Linda Kekelis Consultant, Advisor for STEM Next Opportunity Fund, Founder of Techbridge Girls Linda Kekelis Consulting

Engineering with a Purpose: Allen Distinguished Educators Do It Right

PostedThursday, August 18, 2016 at 8:48 AM

Engineering with a Purpose: Allen Distinguished Educators Do It Right

Linda Kekelis with Dawn DuPriest and Tracey Winey

When I grow I up I want to be… What do you imagine a girl in a rural community in Wyoming, or a boy in Washington, DC, or a teen in your community might dream? Gallup asked 1,000 teens ages 13 to 17 for their three top choices to this question: "What kind of work do you think you will do for a career?" and here’s what they came up with. For boys, pro athlete came in number one followed by doctor and architect. Girls chose teacher followed by doctor and lawyer.

It’s unfortunate that most girls and boys don’t consider engineering. For many, their career dreams are based on who they know. For some, aspirations are based on what they see (or don’t see) in the media.  Some of the kids I’ve talked to describe how they want to make the world a better place and don’t see the connection between engineering and their altruistic interests. And yet, engineering is just the career that can make the world a better place. Who designs prosthetics for children, a warmer for premature infants in developing countries, or better ways to transport and store clean water? Engineers, of course! One way we can change the mindsets of youth is by introducing them to role models who work on engineering projects like these. Another way is by providing firsthand opportunities to experience purposeful engineering in action. When I came across the work by Allen Distinguished Educators, Dawn DuPriest and Tracey Winey, I knew I had found the winning program that combines both elements. Dawn and Tracey don’t just teach STEM facts or talk about engineering; they introduce engineering projects with a purpose to change the world.

Dawn and Tracey are teachers at Preston Middle School in Fort Collins, CO. They empower their students with fun, challenging, and meaningful experiences with engineering.  With the project, Engineering Brightness, their students design and manufacture low-energy lights for youth in villages in developing countries. Along the way their students learn about the engineering design process as they work with classmates, global peers, and local experts in designing the lanterns. Isn’t this how engineers accomplish their work? Doing research to find out what client needs, troubleshooting problems, and accessing resources and expertise for help along the way. Dawn offers helpful guidance on setting up collaborations with partners in other countries in this Allen Distinguished Educators Roadmap.

Students saw firsthand how they could directly improve living conditions with engineering. In fact, one of the lanterns they made allowed a student in Nicaragua to complete his big homework assignment when the power went out. Dawn shares the secret sauce of Engineering Brightness: It’s “learning attached to something meaningful that helps other people.” Tracey reflects how youth—especially girls and students of color who are underrepresented in STEM—connect with philanthropic engineering in this Allen Distinguished Educators Roadmap.

Curriculum for projects like Engineering Brightness is helpful but it’s the reflections by educators on what they and their students discover along the way that are especially important. Here are some of the lessons that Dawn and Tracey learned; we hope they help you get started and manage philanthropic engineering project with success.

Lessons Learned from Tracey and Dawn  

Linda: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to a teacher getting started on a project like Engineering Brightness?

Tracey:  Let your students discover a real-world problem they are troubled by.  Allow your students to dream big and brainstorm even bigger.  Often time, adults with good intentions stifle student ideas because they might not seem feasible.  This is a common mistake.  If students are connected to a problem and are passionate about it, amazing learning, connections, and possible solutions will follow.  Once students have committed to attempting to solve a problem, then structure, learning targets and planning can follow.

Linda: How does a project like this work with different groups of students? Did you make some accommodations to manage the various interests and skills of students?

Dawn: Recognize that each student will learn something different from a real-world engineering project, and this is a great opportunity for you to personalize the educational experience for them. Allow the kids to reflect on their interests and strengths. Let them set goals as individuals or small groups, and reflect on their progress toward those goals.

Tracey: This type of project is perfect for different groups of students with a variety of skills.  Engineering Brightness is multi-faceted.  It incorporates engineering, social studies, English and foreign language, math, media production and communication.  If a student is passionate about electricity she will work on the charging system.  Students are currently learning about solar and geo thermal energy.  If a student is curious about why a child their age who has a parent lives in an orphanage or why a child works on the coffee farm Monday-Friday and only goes to school on Saturday, then he can dive into the social studies. Kids also come with a variety of background knowledge and skills. We must tap into each student's unique talents.  In fact, that is essential for the success of the program.

