A Valuable Lesson
The age-old question “Will I ever use what I learned in junior high algebra class?” is no longer up for debate at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in the coastal community of Port Arthur, Texas. For more than a year, eighth-grade students at Thomas Jefferson have immediately applied their mathematical knowledge as part of a new program called Engineers in the Classroom.
“It’s amazing to see those lightbulbs turn on when these kids figure out that engineering is pretty similar to what they’re doing in algebra class,” said Taunjaerina Drake, mathematics instructional coach. “These boys and girls start to realize that they can be engineers too.”
In 2015, Drake and other school administrators approached Flint Hills Resources (FHR), part of the refining industry backbone in Port Arthur. They invited the company’s engineers to help educate students about the importance of algebra in everyday life. The idea seemed logical for a company that produces building-block chemicals used to make medical devices, automotive parts, appliances and other technologies nationwide.
John Swanson, the site’s process engineering leader put the wheels in motion. “The faculty told us what they wanted, and we started developing some real-life math scenarios for the kids. One had to do with figuring out how much material to load into a gas dryer, which one of our engineers was already doing. We worked another one up to determine if it’s more cost-effective to drive a pump with a steam turbine or an electric motor. We had a few other examples as well,” said Swanson smiling fondly.
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After educating students about the roles of engineers, they challenged the class to solve the series of refining-related equations. Then the students were asked to make value-added business decisions. “When I first looked at the problems, I was like oh my goodness I’m going to have to get some assistance myself,” joked algebra teacher Linda Vincent.
Swanson and his crew went back a third time to check on progress and answer any questions. “We had really good discussions with the students. On our next visit, they presented their solutions to us, which was pretty cool,” said Swanson.
Now in its second year, Engineers in the Classroom is currently offered in three algebra classes at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. Amy Singharatsarong, aka Ms. Sing, is already impressed as a new teacher in the program. “Having a company like Flint Hills Resources that wants to give back to the community as a whole is what stands out to me the most,” said Singharatsarong. “Last month I was explaining exponential growth and decay. When the engineers visited with new problems to solve, the students were able to point out the correlation to what I’d been teaching. I’m telling you, they’re making a connection.”
A key figure in the initial launch, John Swanson has now transferred to another Flint Hills Resources facility in Houston, Texas. He is proud that the program is still growing. “Back when I was in middle school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what the options were. I didn’t know what I could do. I had no clue. I never even heard of chemical engineers until I went to college. Interacting with the students in this program is a lot of fun, but the real value for me is the ability to help open the eyes of kids who don’t know what’s out there.”
Swanson’s former FHR Port Arthur colleague Brian Allison is now leading the Engineers in the Classroom effort. “Our goals are more than the objective of strengthening students’ knowledge of math,” explained Allison. “We strive to develop their critical thinking skills which they can rely on as citizens, employees and entrepreneurs.”
Still in its infancy, Engineers in the Classroom is giving students early exposure to local jobs rooted in math, creating a potential recruiting pipeline in Port Arthur. Initial success is generating talk of possible expansion to other Texas schools. One question that still remains is just how far it will multiply.