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Engineering ‘a totally different way of learning’

Engineering teacher Christina Lara ‘14 wastes no time in calling her Zoom class to order. “Let’s start diving into the next lesson...if everyone can just make sure they have their engineering notebooks out.” Her Engineering Design and Analysis class is the first of its kind at Mayfield, and the challenges it tackles couldn’t be more timely. Today’s lesson? Engineering a better face mask. “We're going to start looking into a new unit with a new problem—which is really cool in a sense,” says Ms. Lara. “We can see what the engineering aspects are that we can use for the scenario that we're all living in currently...almost a year under quarantine.”
Unit 1 covered the principles of engineering. Unit 2 dealt with the design process, creating something new. Unit 3 is on reverse engineering, improving on something that already exists. And only five minutes into class, Ms. Lara wants to see some attempts. She sends the students away to watch the CDC’s no-sew mask tutorial, and they then create a mask as instructed. Their task is to report their likes and dislikes of the finished product, ultimately looking for ways to optimize the design.

Ms. Lara allots minimal instruction time for maximum retention. When she sends her students off into Zoom Breakout rooms, she watches the progress of every team on a live Google Doc. She insists on assigning a time-keeper and a scribe, roles that will change over time, so everyone has a chance to engage in different roles in this collaborative experience. The teams change periodically too. But the initial group dynamic is very deliberate—Ms. Lara had students complete a personality assessment at the beginning of the year, so the first pairings were created with people who tended to have the same kind of work ethic. It was a somewhat “homogenic” group by design. But she always intended them to switch this up later, saying, “If you have a group that is more heterogenic, you have more opportunities to brainstorm ideas...no one is thinking the same way!”

Now, the students who made the CDC-designed face coverings are returning to their Zoom classroom, and some model their designs for Ms. Lara. She then sends them off in small groups—in brand new team configurations—to discuss the pros and cons they encountered in their build. When they come back to class, they do so with new team names like, “Senior Season,” “M and M’s,” “Oasis,”  “Santa’s Little Helpers,” and “Sashimi Sisters.” The students are bursting with ways to improve on the CDC mask, while keeping the most accessible elements too.

“We do a lot of group work and we do not have the typical tests and quizzes. Instead we do projects. This is a totally different way of learning,” says Sheryl Cheng ’23. “The teacher supports us by giving us the basic information and understanding we need to complete a project, but we as students have to figure out what works or not. I am a visual and tactile learner, so I feel like I understand concepts better this way.”

This highly hands-on course, conducted in conjunction with the University of Texas-Austin, also gives students the chance to earn college credits. As one of a handful of schools in the L.A. area using UT’s innovative “Engineer Your World” curriculum—and the only school in Pasadena—there was a lot of excitement about rolling it out at Mayfield this year. Ms. Lara was scheduled to attend a three-week professional development session in Texas with high school teachers from around the nation. Then the pandemic hit. Then Ms. Lara’s training went remote. Then her teaching did too. So what’s most impressive is how seamlessly this class operates online. It’s hard to avoid kitschy taglines like “Tomorrowland’s Classroom” or “Thoroughly Modern Mechanics” because the fact is this entire course seems remarkably suited for remote learning.

Ms. Lara teaches over Zoom using presentations prepared in PowerPoint. She directs her students to web-based resources. They upload their pictures of their design drafts in Google Classroom for extra credit. When they brainstorm as a class, they use Jamboard, an interactive online whiteboard. And even in a densely packed class, she finds ways to schedule designated screen breaks. 

And although the gears of Ms. Lara’s online class appear to mesh perfectly, she would far prefer to be teaching in person. “I feel like the most exciting part with the normal curriculum is the little gadgets and things that you get to play with!” she says. In remote learning, this class relies on common household items. During their last project, the students created their own “camera obscura” using a cardboard box, a pair of scissors and a box cutter. Again, this minimalism is by design. It is hard to safely oversee the electric work or soldering that might take place in a traditional classroom while students are working from home.

Ms. Lara is clear that this class is only a primer. It teaches the students how to think like an engineer and to adopt some of the most important tools (like the engineering notebook) and the techniques (like focusing on the process rather than the outcome). “I told them it’s okay to fail…whether or not their project works—who cares?—engineers fail all the time,” says Ms. Lara. “You don't really learn a lot when you just get around the first try.”

Ms. Lara has made no secret about her passion to have more female representation in STEM fields and she hopes to inspire girls to gain confidence in her challenging courses. From the mouths of her students, it seems she is hitting the target with utmost precision.

“After the career fair a few years ago, I switched my interest from medical to engineering...and when Mayfield announced that they were going to offer this course this year, I was ecstatic,” says Keala Sunada ’21. And having a Mayfield alum helming the course helped Keala envision her own career path more clearly. “This class has solidified my desire to work in the engineering field, especially after hearing about Ms. Lara's experiences in college.”

Another STEM-focused student, Rebecca Lara ’21, describes how she was drawn to taking this elective as well. “I am on the robotics team so I naturally thought that I would be a good fit for the class and really enjoy it.” Rebecca is also in the unique situation of being the younger sister of the instructor, and during quarantine, they are living under the same roof. When asked if this dynamic is ever challenging, she laughs off the question. “I can hear her teaching across the hall during class,” says Rebecca. “I find it very funny!”

And students like Karissa Ho ’21, who has been heavily involved in the arts at Mayfield, is using this engineering course as a way to marry her diverse interests. “I've long thought of [STEM] as very objective—but our discussions prove that there is still so much room for diversity of thought and creativity and compassion in such mathematical and scientific fields.”

A deep love of her alma mater continues to motivate so much of the way Ms. Lara approaches this class. She remarks on how this job has felt the perfect fit for her, being able to teach a subject she is passionate about, serving as a mentor in a place that had been formative for her, and getting the rare opportunity to come to know her beloved teachers as colleagues. “The thing about Mayfield was that the teachers are just loving and they care about the job,” she says, with unmistakable sincerity. There is no other place she would rather be. 
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 21 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.