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Ten people smiling at the camera stand behind a worktable with a robot arm located in a workshop. Two people are giving thumbs-up hand gestures.
Spring 2023 students and instructors visited Bryan Independent School District’s Career & Technical Education (CTE) Complex to learn more about how the academy-style center prepares students for education and careers in automotive technology, industrial engineering and robotics, construction technology and welding. | Image: Courtesy of Pamela Simmons-Brooks

Growing up, Kylie White ’25 showed an aptitude for teaching, thanks to her mother, a schoolteacher. But, her interests shifted in high school to engineering when she discovered scratch coding and artificial intelligence. 

“I realized that my desire to be an engineer was stronger than being a teacher,” White explained.

A handful of years later, White happily discovered she could dive deeply into both passions at Texas A&M University’s College of Engineering. As a multidisciplinary engineering technology (MXET) major pursuing the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Educator track, White will gain a strong engineering foundation and be prepared to become licensed as a secondary Mathematics/Physical Science/Engineering (Grades 6-12) educator.

To further enhance Aggies’ preparation in these areas, the College of Engineering is taking another innovative step forward by offering an interdisciplinary course called “Special Topics in Engineering Design & Project-Based Learning.” 

“This course was a great first step to find a way to bridge between the two concepts of engineering and education,” said Mckenna Gibson ’24, who also is majoring in multidisciplinary engineering technology and the STEM Education track.

Funded through a National Science Foundation grant, this course specifically helps engineering majors learn how to teach engineering in middle and high school classrooms. 

“Our engineering students need hands-on training to be able to translate their engineering knowledge and skills into activities and lessons that secondary students can understand,” said Pam Simmons-Brooks ’86, a program manager for Texas A&M Engineering’s Spark! PK-12 Engineering Education Outreach, who was involved in the course’s delivery.

Marrying two disciplines

The college piloted the course in Spring 2023. This interdisciplinary effort was jointly taught by Engineering Technology & Industrial Distribution Associate Professor Dr. Garth Crosby, School of Education and Human Development Associate Professor Dr. Bugrahan Yalvac, and the College of Engineering’s Spark! PK-12 Engineering Education Outreach team members Simmons-Brooks and Morgan Krauss, who have taught STEM courses at the secondary level.

The course offered many opportunities for college students to learn new skills and then teach them to younger students. 

“Courses where students learn skills in one week and put them into practice in the next week are rare,” Yalvac explained. “This course facilitated our students in acquiring the skills to utilize technology for teaching engineering within one week, followed by opportunities to put those skills into action by teaching actual students in the subsequent week. This hands-on teaching experience prompted deeper self-reflection on students' teaching and learning approaches."

Aggie engineering students appreciated the opportunity to deepen their understanding of engineering principles while getting hands-on experiences using engineering tools, such as 3D printers, a CNC mill and a lathing machine. The applied research opportunities also were combined with a unique engineering education design experience. 

“When we would see new engineering concepts and have new experiences, we would go back to the classroom and break them apart and say, ‘What worked for your learning? What would be successful in teaching your students?’” White explained.

After their analysis, the Aggie engineering students applied their findings by creating and teaching lessons to high school students from across Texas. 

“It was an easy way to ease into what it would look like practically for us to teach a class like this,” White said. “We got hands-on practice in creating a lesson plan, delivering that lesson and working out problems that happen because no lesson you prepare is going to go exactly as you planned it.”

The course also connected applied research practices that helped participants begin to develop a proposal for their Engineering Capstone Project. 

“The capstone is their senior design course that covers one year. This is the hallmark design experience for most engineering programs nationwide,” Crosby said. “One of the ways in which this course is unique is that it allows the engineering students to develop their engineering design and project-based learning skills while simultaneously facilitating the application of these in a secondary classroom.”  

The engineering students also received a wealth of contacts and resources during the course. 

“These pre-service engineering teachers received many resources to support their journey in becoming a STEM secondary teacher. In addition to touring Bryan Independent School District’s state-of-the-art Center for Technology Education, the Aggie engineering students were involved in the Texas Science & Engineering Fair, hosted by Texas A&M Engineering," said Simmons-Brooks. "Three of these engineering students served as judges, which gave them a chance to evaluate the secondary students’ engineering projects and to network with fellow judges, some of whom were professional engineers. This experience gave them a project idea for their classrooms and engineering contacts to tap when they graduate and step into the classroom."

Strengthening Texas’ workforce

The special topics course is one of the college’s most recent efforts to support improving K-12 STEM education. These efforts are important because many Texas school districts continue to face challenges in hiring and retaining qualified secondary teachers to teach STEM classes. 

This K-12 teacher shortage affects the STEM talent pipeline and could lead to long-term consequences for the state and national economy. Many students interested in STEM fields find they are not well-prepared for the more rigorous academic standards when they reach college. Nationally, less than 50% of the students who enroll in engineering disciplines complete their studies—and most drop out of these programs during the first two years, a trend expected to continue into the near future.

Yet this downward trend is ill-timed. The U.S. Department of Labor reports the United States has nearly 10 million workers in STEM occupations in 2021—and these well-paying jobs are projected to increase by almost 11% by 2031, over two times faster than the total for all occupations. 

“To address this ‘STEMergency’ in Texas, the Spark! team seeks to ignite a passion for an engineering mindset in the PK-12 community,” said SPARK! Director Shelly Tornquist. “What better way than to help train and mold our Aggie pre-service teachers!”

The course instructors and students hope the new course will continue to open Aggie engineering students’ eyes to the merits of a STEM teaching career.  

“Trying to convince engineering students that you can do engineering and education can be challenging,” said Gibson. “I feel like engineers have this idea that they are going to go out and make these huge changes in the world. While some people achieve that, I feel like being an educator is the biggest way to make a difference. There’s no greater feeling than the constant everyday gratification of seeing the difference you make as a teacher on a daily basis.”