The Kenan Fellowship Experience Continues…
I entered the Structural Adhesive Department of LORD Corporation’s Process Development Center early Monday morning, the first day of my Kenan Fellows externship. Mistake number one: wearing a dress and sandals, not exactly “lab attire.” But that didn’t matter, because I was quickly overwhelmed with the buzzing excitement of the real world. As teachers, we prepare our students for the real world every single day, and hopefully we are providing ample opportunities for our students to interact with authentic, real world situations and materials…but as teachers, we rarely get the chance to be in the real world.
As I toured the facilities, my excitement for this special opportunity grew and my eyes were opened to the true value of the Kenan Fellowship program. There should be thousands of innovative opportunities like this, to broaden our educator perspectives and to remind of us of why we do what we do. Inside the labs were chemists and chemical engineers, working to create adhesives that both strengthen and increase the aesthetics of cars. My mentor John Lean described some of the new types of adhesives they were working on for electric car batteries, along with showing me the hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment used to test LORD’s adhesives. One machine even crash tests the strength of their adhesives to mimic that of a car crash…woah.
My mind churned with ideas I could bring back to my kinders…big picture ideas that would help them see the value in science and how it solves problems and affects our daily lives. At this point, I still had no clue what I would be doing in the labs during my 3 weeks, yet I already had the beginnings of ideas for what my students might explore or create. I met with my mentor at the end of my first day to discuss my project, which would relate to my project for my students. Starting with the end in mind, I asked him what he sees as a need in preparing students for STEM careers like LORD. He began describing the impact that many variables play in affecting different outcomes of the same process, and then handed me a large notebook of process mapping information, accompanied by the actual process I would be experimenting with. I would be completing the same process repeatedly, bonding 2 metal coupons with the same adhesive, and after a day taken to cure for each batch, I would use an Instron machine to measure the force required to pull the coupons apart. He explained that while I might follow the same steps each time, there are different variables that will affect different outcomes in the force measurement each time. I was tasked with creating a process map to outline the steps, and then identifying any variables (room temperature, dispersion of adhesive, coverage of substrate, amount of glass beads, size of static mixer, etc.) that could possibly influence different outcomes in the process. The ultimate goal of my experimentation was to control the outside variables as much as possible in order to obtain similar results each time. Ready….GO!
My first thought: Kindergarteners? Variables? Process mapping? Hmmm…this should be interesting.
My second thought: Me? Dispensing adhesive? Bonding metal? Process mapping? Measuring force?
My third thought: There must be value in this process…what is it, and how can I share it with my students?
And when I thought back to how LORD affects the daily lives and safety of people with their products, I realized why it was so important that a process be as controlled as possible so that it can produce the consistently proven results it was designed to produce – results that end up in people’s cars. And that moment was when my head started spinning with ways I could not only keep the big picture ideas I had started with in mind, but blend those ideas with this new important aspect that my experience was already beginning to teach me.
Now you might be wondering how I’m so comfortable using the lingo and terms above, maybe not…but if I had read this post before I began my externship, I would most definitely be wondering. The open-ended experience of creating a process map for my task, with nothing to go off of other than an abstract formula and example of the process mapping for making scrambled eggs (and Google), is what got me to this point of comfort with the terminology and steps of the process. And the best part – creating the process map gave me a genuine appreciation for how a challenge, without prior modeling or an outline of steps to follow for completion, can engage and grow someone. It also effectively prepared me for the chemical research and experimentation I began this past week. No one gave chemical engineers a guide to the adhesives they would create: they used their background knowledge and resources to problem-solve through trial and error, making mistakes along the way as I have. And it’s not often that I’m on the learning side of a challenge, but I am LOVING it! THANK YOU, KENAN FELLOWS PROGRAM!!!!
Wrap-Up: My Transforming View of Science
When I was offered this externship, I really wasn’t sure how I would get the job done. The description sounded so cool but also so out of my element, which is part of what drew me to it, but also what made it a little intimidating. But it has also taught me about myself and how I should never be scared to take on something that seems “not me.” Just because I have to wear a lab coat and safety glasses and am tasked with chemical research does not mean I can’t do it! The stigmas embedded in the words science and chemistry are probably what have held me back from diving all in for many years, and I know I’m not alone in that – there are many other teachers and students who feel that same way. Using a bunch of big words and conducting random experiments can seem confusing and meaningless…science is not. Now science can be complex, but with a growth mindset, those complex things can be learned when there is meaning and purpose behind them. This experience in the real world is just what I needed to continue transforming my view of science, and I am so excited to present science to my students from the new perspective I am learning this summer! Stay tuned to see how my project for Kindergarteners develops!