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An Engineering Kind of Mind

June 14, 2012 by

It was during my five-year-old’s visit to pre-calculus class in my second year out of college and teaching “back home” that I realized: My baby was a more confident thinker than the “big babies” who sat in silence before me. They stared at me as if frozen by the question I’d just posed about the dimensions of those dreaded fractions. What was it that I had intentionally taught my five-year-old daughter that made her so eager where my students were hesitant? It couldn’t have been a hard question; I’d modeled it first, and my daughter even answered correctly! My students had fallen victim to simply doing math over the years and not learning math.

At that moment, I too was paralyzed as I flashed back to days as an undergraduate, emotionally drained and nearly stripped of my confidence. High school in my neighborhood rarely required critical thinking skills, but ChemE—engineering at a “New Ivy” school—was different. Engineering required extensive problem solving by analyzing systems, but systems thinking was never explicitly taught. Through the “blood, sweat, and tears” I remained hopeful in my abilities. How was I to intentionally teach optimism to1fifteen-year-olds, something that I simply shared with my inquisitive Kindergartener through dramatic play and conversations? Could I really make a difference for these students, and was what I had to teach them enough?

It was that moment that further reinforced my #1 “enduring understanding” from college:

 Problem solving is first a battle of confidence.

Was I really capable of building their confidence? Confidence is best built when given multiple opportunities to “emphasize deep understanding rather than shallow knowledge, and be actively engaged in solving meaningful problems?”1 The art of pedagogy requires teachers to engineer and re-engineer classrooms daily to find the delicate balance between “21st century skills, rigor, and relevance” to ensure career and college readiness after high school.  The K–12 Engineering Standards set forth by the NC Engineering Standards Design Team suggests the use of engineering as an “integrator and bringer of relevance”2 and offers measurable content standards to support core engineering ideas.

They also offer a list of Engineering Habits of Mind. Teachers use the same engineering habits of mind daily in the work they do. Here are some obvious examples.

  • Systems thinking: teachers get the “Big Picture,” starting with the end in mind.
  • Communication: teachers are the best at delivering messages and can differentiate accordingly.
  • Collaboration: teachers work together to individualize student learning using best practices.
  • Optimism: it’s self-explanatory since pay clearly isn’t why teachers stick around to ensure that all students learn.
  • Creativity: bridging engagement gaps calls for relevant connections in lesson design.
  • Ethical considerations: teachers always balance appropriateness of content depth and breadth.

When educators shift their role from disseminators of information to engineers of lifelong learning, students will go from information regurgitation to knowledge application. For grades PK–12, I say it starts with our classroom engineers—the teachers. “The justification for promoting engineering and technology seems clear.”3 Not only is it clear, it seems pretty natural.

  1. P21 Common Core Toolkit, 44.
  2. NC Engineering Standards Design Team, draft of North Carolina K–12 Engineering Standards.
  3. Rodger W. Bybee, “K–12 Engineering Education Standards: Opportunities and Barriers,” Technology and Engineering Teacher, February 2011, 21–24.

About the Author

LaToya M. Williams has always known she was destined to become an educator from an early age. She received her education at Carnegie Mellon University in Chemical Engineering and minoring in Biomedical Engineering. After college she returned to her hometown of rural Gaston, North Carolina to teach AP Statistics and Pre-calculus. She has worked at KIPP Gaston College Prep and KIPP Pride High School. She is now consulting with KIPP Gaston Primary to integrate research based best practices, technology, engineering, arts, and sciences into the curriculum for 90 incoming kindergarteners.


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  1. Comment by Ed Jones 11:45 am, June 19, 2012

    LaToya, kudos on this from a fellow CMU alum. (and I can’t imagine doing CMU with children!)

    If you did CMU ChemE, you know that there was a ton of information embedded in your brain when you got there–info that you couldn’t possibly have time to have learned on the fly. (All of Algebra. All of Geometry. A solid mastery of English. the basics of chem and bio.) There just wasn’t time.

