Creativity in Crisis: How to teach hands-on engineering remotely

Teacher Nick Low's students designed a multitool to avoid high-touch surfaces
By: | June 2, 2020
High school engineering and design teacher Nick Low says teachers have to step outside their comfort zones to innovate during online learning.High school engineering and design teacher Nick Low says teachers have to step outside their comfort zones to innovate during online learning.

Nick Low, an engineering teacher in the outer Chicago suburbs, says moving his hands-on CAD classes online during coronavirus closures has been the most challenging experience in his 15-year career.

Low’s students have computers, 3D printers and other components of makerspaces at their fingertips in his CAD and Project Lead the Way engineering classes at Prairie Ridge High School in Community High School District 155.

Figuring out how to continue instruction in the virtual world was a learning experience on its own, he says. “Engineering is all about problem-solving and I wanted to set a good example to my students to prove that no problem is too big for either of us,” Low says.

He planned for every student in his CAD and Engineering classes to complete the MakerBot 3D Printing Certification Program, which they could work through at home even without the devices.

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Low also teaches technical design and drafting, architectural design and Project Lead The Way engineering classes.

In another at-home project, Low created an “Anti-Touch Design Challenge” for students to develop a multitool that can reduce the spread of viruses by minimizing the number of door handles and other surfaces people have to touch.

Online engineering resources

Here are some supplemental programs and resources Nick Low shared with his classes to help them develop skills needed for next year’s classes, college and careers:

Students will vote on the infographics they’ve submitted of their designs and Low will 3D print as many of the tools as possible to donate to local healthcare organizations.

Low also invited industry professionals to serve as virtual guest speakers, including a guest speaker from the Danish Architecture Center in Denmark .

Insights into online learning

His students have mixed feelings about e-learning but look forward to connecting with teachers in virtual sessions and appreciate the work educators are putting into the assignments, Low says.

Students also miss face-to-face contact with teachers and friends, he adds.

“If you’re trying something new, make sure to try it first, and try to experience the learning with your students instead of just assigning it to them,” Low says. “Innovative teaching means avoiding traditional methods of instruction, materials and content by getting out of your comfort zone and avoiding complacency.”

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Teachers in the online learning era also have to prevent students from getting distracted by their own devices while they’re at home.

“If the educational experience is not equal to or more exciting than the most recent post on their social media feed or more engaging than the latest video game or not relevant to their personal interests and post-secondary aspirations, students are going to have a hard time dedicating honest effort to e-learning,” Low says.

Share your stories of teacher creativity

District Administration is sharing stories of creative teaching during this challenging time. Please use this form to nominate an innovative teaching effort for us to share with our readers.