The Plastic Brain

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Five Lessons Learned from a Week in Industry

Recently, I’ve had a lot on my mind. In the last week, I have been taken out of my usual context, and been given the opportunity to look my teaching from a new vantage point. The results have been profound.

But before I talk about this week, I’d like to look back at the last month. I’ve been reading a lot of literature, attended a conference and had discussions with colleagues on pedagogies, mindsets and positive education. It has been revolutionary, and changed the way I approach my teaching. It has coincided with a particularly busy phase in our pastoral care program: course counselling for our Year 10s as they head into their final two years of schooling (the SACE). This, in a way, sets the scene.

In separate part of my  job, I have been working in a team to develop innovating and interesting projects to increase student engagement in STEM subjects. In particular, our STEM team has just finished our second 10-week course for primary students. The STEM Initiative aims to introduce students to our high school, and provide enrichment and extension for students interested in Science, Maths and Technology. Funding to support the STEM Initiative has come through the Advanced Technology Project (sponsored by the Defence Materiel Organisation). As part of their work to link teachers with industry, they recently awarded me an Industry Placement, which brings me back to this week.

My placement is at SAGE Automation, a national company (founded in SA) which provides automation solutions for a variety of projects and industries, including the Arnotts, SA Water, Southern Expressway, Holden, Mining companies and big defence contracts like the Air Warfare Destroyer. When I started my week-long placement on Monday I expected to learn about their business, and take some ideas back to school about what industry employers are looking for and hopefully generate some authentic Maths and Science tasks. However, I had no idea how the concepts of mindsets and positive education would link to the engineering and management practices at SAGE.

Here are some of the lessons I will be taking away with me:

1. The Importance of Mindsets

One of the key goals of my placement was to find out from industry what they need in graduates, and what we can do to better prepare our students for the work force. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time this week talking to employees (“What do you think got you this job?”) and managers (“What do you look for in your employees?”). Without exception, every answer has centred on the attributes outlined by Dweck in her work on growth mindsets. The ability to grow, adapt and learn from mistakes in key.


“SAGE…only hired people who shared the passion to drive exceptional outcomes for our clients….

Loyal and diligent employees live our core values and are empowered to deliver certainty for our clients. It’s an exceptional culture and one of which we are fiercely proud.”

Founder and MD, Andrew Downs.

The other area of my reading which is implicitly practiced in the workforce is Seligman’s Signature Strengths. Every person I’ve met at SAGE seems to embody the notion of working with your Strengths to generate meaning and purpose. Each member of their teams is passionate about what they do, and is given the opportunity to work with their strengths to make their contribution to the overall project. All of this works synergistically to promote that ever elusive state: flow.

2. Attitude and Adaptability

Sounds like a great place to work, doesn’t it? So what advice do they have for students who want to land a job in such a hi-tech, innovative industry? Work on your attitude. Being persistent, but friendly, reliable and punctual are the keys to the steely gates of HR. Form emails just don’t cut it. Pick up the phone, meet and greet, put yourself out there and do whatever you can to make a good name for yourself. Also, don’t expect to always have the same job. Employees in industries like this need to be flexible. Projects can be short or long, come from a range of sectors, and require a range of skills. While the managers do an excellent job of tracking expertise and allocating human resources, every job involves a degree of learning and adaptability. What’s more, clients can be temperamental and change specifications mid-project. You need to be able to adapt and rework your solutions. In teacher-speak, they are looking for life-long learners. [As an aside, I was talking with one of the managers, only half-jokingly, about how changing the assessment criteria one week into a summative task would be a good life lesson for students.]

3. The Maths that Matters

SAGE employs a lot of software, electronics, mechatronics and robotics engineers. Engineers are heavily into the maths subjects at school and university – in fact engineering courses are the most prerequisite-heavy courses in the SATAC guide. We can’t hope to, or should even try to, teach middle school students the maths they would need in some of these high-end career paths. However, certain skills seemed to stand out as key foundational requirements:

  • Ratios, rates and conversions: this week I’ve seen a lot of this: Gearing ratios, scaling, flow rates, belt speeds, pay rates, converting Bars to kPa, microseconds to milliseconds and Euler angles to Quaternions (yeah, look it up, I had to).
  • Boolean logic: Despite its ubiquity in all computer science, which is fundamental to the way we live today, Boolean logic is virtually absent in the Australian Curriculum.
  • Schematics: The process of reducing complex visual information down to schematics, and the reverse operation of reading diagrams and applying understandings to complex systems is fundamental in engineering. Align with this are the skills of reductionism and integration.
  • Interpreting data: In the Maths classroom, numbers usually float freely, only occasionally being linked to context. In industry, numbers are data. They always have meaning and significance. They may be money, dimensions, hours worked, rates, flows or instrument readings. Knowing if the numbers are within an expected range matters and being able to identify trends and investigate patterns is paramount.

