This post is written by Christine M. Estel. Christine has a BA in English from Temple University, and an MA in English from Rutgers University. She’s also certified in secondary English instruction in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She has written for various news outlets including Authors Publish and (the former) Tribe Magazine, and has forthcoming publications with You & Me America’s Medical Magazine, Women in Higher Education, and The Mothership. She is a firm believer that not all of our experiences lead us where we think they will, but that there is something to be gained and learned by having gone through them. Here, she tells us how skills gained in an engineering project during middle school still plays into her professional career as a writer and tutor. Follow Christine on Twitter to find out more about her work.
“Team Aquarius, you’re going to nationals!” the commentator yelled into his microphone.
After initial hesitation from shock, we cheered, complete with jumping around. Our months of planning and perseverance paid off. We’d just placed first in the Future City competition, a project-based learning program for middle schoolers to develop their interest in STEM, held at Drexel University that year for the schools in the Philadelphia region.
Mr G, our head technology teacher, embarked on creating our school’s first engineering team. This team, ideally less than 30 students, would create a futuristic city using SimCity 3000, saving our work on floppy discs (!!!) at each stage, and then convert the virtual model to a scale model for the Future City – 8th Grade Division’s competition in the Spring of 2001. Unsure if he’d generate interest through his technology classes alone, Mr G asked all homeroom teachers to distribute flyers to their students.
I’d known I’d wanted to be a teacher since fifth grade, and I generally preferred reading and writing. But I also excelled in my science classes; I was intrigued by how things functioned, both alone and in connection with other things. So, I, along with other interested students, attended an informational session two weeks later, which covered the standard who-what-when-where-why. I walked in curious, and I left with determination and a six-page application packet, which included two essays among other requirements.
I still remember the second essay topic, which asked me to discuss the lessons and skills I hoped to learn by being on the engineering team. I wrote an analogy: in the same way a city’s parts work together, I wanted to unite with my teammates, each of us finding our own purpose or function in the bigger picture. Within a few weeks, I learned I’d secured my spot on the inaugural engineering team, one of 16 girls on a team of 28 students.
Beginning in September of 2000, Mr G divided us into sub-teams who alternated working on the various aspects of this project. Our teams spent countless hours building the infrastructure, moving and tweaking the buildings and the environment; collecting parts and pieces from myriad materials for the scale model; learning from professionals from the wider community to supplement our understanding about how cities operate, like my teammate’s uncle from the Pentagon and Mr G’s friend, Mr Waldron, from Cingular Wireless; visiting establishments, like the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, to help us navigate the sociopolitical aspects of a city; and deciding on a fitting team name.
The wealth of information, the team’s efforts, and the kinesthetic learning afforded me numerous opportunities to see STEM in real time and gain confidence about decision making. I voiced my opinions on placement of buildings in the game and on the model. I asked questions about how things worked, worked on pulley systems and grew mini trees for the scale model, and interviewed our professional aides. I learned about trial and error, public speaking, and teamwork.
The months moved along in our preparations, and Mr G settled on our moniker, “Aquarius,” partly inspired by his favorite The Fifth Dimension song, “Age of Aquarius,” and partly inspired by aqua (water), under which more than 50% of our city lived.
Our collective stress, lost sleep, and hard work awarded us first place at regionals and third place at nationals in Washington, DC. As a result, I felt accomplished and validated as a key member — in a leadership role, called a “moderator,” Mr G assigned to just three girls.
Ultimately, I followed my true passions of reading and writing, rather than pursuing a STEM career, and, in 2010, began as an adjunct English instructor at the post-secondary level. Later, I also taught ninth grade writing and tenth grade English for five years, and I eventually transitioned back to teaching college composition and public speaking courses. I am confident that my time on the beloved engineering team provided me with the confidence to speak in front of crowds, the patience and listening skills to collaborate with students and colleagues alike, and the time management and organizational skills needed to be an engaging educator.