Linda: You worked with experts who helped support your students. How did you recruit and train them?

Tracey: Every community has people with knowledge and compassion.  I think it is inherent human nature to want to share that knowledge. We actively recruited electrical and mechanical engineers to work with our kids.  Some of the engineers had not been in a middle school since they were students!  Others had a connection to our school, maybe a child, neighbor, or relative who currently attends Preston.  Once that happened, those community members told other people.  We had people email us asking to come in.  We also sent emails home inviting parents to come into our class. 

Dawn: I’d encourage educators to look at their own network and community, because they have connections they don’t realize they have. Local businesses often support volunteering in schools and would be happy to step up and send a few employees to help during the school day. You likely know friends, neighbors, and co-workers who volunteer and work on some of the same issues your students are passionate about. By starting conversations with them, you’ll find other experts you can bring in to your project.

Linda: Assessment helps us understand the impact of our work and resources and can also help with program improvement. How do you measure progress along the way? How do you communicate to others (teachers, administrators, parents) about the skills that students learn from this kind of project?

Dawn:  Be creative with your data collection and assessment. You can decide what metrics determine success for your program. Is it success on a quiz of basic skills or knowledge about engineering? Are you looking at the number of people you helped, the amount of money your students raised, or pre- and post- survey data? Before you start, consider data points that make sense to measure and keep track of them. But also, don’t forget the importance of collecting stories and anecdotes. The information that will make the biggest difference to the success of your program comes in the form of answers to open-ended questions. What did you learn? What did you struggle with? What are you proud of? How do you know your work is important? What would you say to others who want to do this kind of work? Invite the students to share these thoughts in writing, in video essays, and in person – at conferences, expos, and community meetings. The public connects to these stories and allowing your students to tell them makes the project unforgettable. And here is where you’ll find the biggest impact of your program – through the stories of the students and others the program has touched.

Tracey: The greatest impact of this program is helping students from all over the world become confident and competent global citizens who are making a difference in their local communities now!  Often times, education focuses on the future.  It is powerful to show them they do not need to wait; they can apply their hearts and minds now!

Linda: For teachers who don’t yet have experience leading engineering activities in their classes, what advice can you offer to help them get started?

Tracey: These types of programs are messy early, but the self-directed, authentic learning far outweighs the uncertainty.  And, remember to celebrate all the little successes along the way. Congratulate students on taking a chance, on working hard for others, on contributing to their local environment.

Dawn: I recommend the resources on the Allen Distinguished Educator website. For your first foray into engineering, it is nice to start with a project someone has already done, and the DIY guides are great for that purpose. The PBS Design Squad site also has some great kid-friendly resources you can use to introduce your students to the world of engineering and why it’s important. Try a sample project and then branch out into a problem you and your students want to tackle. The messiness of engineering is hard to get used to at first. It will make you feel like a new teacher all over again, and you’ll change a million things from one year to the next. Expect the unexpected, and expect to enjoy your teaching job more than you ever have. Letting your students do creative, authentic problem-solving brings joy to your classroom like nothing else.


If you want to learn about other projects by Tracey and Dawn check out their Light Up Music Box. You will find open-source project plan materials to design and program a music box and the standards and learning outcomes supported in this project.

Want to know more about work by other Allen Distinguished Educators? Visit the Allen Distinguished Educators website for an array of resources, inspiring stories, and ideas to grow your program. You can apply for a grant to try one of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Guides aimed at enhancing their replicability and adaptability to a range of schools. Note that the application period closes September 5, 2016.

Last but not least, I encourage you to spend time on the LinkEngineering website. You will discover activities, lessons, and curriculum developed and tested by educators and also find a space to connect and engage with others. I encourage you to contribute resources and curriculum to inspire youth in engineering.

Filed Under Girls in Engineering Low-Resourced Classroom/School Minorities in engineering
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