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How One Chemical Engineer-Turned-Teacher Inspires Students in STEM

Neil Ford headshot

After years of working in a chemical lab as a process engineer, Neil Ford brought his passion for STEM education to the classroom by becoming a teacher at St. Helens High School—his high school alma mater, in St. Helens, Oregon. Returning to teach in St. Helens means a lot to Ford, a third‑generation Japanese American, for a couple of reasons. “My grandparents were interned during World War II,” Ford said. “But they were still able to provide my mom and her siblings with a great education.” Because of his dedication to learning, Ford has always had a strong connection to the school, its teachers, and the overall community.

“I had a lot of terrific science and math teachers, as well as coaches, who really inspired me when I went to high school at St. Helens, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go teach alongside some of them,” said Ford, who has been back in the classroom for nearly ten years. “I really wanted to help students get excited about engineering and science and show them that there are so many cool careers and opportunities out there for them.”

I really wanted to help students get excited about engineering and science and show them that there are so many cool careers and opportunities out there for them.

Providing Hands-On Opportunities 

To engage students in STEM education, Ford is constantly providing students with hands‑on opportunities that put them in the driver’s seat of the learning process. This includes having students experience a range of data‑collection activities, from analyzing two‑dimensional motion using cell phone video and motion tracking apps to using photogates to collect data to study the acceleration of objects.

Ford’s students designed photogate-based projects to study acceleration

Ford won a 2020 Vernier/NSTA Technology Award for a project that challenged his pre‑engineering students to work through the engineering design process to develop and build a class set of infrared photogates. Each student‑designed photogate used a microcontroller coupled with an organic LED display as the interface, as well as an infrared source and detector circuits. These were prototyped, tested, and ultimately turned into printed circuit boards using CAD software and sent off for 3D fabrication.

Ford teaching remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic

“Students really took ownership of the project and everyone gravitated to the role that interested them the most,” said Ford. “For example, some students were less interested in design work but were really excited about soldering components on circuit boards, so they worked on the production line. Some preferred to troubleshoot, so they oversaw the quality assurance aspects during building.”

The Importance of Student Ownership 

Giving students the freedom to take ownership of different parts of the project gave them the opportunity to find what interested them. For some, the project helped them find a path in STEM beyond Ford’s class.

“One student in particular was really into programming, so he spearheaded writing the software to control the photogate,” added Ford. “He’s now graduated and off at OSU pursuing a degree in electrical engineering—he’s thriving.”

It’s really awesome and rewarding for the students to see the technology they created being used by their younger peers. We went from using stopwatches to using photogates because of their innovation.

The photogates weren’t a one‑off project—Ford has continued to use the devices with his current classes. “It’s really awesome and rewarding for the students to see the technology they created being used by their younger peers,” said Ford. “We went from using stopwatches to using photogates because of their innovation.”

Hands-On Learning During a Pandemic 

Ford has worked relentlessly to provide his students with hands‑on opportunities for real‑world applications of STEM, even this past year when students were working remotely. “It definitely looked different this past year. For example, while the robotics team wasn’t able to travel to the FIRST® robotics competition, they were able to build robotic cars using kits we sent home and share their work with their peers and student mentors via Zoom,” said Ford. “While it wasn’t always ideal, my students really rose to the challenge while they were learning at home.”

The St. Helens High School robotics team celebrates their work remotely

“Every situation presents new opportunities,” added Ford. “So, whether learning is happening in‑person or remotely, I’m a firm believer that teachers should really just go for it when they have new ideas or projects in mind. It’s all about finding ways to engage students and highlighting the importance of STEM.”

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