Tony Tegtmeyer’s Project Lead the Way engineering classes at Neuqua Valley High School are built on hands-on exploration.
At least, in the classroom in a typical year, they are.
In a usual session of Tegtmeyer’s engineering design and development classes, students walk right in and start experimenting, working on things such as building a simple machine that can lift a 5-pound weight up 12 inches. He takes attendance while they’re working.
“They follow the engineering design process and learn about that,” he said. “They’re having fun and they’re learning.”
But now during the COVID-19 outbreak, Tegtmeyer, an award-winning teacher recognized with the Engineering Teacher of the Year award from the Project Lead the Way program earlier this year, is looking for ways to bring his active curriculum into the online realm. He’ll use the same problem-solving skills so valued in the engineering careers he previously held — the same type of careers he’s helping students pursue.
“I’m confident we can get close if we get creative,” he said. “When I run into a barrier, I like to either go through it, over it, around it or under it, but just figure out a way.”
Indian Prairie Unit District 204 has announced it plans to return to school in a remote format through at least Oct. 30. So Tegtmeyer and other teachers in District 204 — as well as in the majority of other suburban school districts that are planning remote learning — are looking for innovations to best bring learning into students’ homes.
For Tegtmeyer, that means his classes — aerospace engineering and a capstone for seniors in engineering design and development — will have to find ways to deliver experimentation and collaboration without the lab.
Much of how this will work remains to-be-determined a month out from the proposed Sept. 3 start of the new year.
Tegtmeyer knows he’ll look to the Project Lead the Way organization, a nonprofit that provides “a transformative learning experience” in computer science, engineering and biomedical science by helping students explore-real world challenges. The organization already offers a website Tegtmeyer describes as an online workspace and is now working to make simulations and software available for certain exercises and lessons. Tegtmeyer described early versions of these as “very encouraging” and “helpful.”
The teamwork of a typical Project Lead the Way class might be the hardest to recreate. But the experiments should be doable, he said, by figuring out how students can access the software they’ll need.
“Then it would be pretty easy to do some sort of drive-by or drop-off so they get the materials,” he said.
Tegtmeyer, of Plainfield, is a 53-year-old in his seventh year of teaching. He got a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Iowa State University, then worked a couple of summer jobs in the U.S. space program. But when his position was eliminated with a change in presidential administration, Tegtmeyer said, he went into the automotive industry instead as an engineering, sales and marketing executive for the next 20 years.
He liked the work, but he remembers complaining after one particularly bad day, then coming home from his son’s football practice to find printouts about graduate programs to pursue a teaching certificate and change fields.
He credits his wife, Susan, a reading specialist in the Plainfield school district, not only with looking up graduate schools for him, but also with encouraging him to become a teacher. He credits his enjoyment of substitute teaching with helping him take the final step toward his new career.
“I figured if I like that, I’d like the real thing,” he said.
After the challenges of engineering, selling, changing careers and teaching, Tegtmeyer said, he’s ready for the next problem to solve: turning his highly interactive courses into the best online learning they can be and still allowing his students to explore.
“They don’t like to be told what to do,” Tegtmeyer said. “They like some freedom, but within parameters.”