    And probably some knowledge that WASN’T there. In my case, Calc. My HS teacher convinced them I knew it, so I skipped Calc I and nearly failed out as a consequence.

    Being a “lifelong learner” is no substitute for already knowing much.

    Indeed, unlike you, I never intended to be in education. I only got here because of all the stuff I wasn’t taught in HS. Stuff like composition and rhetoric. Who was Julius Caesar and where is Khartoum and when was Byzantium, and why would anyone care about Crossing the Rubicon, or Runnymede, or Seneca Falls, or Sojourner Truth. Stuff I’d skip over in reading an op-ed because it had no meaning to me. (Most readers would have just quit reading).

    As a CMU grad, you have embedded in you the meaning of Thucydides’ “he is best who is trained in the severest school.” How do we assure that more under-served children have access to rigor?

    I like your “classroom engineer” approach. What engineering tools should we be teaching in Ed Schools?

  2. Comment by LaToya Williams 2:00 pm, June 20, 2012

    Thanks a bunch Mr. Jones, your comments & kudos are much appreciated!

    To address & hopefully answer the questions you posed I have both short & long answers.

    How do we assure that more under-served children have access to rigor?
    >By assuring educators truly understand what rigor look likes for those scholars in underserved communities & posess an attitude that all students can learn. Set high standards for engagement & enacted curriculum. Teachers must have a positive approach to learning, including valuing continuous learning opportunities. While it is largely a policy issue, teachers have the opportunity to collaborate with families & Other teachers in meaningful way to address the needs of the learning community.

    I like your “classroom engineer” approach. What engineering tools should we be teaching in Ed Schools?
    >Thanks again! Teaching systems thinking, problem solving, and  optimism through projects & inquiry-based teaching while modeling the perseverance & confidence it takes to follow through with tough projects.

    As a resident of the rural, underserved community I was educated in I’ve seen several aspects of the education climate in this region. I have no doubt that schools can benefit by integrating engineering design principles & habits of mind into the current curriculum & ‘classroom engineering’ methodologies.

    “An Engineering Kind of Mind” was intended to reveal that  ‘classrooms engineers’ already possess the Engineering Habits of Mind necessary to equip students with ALL the ‘engineering tools’ they need for the 21st century. “ClassEs” consider variables like seating charts, homework & classroom policies, SMART goals, amongst others for class management & curriculum mapping. Intentional teaching engineering methods allow “ClassEs” to share the enduring understandings & collaborate in aligning curriculum in an effort to provide students’ exposure to & experience with investigating systems.

    Being a life long learner may be no sub for knowing much; but in a community where students typically leave high school not knowing much, inspiring life long learning is the cornerstone to increasing students active learning.  It’s true, embedded info is valuable, being able to see the big picture, or understand there is a bigger picture, however is invaluable. As You well know, Equipping students with the proper tools begins first by equipping educators.

    Life long learners, at The very least, Take what they know to find out that which They dont. An Engineering curriculum utilizing interdisciplinary teams will intentionally connect history to literature to politics to science & technology to emphasize The interconnectedness of our world. We know that no content area or ClassE exists within a vacuum (and that didnt even take all 3 Engineering Physics II to figure out..) But showing students How physics connects not only to motion but has many aspects that are yet unknown to leading investigators creates an image & culture of ‘we’re never done.’

    For underserved communities the introduction of content & learning as continuous, fluid, & a tool that lead to discoveries for community Advancement is essential. While Thucydides may be spot on about the best & their training Even I wonder If I worked more harder than smarter. We have to provide an efficient, engaging & rigorous curriculum for students to value their education as a method of liberating both themselves & the undeserved communities in which thay live.  NC Engineering Standards suggest, engineering should serve as an integrator. Engineering design gives teachers & students alike a methodological process for creating & evaluating new & relevant ‘technologies’ for the classroom & community.

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