"I’m trying to just create the class I wish I’d had in high school," Mike Wierusz explains. "I left high school with a full ride scholarship to UW for engineering, but I had no clue what engineering was. I just don’t think that’s fair, with the cost of higher ed now. I think it’s a huge benefit for students to have an idea of why they’re going to do what they’re going to do."
Wierusz teaches the sustainable engineering and design program at Inglemoor High School, and was one of seven teachers on the West Coast chosen as an Allen Distinguished Educator. The ADE program, sponsored by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, recognizes innovative teachers who give their students opportunities to learn engineering and entrepreneurship in creative ways.
Hands-on, real-world learning is the central theme of Wierusz’s classes, IB Design and Technology and Sustainable Engineering and Design. (The classes are open to high schoolers at any school in the Northshore School District.)
"The idea behind IB Design and Technology is to introduce students to the design process and the tools that we use to do design," he said. "That includes understanding how the market works, the product life cycle, and all of the elements that go into decision-making for product design."
After students complete IB Design and Technology, they can further their skills in Sustainable Engineering and Design. Students learn how humans affect the environment and society; then, Wierusz said, he asks them to use that knowledge to "do good."
In groups, the students plan projects, submit grants and spend the rest of the year making their projects.
This year, for example, one group is trying to design a more sustainable snowboard.
Another group is developing an off-the-grid refrigeration system to store vaccines in developing countries.
Several groups are working with professional architects and designers on NSD’s new high school. One group is focusing on the wetlands on the site. Another is making a touch screen kiosk that will show students how much energy and water the school is saving.
There’s a "huge emphasis" on students working with industry partners — local businesses and organizations — who serve as technical experts for the students, Wierusz said.
For example, the group who’s making the sustainable snowboard is working with K2 Sports in Seattle to understand snowboard design and the market for snowboard.
Most students come in to the class with an interest in engineering, business orenvironmental science, Wierusz said. His class draws on those skills and others, requiring students to use both their strengths and weaknesses. Students must explain their project goals in writing and figure out how much money they need for their project before they can begin coding or building.
"The reality is, problem solving cannot be done with just one skill set. Real problem solving involves science, it involves art, it involves communication, it involves math, it involves writing," Wierusz said.
He added, "We try to spread these skills sets among the projects, so that way you’ve got somebody who’s interested in the environment, somebody who’s interested in engineering,
somebody who’s interested in business in each of the projects, so that way they understand that it does take all of the skill sets to bring something to fruition."
The classroom is equipped with 3D printers, a laser cutter, wood shop tools and soldering equipment for students to make prototypes of their designs.
The program is both "hands-on" and "brain-on," Wierusz said.
Students are effusive in their praise for Wierusz’s classes. Student Chloe Pearson is part of the class’s "green communications team," which lets her combine her love for design and environmental science with her interest in marketing.
By working with real-world companies, she said, she’s learned how to patiently navigate the many levels of authority within a company.
"I’ve also learned a lot about the freedom of design, because I had a misconception that they would give me a project and I would do it," she said. "But they gave me a problem."
Another student, Spencer Lane, took the Sustainable Engineering and Design class last year and again this year. His group is working on the "green machine," a mobile learning lab in a trailer that the students use to teach elementary schoolers about energy and sustainability.
The hands-on approach of Wierusz’s class makes it easy to be excited about the work, Lane said.
"It was unlike any class I’ve had before. It was super hands-on," Lane said. "We always had cool field trips or people come in and talk to us….It was stuff like that that brought me back this year."
Photo by Briana Gerdeman
Mike Wierusz, who teaches the Sustainable Engineering and Design program at Inglemoor High School, answers students’ questions. Wierusz is one of seven teachers nationwide who won an award for teaching entrepreneurship and engineering in creative ways.
Lena Bandulin, a student in Mike Wierusz’s IB Design and Technology class, creates a model of one of her designs. For an assignment to improve a household object, she’s making a paper towel holder with a rubber stopper that lets you tear off paper towels with one hand.