Think Like an Engineer

I love field trips but I never take them because the logistics are a giant pain when you teach 100 kids a day. That’s why, when the flyer for the ASU College of Engineering Girls’ Make-a-Thon popped into my email inbox just a couple days before our Thanksgiving Break, my colleague and I jumped at the chance to make this happen. For me, this was the perfect chance to expose some of the amazing young women on our campus to what an engineering career is and the path to get there. Engineering is one of those careers that, had I known what an engineer did when I was in high school, I might have gone down that path. (The answer is civil, in case you were wondering.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I teach future engineers and, bonus for me, the new science standards integrate engineering so I now expose all of my students to the work of an engineer. A large part of integrating engineering practices into the science curriculum means giving students the freedom to define and research problems, then design and analyze possible solutions.

If you haven’t read through the new Arizona science standards, you really should. We made a giant leap forward this year after acknowledging that our previous standards just weren’t making the grade. We’ve also outlined the connections between the practice of science and literacy, mathematics, and social studies.

Science, as a study, does not exist in isolation. It is fundamentally interconnected with the human experience. Funding priorities reflect the needs of society and the political climate of the time. Scientists must consider the ethical implications of their research before they even proceed. In the classroom, if I am teaching nuclear fission in my class, I cannot leave out the Manhattan Project or Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, nor can I ignore the impact of the half-life of uranium-235 on the design of such a facility. Science is, by nature, an interdisciplinary endeavor.


Science, engineering, mathematics, history, social sciences, literacy… these are all interconnected.

My future engineers need to identify real problems in need of real solutions. Doing so requires them to research, analyze and evaluate the impact of both the problem and proposed solutions. This is why, in the Arizona State Science Standards, one of the core ideas for using science states that “applications of science often have both positive and negative ethical, social, economic, and/or political implications.”

In the high school science standards, students are asked to examine these implications around six topics:

  • The use of chemistry-related technologies
  • The benefits and liabilities of fission, fusion and radioactive decay
  • The benefits and liabilities of energy usage and transfer
  • The implications of human activity on the biodiversity of an ecosystem
  • The implications of the detection and treatment of abnormal cell function
  • The implications of a current genetic technology

When science teachers ask students to look at the ethical, social, economic, and political implications of human activity on the biodiversity of an ecosystem, we aren’t asking students to choose a political affiliation. Science exists on evidence. Engineering relies on data. We want them to research and test to consider every possible outcome so they can, in turn, design multiple possible solutions.

Using the word political in education standards is quite controversial these days because it immediately conjures the idea of a teacher giving students their opinion on issues or candidates. The framework on which the standards are based recognized the connection between society, science, and engineering, stating that “some knowledge of science and engineering is required to engage with the major public policy issues of today as well as to make informed everyday decisions.”

Those future engineers I teach? That’s what I consider all of my students. I want to know that when they leave my classroom they carry with them the critical thinking skills learned through the study of physics. I want them to identify problems, research possible solutions, gather data, and above all, to keep trying. I want all of them to think like engineers.

To do this, I have to give my high school students real-world problems, not popsicle stick towers. Teenagers are gearing up to face the world beyond high school. They’re savvier than I was at that age, a product of the advancements in information technology. They’re ready to examine the ethical, social, economic, and political implications of some very hard topics within science, we just have to give them the opportunity.

What hard topic do you wish you could have examined in high school?


Melissa Girmscheid

Melissa is a passionate advocate for physics education. She is currently in her twelfth year of teaching high school students about the world around them through the study of physics and carries this passion to her secondary job developing and leading Computational Modeling in Physics First with Bootstrap workshops. Melissa is a Master Teacher Policy Fellow with the American Institute of Physics and American Association of Physics Teachers, and in 2019 worked with a team of Arizona physics superstars to successfully lobby for ongoing education funding for STEM and CTE teachers. Her goal is to ensure every student in Arizona has access to a high quality physics education. She continues to advocate for students as an Ambassador with the American Physical Society’s STEP UP program and a coach in the Arizona Educational Foundation’s teachSTEM program. Melissa achieved National Board certification is 2017 and now serves candidates as a Candidate Support Provider. She believes in the power of Modeling Instruction, student-centered learning, and the Five Core Propositions.

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