Leading the Way in Engineering, Design at LCHS

How would you improve on a plain coffee mug?
Would you consider finding a way to attach USB speakers? Or maybe constructing it so that it does a better job keeping its contents warm? Or might you come up with a safety device so that it doesn’t break if its user were to drop it? How do you feel about the handle — can that be improved?
These were examples of the innovative ideas developed by La Cañada High School students during a recent class, as they warmed up for even bigger questions later this year in the new Project Lead the Way engineering and design class.
Mike Kassarjian, an experienced teacher with a background that also includes work as a scientist at IBM and as a leader in professional teacher development, has teamed up with veteran LCHS science teacher Steve Zimmerman to teach the new program.
Project Lead the Way is a nonprofit organization that provides training and resources to help students develop in-demand skills on matters related to computer science, engineering and biomedical science — with a design element included.
Funding to get it off the ground came from the more than $170,000 raised at the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation’s gala last spring, according to Jeff Davis, La Cañada Unified School District’s assistant superintendent of human resources.
Davis saw the program take hold in a big way at Thousand Oaks High School in the Conejo Valley Unified School District, where he previously worked. He expects that the classes, which are meant to appeal to a wider range of students than might normally gravitate toward engineering, will be equally as popular at LCHS.
“The district has done a lot of work trying to figure out what are the electives … that not only our students want but truly need in terms of college and career,” Davis said. “We want to offer courses that students look at and parents look at and realize, ‘You can make a career out of that.’”
In another chapter of his life, the new guy leading one of the courses had such a career.
Between 1987 and 1992, Kassarjian conducted scientific research and was a quality engineer with IBM Corp., which also sent him to universities to recruit students to work for the company.
“I loved my job and it was important work, but I didn’t feel it was important enough … and we were finding that the foreign students were much more qualified and much more interested and much more prepared than our own American students,” Kassarjian said last week after class.
That realization turned the Southern California native toward teaching. He worked for 16 years as a math teacher for 7th- through 12th-graders in Orange County — after logging a six-year stint as a stay-at-home dad while his wife, Debra, now an executive at DineEquity, pursued her career ambitions.
Kassarjian said he relished his time at home with his two daughters — now 25 and 27 and pursuing advanced degrees in epidemiology and environmental science — and that it helped prepare him for the classroom.
“Being a parent makes you so much better as a teacher, but being a teacher makes you so much better as a parent, too,” he said. “There were a couple times my wife would say, ‘You know how to deal with kids, you deal with our kids.’ And also, there’s some sensitivity in the classroom as a parent — for example, I learned how much I hated group projects because we had to drive our kids to the group project.”
Kassarjian actually is a huge proponent of group projects, so long as they happen within the walls of his classroom. Most of the work his students do — whether it’s in his Project Lead the Way or statistics courses — is in groups. (Exams are always individual.)
“They don’t get to pick their teams,” he said. “So it helps them learn how to work with all kinds of people. I mean, each team is going to have a slacker, so let’s learn how to bring the slacker up. Learn to work with the quiet person. Learn how to speak up when the loud guy is speaking over you. Learn to say, ‘Stop, I need to speak now.’
“Teamwork is paramount. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to become a plumber or going into business or academics or science, everything is teamwork. We hear over and over from business and industry how the most valuable skill is not whether the students have taken calculus or AP stats, it’s whether they can work in teams and get along with others.”
That’s no different in any of the engineering-related disciplines that his students were researching Wednesday morning, when they were contemplating the difference between aerospace and aeronautical engineering.
The students in the course — in which the emphasis on design means it counts for a University of California credit in art — will learn how to sketch and brainstorm. They’ll also end up spending a lot of time on computers, improving their computer-aided design skills and doing 3-D work. Eventually, they will Skype with students in other cities about joint projects. It’s all a dress rehearsal for what they are likely to experience in the real world.
“I like how the course is structured because it focuses a lot on some of the fundamental ways you think about engineering,“ senior Braden Oh said. “They do a very good job of teaching math and science here, but thinking about how you design something outside of the box is very different.”
Kassarjian has a strong reputation for teaching math, as well, according to Davis. The assistant superintendent reported that when he was doing reference checks during the hiring process, he learned from Northwood High’s principal that Kassarjian’s statistics students posted the highest AP scores in Orange County for nine consecutive years.
“He is somebody who is driven by helping students,” LCHS Prinicpal Ian McFeat said. “He really wants to give back.”
So, after eight years as a high-ranking figure at CPM Educational Foundation, a $25-million nonprofit focused on teacher development, Kassarjian felt the pull of the classroom again, just as LCUSD was looking for someone to help lead the way.
“I’m glad to be back with the students again,” Kassarjian said. “You don’t want to be too far removed from the students or you start losing touch and you’re not as effective, so I had to go back to the classroom, because they teach me as much as I teach them.”
Take that coffee mug, for example.
“It’s something I never would’ve thought, that we need to fix the handle,” Kassarjian said. “But seven different teams thought the handle was a problem. Maybe we’re not holding the cup right?”

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