It takes a certain kind of person to successfully teach engineering and robotics to 12-year-olds. “I’m enough of a knucklehead that I can relate to them, yet I know enough about life that I can teach them.” These are the words of Christopher Thompson.
This week Thompson was recognized for his excellence with the Montrose Education Foundation Impact Award. The $10,000 award is available to Teacher of the Year recipients. He won that accolade for Middle School in 2012.
“Teaching is kind of a third career for me,” he said. Born and raised in Osage, Kansas, he has a B.S. from Kansas State University. “I immediately went to work for a trucking company. During the summers I had been driving semis and by the time I graduated I knew the business inside and out. So they brought me on as an operations manager and I eventually became part owner.”
Thompson spent a number of years in Las Vegas and Boulder City, Nevada where he started a electronics manufacturing company with his wife’s father. He has three children, eight to sixteen. When they started coming along, “the farm boy in me came out and I knew Las Vegas was not a place I wanted to raise children.”
They decided to move to Colorado and chose Montrose. He loved the agricultural base. “It reminded me of my kind of people, nice, down-to-earth people.”
Thompson has a self-deprecating sense of humor and an infectious enthusiasm. He’s been at Centennial Middle School 10 years and loves the work they’re doing under the status of “School of Innovation.” The school applied for, and received, the ability to have a little more freedom over how they structure the curriculum, and how they teach. This comes from the school board as well as the state.
The School of Innovation is a three-year plan which has to be renewed every three years. Centennial’s program consists of three parts:
Character education: Every student goes to this class which meets every day for 30 minutes. “We talk about bullying and social situations and grades and goal setting.”
Rigorous curriculum: “We started these really good Units of Study to guide us in how we teach.”
Teaching children to think
With this new latitude, Mr. Simo, the principal, knowing Thompson’s electronics background, asked if he’d like to teach an engineering class as an elective. “Just the ability to inspire kids to design and create something, you cannot put a value on it,” Thompson said.
“The first year that I taught engineering, it was more about the process. What problem do you see. How do you want to solve it. Do some research. Give me some ideas. What’s the best idea. Now let’s make a prototype. Let’s test it. Now you have to communicate to me why your product did or did not work. And how you’re going to make it better next time.”
His classroom has two 3D printers. 3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. (from 3Dprinting.com)
The class is manufacturing basic child-size prosthetic hands.
Who is in this class? Any kid who wants to be. “These children don’t get this kind of exposure to the technology, to the engineering process, at home. They generally don’t go to the STEM* camps. They have the opportunity to get it here.”
“The class was hugely popular and we added another elective,” he said. “Mrs. Waschbusch, a science teacher, does a phenomenal job of teaching engineering.”
Thompson had some girls who needed an elective, and he was willing to take them on because he’d had them in math. They were hard-working girls who needed some confidence in their ability. “They were saying I don’t like to build anything, I don’t like Legos, I don’t like, I don’t like. I said, what do you like to do. We like to do art, they said. I said ‘Make me a contraption that drops art in a spiral’.
“They found a problem they could solve; they found something they could build and design. They had a heck of a time going through the process, fixing it and making it better. What better way to teach a real life skill.”
Problem-solving, failing, and persevering through it—that’s the core of engineering and the STEM program. Centennial and its teachers are sowing the seeds for 21th century careers—engineering, design, technology.
Attention 3D printer owners:
Thompson’s award-winning idea was to set up a 3D print plastic recycling program for schools, hobbyists, and industries throughout the Western Slope. “We will be using cast off 3D print plastic, and some plastic from our cafeteria, to recycle and produce usable 3D filament for area printers. The idea is to save some money, but primarily keep extra plastic out of the environment.” If you have a printer and would like to cast off your waste email firstname.lastname@example.org
*Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), previously Science, Math, Engineering and Technology (SMET), is a term used to group together these academic disciplines. This term is typically used when addressing education policy and curriculum choices in schools to improve competitiveness in science and technology development. It has implications for workforce development, national security concerns and immigration policy.