Questions & Answers

Questions & Answers with Mr. Phillips

Tell us about yourself.

How long have you been teaching? What level of knowledge and skill do you yourself possess (via credentials, industry experience, etc.)—and how do you make these come alive for your students in the classroom?

I discovered my passion for teaching serendipitously. After earning my Bachelor of Science with double majors in engineering and chemistry and double minors in math and physics, I worked at a large pharmaceutical company. I applied for my first teaching job in order to earn free skiing at the resort I passed each day during my commute. While working as a ski instructor, I discovered my passion for teaching. As I advanced in my pharmaceutical career, first as a Research and Development Scientist and later as a Validation Specialist, I found myself anxiously awaiting winter, not just for skiing and snowboarding, but for the opportunity to teach.

After five years in the pharmaceutical industry, I returned to school to pursue my love of teaching. I earned my teaching certificate, then my wife and I volunteered for the Peace Corps and went to Niger, Africa. We lived with a host family and learned about Niger’s educational system. My experiences in Africa help me better understand the needs of individuals from cultures and backgrounds different from my own and create a classroom environment that is welcoming to all students.

I have been a math and science educator for over a decade. During this time, I earned my Masters in Education and taught at a variety of schools from a large urban district to a small charter high school. Two years ago I discovered the perfect marriage of my industry experience and my love of teaching when I was asked to pilot a course called Design Lab at a career technical education school. Design Lab focuses on teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with a career exploration focus. Students earn a math or science credit through an embedded online course as well as an elective credit for the hands-on project-based learning that we do in the lab. Throughout the class, we work with industry professionals and my fellow career-tech instructors to help students develop skills and explore their passions.

What do you love most about being a teacher in general, and about Design Lab in particular?

Students in Design Lab explore a wide variety of topics including, electronics, construction, computer-aided design, computer programming and alternative energy. My favorite part of teaching this class is hearing my students say: "I never I thought I would enjoy... but it is actually really cool!" Many students initially sign up for the class because a friend recommended it or because they are excited about a particular project. However, because of the wide range of topics, skills, and industries we explore, students are often pleasantly surprised to find an unexpected area sparks their interest.

The joys of teaching this class are magnified by the privilege of being part of the wonderful staff at my school. I have tremendous support from administration, colleagues, industry professionals, and local colleges. I am not yet an expert in many of the areas and projects we cover. The depth and breadth of topics we explore are both exciting and challenging for me as an educator. In designing the curriculum I seek input from fellow career-tech education (CTE) teachers at my school, local professionals, and area colleges. For each of our projects, we partner with both another CTE class at my school as well as a local company. For example, during our project on computer programming, students are asked to choose a programming language such as HTML or Python and use their knowledge to create a computer application, game, or website. Students in my class work with the instructor and students in the Information Technology Computer Programming course at my school. A local computer programmer also visits our class and his company provides experts to support students and answer questions. Students not only learn how to write computer code, they hear from a programmer about why what they are learning is important. These partnerships are what make this a wonderful and exciting exploration opportunity for students as well as a challenging and fulfilling experience for me as an instructor.

How is the curriculum matched to a relevant career pathway and future work choices?

How does it flow seamlessly into next-step options, whether to employment or post-secondary certifications or degrees for your students? Please be specific.

Design Lab’s curriculum is based on the skills that students need for various career-tech education programs at my school. For example, during our construction project, we partner with my school’s Applied Construction class. Students both visit the Applied Construction job site and learn skills and techniques from Applied Construction instructors and students. My students apply this knowledge by building a bean-bag toss game board. Students learn to read a blueprint, build to specifications and finally design a creative hinge system themselves. Some of my students already have significant woodworking experience, but many have never used a power tool before. As we begin with instruction in technique and continue with hands-on safety training it is exciting to watch the trepidation of these students melt away. Their look of pride as they finish the project is priceless.

During the project, we also partner with local industry professionals who talk about career options and answer student questions about working in industry. They also act as a resource when students have technical questions on advanced topics or skills.

This model of hands-on projects and partnerships with on-campus CTE instructors and industry-based professionals is repeated for each of our projects. As students work their way through the Design Lab curriculum, they are exposed to a wide variety of professions, careers, topics, and skills. Design Lab is only offered to 10th-grade students and a majority of students go on to take another one or two-year CTE class from one of the instructors that they worked with during Design Lab. These CTE classes often involve internships, certification, credentials, and college credit. Through their work in Design Lab, students better understand their own interests and abilities as well as gain a head start on acquiring skills and techniques for their future. This enables and inspires them to continue their career tech education and pursue options offered at my school.

How does Design Lab encourage exploration and experimentation?

Each project in Design Lab is carefully structured to promote growth and learning for diverse learners but is ultimately open-ended. For example, in our Computer-Aided Design Project, students are given the task to design a solution to a problem. Students learn SolidWorks, an industry-standard solid modeling computer program, and we partner with the Engineering and Architecture class at my school as well as professionals from a local company.