4. Project Management and PBL

One of the biggest things I’ve been learning has not been what they do at SAGE (which has been very interesting and informative) but how they do it. As you may have gathered from the above, SAGE’s business runs on the basis of Projects. Each has a unique number,  a Project Manager, a number of engineers and other staff assigned to it. In order to keep everything running smoothly and everyone on the same page, they use a defined set of procedures called the TEP (Technical Execution Practice). The TEP is based on the “V model” below.

V model

The V model starts by looking at your requirements, and designing a solution. On the downside of the V, you break that down to smaller and small tasks which you achieve. In the instance above, that relates to developing IT solutions. On the upside of the V you integrate those small pieces, constantly check back to your design and requirements to see that you are meeting those initial requirements. The final stage is the delivery of the finished product – in this case a finished IT platform.

I’ve been interested in Project-based (PBL) learning for a while, and I’ve completed a couple of units which may be considered PBL (although everyone seems to have a different definition of what qualifies as PBL). One of my key reflections has been how difficult it can be for the students to know what is required and where they are up to. This would lead to major issues in industry, so naturally they have developed structures to avoid this (hence the V model and the TEP). Inspired by the TEP, I have been working on generating supporting documentation and a new “project vocabulary” for managing PBL. It also ties in beautifully with the trend for using design-based thinking and the IB MYP Design Cycle. Not only should adopting these models improve the PBL process, but can be used to explicitly teach highly transferrable workforce skills.

5. Change management

SAGE is a business which is interested in growth and innovation. Change is an essential part of their operations. One of the most valuable sessions I had during the week was with the Engineering Operations Manager. He ran through the process of change management which he had learnt from his guru, and which he was enacting at SAGE. It seemed simple, but therein lies the genius:

  1. Set a clear and common vision for the organisation
  2. Have short-run (in this case 100-day) Strategic Projects (SPs) which take you closer to that vision
  3. Work in teams to achieve projects in a transparent way*
  4. Celebrate your successes.

* Everyone knows what the teams are, what they are doing, and why, and can see the progress they are making. This is achieved by literally printing the SPs on A3 sheets and pinning them up in a common staff area. Online seems good – but people just won’t check it.

Even if the aims of each SP are small, incremental progress is evident, morale grows and directed change is happening.

Lasting lessons

I will certainly come away with what I was hoping for. I have some great videos and resources, contact with potential guest speakers, and am writing new activities and assessments. However, I will also come away from my experience at SAGE with a new outlook on not only what can be achieved in the classroom, but what can be achieved within organisations. The company expertise is in making things work effectively and efficiently. Their practices provide a model for both students and teachers.

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Thank you to all of the staff at SAGE, who have been so welcoming, patient and generous.

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Murder on Detroit Avenue: STEMxCON13

I will presenting at the STEMxCON on Saturday morning in Adelaide. However, since it goes out to a global audience, I am hoping that some participants will be checking in on Friday afternoon from the US.

So, what is STEMxCON? From their website:

Welcome to the Global 2013 STEMx Education Conference, the world’s first massively open online conference for educators focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and more. The conference is being held over the course of three days, September 19-21, 2013, and is free to attend!

STEMxCon is a highly inclusive event designed to engage students and educators around the globe and we encourage primary, secondary, and tertiary (K-16) educators around the world to share and learn about innovative approaches to STEMx learning and teaching.

You can view the schedule in your own timezone here. Check it out, there are some amazing talks that will be happening 24hrs a day.

Case cover

My own talk is titled: 

Murder on Detroit Avenue: An interdisciplinary STEM Unit

…and a link to the full description is here.

As a courtesy to STEMxCON participants and readers of this blog, the Case Notes which I wrote for my murder investigation role-play can be downloaded here: Case file. The slides from the talk are here: STEMxCON Final

I am looking forward to presenting, as well as attending as many of the talks I can. Some to look out for are from my colleagues at the the Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS).

Finally, to keep up-to-date, check the STEMxCON website and follow @stemxcon on Twitter.


My session went really well, and I am so grateful for those who came along and got involved in the back-channel chat. The full recording of the session is available here, using Blackboard Collaborate (MP3 Audio and MP4 Video also available).
Two great outcomes for me were:

  1. The positive feedback really gave me the drive to further develop unit and ensure that I run it again next year.
  2. We had a discussion about including more literacy skills, and bringing in an English teacher. The unit provides a perfect platform for a persuasive writing piece. It could also be the springboard for a creative writing piece.

Tracy Watanabe followed up on Twitter with a couple of great Tweets, which really made my day. The second tweet includes links to some pretty amazing programs, in which the Police and Journalism students are involved in Forensic Science units. Love it.