College of Engineering adds K-12 Coordinator

by Kathleen McCoy

UAA’s College of Engineering has hired its first ever K-12 Coordinator, Vicki Nechodomu. She’ll serve as the chief liaison between the engineering college and K-12 educators in surrounding school districts, including those with more rural constituents.

Her job is to spend time with teachers to learn what their needs are and how the university can help, said Fred Barlow, UAA’s dean of the College of Engineering

“We want to be a part of the solution,” Barlow said. “Sometimes what happens is K-12 and higher education end up pointing fingers at each other. We want to set that aside. We want to work together so that the quality of student outcomes increases. Vicki is part of our commitment.”

The mission

So what does the job entail?

Since arriving in June, Nechodomu helped with UAA’s Summer Engineering Academies, which drew youngsters from Anchorage and Mat-Su Valley locations to build robots, shake buildings and shoot rockets into the sky. Nechodomu taught the rocketry session.

Nechodomu knows a thing or two about getting K-12 students excited about learning. For one thing, she has a background in robotics coaching. In her decade of teaching in rural Alaska, one of her robotics teams made it to the world’s competition and another made it to the nationals.

“Getting two teams beyond the state competition was really a thrill,” Nechodomu said. “You show up at competitions like that against teams that have access to a full machine shop and 3D printers and mentoring from giant engineering firms. And still our teams and their robots were able to accomplish the same tasks. We were competitive.”

Nechodomu carries that same can-do attitude into forging new channels between the engineering college and K-12 schools. The Minnesota native comes to UAA with lots of K-12 experience, first as a science and language arts teacher at Akiuk Memorial School in Kasigluk for the Lower Kuskokwim School District. Later she moved to Bethel and coordinated career path education for the LKSD, including internships and job shadowing experiences.

Clark’s new engineering academy

Her first task at UAA is working with Clark Middle School Principal Cessilye Williams and an advisory team of UAA engineering professors to create Clark’s new engineering academy. Students will participate in activities related to civil, mechanical, computer and electrical engineering, as well as geomatics.

Sessions will run at Clark every other week October through April, on Saturdays.

That’s right, Saturdays. Clark already has Saturday academies for junior health professionals with UAA’s College of Health, and two with the university’s business school—one on leadership and one on coding.

But adding an engineering academy has been a top priority for Williams throughout her career in K-12 education. She can remember back three decades when she worked as a counselor at Wendler, and the principal came into her office and said, “I need three excellent students.” They were aiming those smart middle schoolers at a career pathway opportunity in natural resources—roles that could include engineering, geology, marine biology, etc.— at Fort Valley State University in Georgia.

Williams is proud to have personally placed three students in that five-year program. They entered the summer after eighth grade and focused on how to prepare for college, from touring college campuses to working through SAT word lists. Eventually, they completed undergraduate degrees in chemistry or math in just three years, before heading on to more academic work at partner institutions.

“Their intellect had been empowered and affirmed. I want to make sure we have the same pathways here,” Williams said. “You grow what you invest in.” An engineering academy with UAA is her plan to ignite that same commitment in Anchorage.

How to set the hook

Nechodomu relishes the opportunity to expose middle school students to how much fun engineering can be. Her academy information packet includes a direct message to potential students. It does not ask if they want to grow up to be an engineer. It asks:

Do you love tinkering?

Do you have a passion for tackling problems and coming up with solutions?

Do you want to pursue a future in giving back to communities by solving problems with practical solutions?

She imagines the path to any career as a pyramid with three tiers. The bottom tier is the broadest, and includes experiences like UAA’s Summer Engineering Academies and this new engineering academy at Clark.

“This is high-energy fun,” she says, flashing back to her rocket-launching session in the Mat-Su this summer. At this early stage, students are only expected to find out how much fun they can have. “They don’t have to master concepts” or start studying advanced math, she said.

The next tier is where they feed this awakening interest, say by joining a robotics club in middle or high school. The final phase, the high school student who realizes she or he really wants a career in engineering, is to help them be ready for college.

The first tier is a very big net, Nechodomu says. She expects some students to drop away. “If they can realize this is not a good path for them, that’s a service, too.”

Another K-12 role for Nechodomu is getting up to speed on existing or new educational agreements between local high schools and school districts and the university. These would be helpful to third-tier students who have decided engineering is their college path. These agreements allow them to earn some college credit by successfully completing introductory courses. Dimond High’s involvement with the national program Project Lead the Way is one example.

Another is a concurrent enrollment opportunity between the university and the Anchorage, Mat-Su and Kenai school districts. In this case, a high school teacher uses UAA’s own curriculum to teach a UAA introductory course, for which a high school student can earn college credit.

Last year, a pilot program at Colony High School involved a local teacher instructing a CAD design class. The high school teacher had taught the subject many times. But now, the teacher had a UAA mentor professor and used UAA’s curriculum. The teacher earned a stipend, and for $40 a credit hour, successful high school students earned inexpensive college credit toward their university degrees.

Find out the possibilities early

“I would say that the goal of K-12 and the university is really the same,” Nechodomu said. “We want to help individuals find out what they want to do, and what they need to do to get there.

“I believe strongly that the earlier a student understands what opportunities are out there for them, the more they can deliberately pursue those opportunities, and the better they understand where they are headed in life.”

Nechodomu says UAA really wants to be a resource for local K-12 teachers. Do you have an idea for a guest speaker for your class? Do you need some equipment to demonstrate a concept? Maybe she can help. Reach out; she says she’ll see what she can do. (vnechodomu@alaska.edu or 786-1067)

Written by Kathleen McCoy for the UAA Office of Advancement.