Students bring their design to life learning how to use a 3D printer to create a model of their work. Students design something in which they are interested. For example, several students have designed solutions to organize headphones and prevent tangles in backpacks. Other students have printed replacement parts for some of our alternative energy equipment. Students are taught the basic skills and use this background to design something about which they are passionate. Students are provided with a large amount of support combined with a high degree of challenge. Students get support from me, the Engineering and Architecture instructor, upperclassmen students and professionals from industry. Mistakes are expected and even encouraged as these are powerful learning opportunities.

For the final assessment at the end of the year, students are asked to design something that solves a problem. It is amazing to watch them combine the skills they have learned in class to create amazing projects. Students have made things like an electric longboard or a video game arcade and solved problems such as designing a high-efficiency wind turbine blade or a solution for watering flowers on a second story flower box. These final projects combine students passions with the skills they have learned both in Design Lab and beyond.

How does Design Lab connect students to new relationships and worlds outside the classroom?

Design Lab is free and open to any student in Kent County. We have students from over twenty different public high schools, from charter and religious schools, and homeschool students as well. Students travel to Kent Career Tech Center and when they arrive in Design Lab they meet new students with similar interests that they would never encounter at their school of origin. I am proud that we have above average female enrollment and I constantly seek to have the students in Design Lab truly represent the diversity of the county in which the school is located.

Early in the year, we have a field trip experience during Michigan’s Manufacturing week. We visit five local manufacturing businesses in five days - a field trip every day of the week. Students learn directly from industry professionals. They get to see and experience things like injection molding, laser cutting, tool and die manufacturing, arc welding, plasma cutting, robotics, vision systems, and wire electrical discharge machining. Students see professionals using some of the same software and equipment that they will learn how to use in our lab. As the school year progresses, we refer to these experiences as students recall the real-world application of the skills they are learning in class. Many of these same industry professionals come into our lab and classroom to provide support and answer student questions.

One key element of my class is students forging a connection between school, industry and their future. They discover industries and areas of work they are excited about. They learn to be problem solvers. They learn to talk with upperclassmen, other teachers, members of the community, and potential employers. They learn to think about themselves and their place in the future; they learn that they can be the architect of their own career. If I can help my students design and achieve their own success, I have truly done my job.

What kind of difference does Design lab make in the lives of students?

Design Lab allows students the opportunity to explore their interests and provides them with a wealth of experiences related to in-demand careers. Often unavailable at their schools of origin, the topics explored and technology used in Design Lab are unique opportunities they can use to explore their future career options. Over 80% of Design Lab students return to Kent Career Tech Center to take other career technical education programs at the school as a junior or senior. After taking Design Lab, students have the background and experience needed to help them to be successful in the class that they choose. Over 25% of these returning students changed the class they were initially planning to take the next year. This is a direct result of discovering more about themselves, their interests, and career opportunities through Design Lab. The students that do not change the class they intend to take often are more confident in their choice because they have explored their options and understand their interests and passions.

Other students arrived at Design Lab with no career focus and leave with a renewed direction toward a rewarding and enjoyable career. In addition to helping students explore various careers, my class helps train them to be strong workers in whatever field they choose. By focusing on time management, accountability, and personal responsibility as elements of each project, they learn the confidence, conscientiousness, and integrity needed to succeed in the work force. Students love the class as evidenced by how many students return and tell me so. Students also have significant academic success. They take an online, embedded math or science credit as part of Design Lab. For many students, this is their first experience taking an online course. About 90% of students earn a C (70%) or better in this math or science course. This experience gives students the confidence they will need to be successful in other online courses in the future.

How does Design Lab promote student-centered learning?

Getting to know students and their interests has been an important part of my strategy since I became an educator. Initially, I used this to help with classroom behavior. I found that the more I shared about myself and learned about my students the more willing they were to work hard in class and take risks. In a career-tech education school, this knowledge becomes helpful in steering students to fields and opportunities which they may not have necessarily considered. For example, in our construction project, a young female student designed a creative storage system for a wooden game which relied on powerful magnets. However, she had a problem machining the wood to securely hold the magnets using the tools in our lab. I helped her partner with an area machine shop and they helped her complete her design. Knowing my student in terms of both her interest and her potential helped me challenge her to make this connection and ultimately solve the problem she was having with her design. As I get to know students throughout the year, I am able to affirm their strengths, challenge their thought processes, and highlight for them potential career matches that can offer a lifetime of fulfillment and growth.

How will Design Lab help students bridge the gap between school and career?

The class combines an embedded online academic credit in math or science with a credit in career and technical exploration. Students learn traditional concepts in math and science such as creating a right triangle and then apply these concepts in the lab as they build a structure that is square. Students quickly see how what they learn in a classroom applies to the real world. This helps to solidify their knowledge base while motivating them to continue to learn and apply new concepts. Students in Design Lab don’t ask, “When am I ever going to use this?” They are excited about learning and can readily see the connections between what they learn and skills they need or abilities of professionals in industry.

Additionally, several of the students who take Design Lab struggle in a traditional classroom setting but excel when we combine traditional learning with hands-on application of concepts and ideas. Many of these “struggling” students become leaders on projects. For example, I had one of these such students who was excited about printing using our 3D printers. He was adept at setting up the machine and problem-solving when prints did not turn out correctly. I had the opportunity to watch him transform from a shy student to a class leader during the course of the year. His renewed excitement about learning and increased confidence were contagious.