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Q&A: Mark Conner.

MARK CONNER is a Ph.D. engineer with an unusual job: He teaches engineering at a high school in Alabama. Conner received his doctoral degree from Duke University in 1996. After teaching physical sciences for seven years, he moved to Hoover, Ala., where he founded the four-year Engineering Academy program. The course integrates classroom physics, math, and engineering with lab projects. Through Catapult Engineering Academy, he is now seeking to deliver his program online.

ME: How did an engineer with a Ph.D. wind up teaching high school?

M.C: When I was a senior, our small school had a freshman algebra class with faster and slower students. The school needed to split the class, but we had only one algebra teacher, so they asked the advanced placement calculus students to teach the slower group for two weeks each. I was that smart aleck in the back who thought I could do it better, and I went first. When I saw the light go on when I retaught something, it was really satisfying. It also made me go back and relearn algebra on a deeper level. I was hooked, and taught that class for the rest of the year.

ME: But you didn't go to school for education?

M.C: I knew this is what I wanted to do, but I didn't want to go the teaching route. I was strong in math and science, so I followed my academic strengths and gifts until I ran out of degrees.

ME: What happened after you graduated?

M.C: I started teaching high school physical sciences. After several years, I moved to Hoover High School. It had an assistant principal who thought teaching engineering was cool. We created a four-year course.

ME: What makes it so successful?

M.C: The four teachers who deliver courses are all engineers with graduate-level degrees or research experience. They come at it differently from teachers who learn engineering at a two-week summer course.

ME: Is it hard to engage students?

M.C: I think we lose kids in science and math because of how we teach. When children ask the question, "When will I use this stuff?" no one ever answers them. Our curriculum answers that question. We don't introduce anything without a purpose.

We also do a lot of hands-on work. We may spend a few days or even a couple of weeks teaching a new concept, but then we turn them loose to apply what they've learned. By the time they reach their second year, they realize they're learning a lot.

ME: What about students who have trouble with math?

M.C: Some students can solve any problem in a lab or a shop, but the classroom is a chore. It doesn't engage them. That frustrates me. One of my gripes with how we do education. It's not that they can't do well in math; it's the way we teach math that totally turns them off. If someone showed them the importance of what they are learning, they would grasp it pretty quickly.

ME: You recently started Catapult Engineering Academy to bring your courses to other schools. How will this work?

M.C: We've been piloting online courses at two schools since 2011. We provide all the content. In a classroom, I could throw things on the board, monitor how it was going, and ask students to try things. Our online courses are not real-time, but we want to keep them open-ended and challenging. So we needed a more formal, stand-alone product that we could hand over to a teacher in another school.

ME: If that teacher is not an engineer, how will they teach the course?

M.C: The teacher is responsible for facilitating the class, pacing the lessons, and grading. The teachers who have been with us for a while understand how we assess projects and assignments. For new schools, we are creating online professional development courses that will support each course. We want to hand off grading to the local teacher but support them in the process.
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Title Annotation:TECH BUZZ // ONE-ON-ONE
Author:Brown, Alan S.
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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