re passionate about was worth the reduction in monetary compensation. The financial impacts were of course felt less for those who went into education after retiring from their industry careers, rather than making the leap midcareer. As in many areas of life, smart financial planning gives one options when navigating such major life changes.
Another challenge encountered by both formal educators and those in the nonprofit environment was the institution’s reluctance to adopt new STEM activities that did not strictly adhere to school district or standardized testing learning objectives. Time and funding in our educational institutions are unfortunately in short supply, and a teacher can be less than enthusiastic about welcoming a new influence into their classroom when the activity takes away time from their students’ formal curriculum or requires extra work on the teacher’s part, even when administrators are excited about the STEM outreach partnership.
Several respondents to my informal survey reported an expansion of their perspectives on the daily challenges their students and their families face, especially when teaching in communities outside their home districts, and resulting impact on students’ academic performances. This perspective was valuable and inspired our SWEsters to help these students to improve, but some expressed frustration with having limited influence over needed systemic changes in education and society at large.
While their students generally did not differentiate their industry backgrounds from those of their education-accredited counterparts, some did find that administrators initially deemed them overqualified for an educator role, or had concerns about their willingness to abandon a high-paying industry job to teach. These biases delayed transitions into the educational field, or resulted in the candidate’s seeking out education training certifications to offset their technical credentials and further bolster their intentions to make the switch.
As is common when changing careers, connections are key. As SWE members, our friends were already skilled in navigating biases and overcoming obstacles — experience that proved valuable.
Industry professionals bring a special set of skills to the classroom, including:
- Developing and analyzing objective quantitative measures of new programs to show administrators the results of their innovative teaching methods
- Clarifying community perspectives on what engineers do, they are connected ambassadors of our profession to their students
- Credibly representing STEM careers as exciting opportunities that can provide financial stability
- Maintaining connections to industry and sharing practical examples from their engineering professions to connect the foundational subjects students are taught to how those skills may be used in a career
- Perhaps most importantly, they build bridges across communities and socioeconomic backgrounds to give their students the best chances at good educations and bright futures.
While the subjects my informal survey solicited from the SWE Facebook Group by no means represent a statistically significant sample size, I hope the insights they shared help anyone who is considering switching from industry to an educator track, as well as SWE outreach volunteers who might consider these perspectives when entering into partnerships with educational institutions. Special thanks to the SWE members who contributed to the content of this article: Lynn Mortensen; Tina Leimbach; Kate Van Dellen; Leslie Zhang; Anne Lucietto, Ph.D., F.SWE; and Winifred Ereyi. Your impact is felt in SWE and beyond!
Shelley Stracener is a senior system design engineer in Abbott’s neuromodulation division. She holds a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering from Baylor University. She served as the FY17 and FY18 president of the SWE Dallas Section and is a member of the Society nominating committee and the editorial board.