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Dublin High School’s Eugene Chou Applies a Love of Math to Inspire Future Engineers

September 27, 2013
Dublin High Teacher Eugene Chou

Dublin High Teacher Eugene Chou

Dublin High School’s Engineering and Design Academy has experienced dramatic growth since the program kicked off in the 2010-11 school year. Starting with 42 students and a single course (Principles of Engineering), the program now serves 190 students, includes five courses (Principles of Engineering, Introduction to Engineering Design, ROP Computer Integrated Manufacturing, Computer Science / Software Engineering, and Digital Electronics), and has grown from 2 sections to 8 sections of instruction time.

Dublin High teacher Eugene Chou, who earned an undergraduate degree in mathematical sciences from UC Santa Barbara and a masters degree in industrial engineering and operations research from UC Berkeley, has been a driving force behind the program and was named the Dublin Unified School District 2012 Teacher of the Year. Ms. Chou is also the Dublin High Gael Force Robotics Club advisor, donating many weekends in support of the team at robotics competitions across the Bay Area.

As part of our popular Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Series, which most recently featured Disney Imagineer Molly Rinke, recently met with Ms. Chou to learn more about what inspired her passion for science, technology, engineering and math. What influenced you to pursue math in college?

Eugene Chou: “I was always interested in problem-solving. My dad is a mechanical engineer, working more on the software side now, and was the type of person where if something broke in the house he would open it up, figure out what was going on and try to fix it, rather than buying a new one. I would be pulled into these adventures, trying to fix the VCR, so to the extent anyone sparked my interest in math and problem-solving, it was my dad. He taught me to be inquisitive about the world around me, and not just accept things the way they are.

“As far back as I can remember I’ve been interested in the way things work. I was educated back east where the schools I attended had great math and science programs, and I was doing a lot of cool math stuff, a lot of problem-solving rather than rote arithmetic. I remember math being my favorite subject and from a very young age I never thought about doing anything else other than getting into math. I always thought I’d be some type of mathematician, a problem solver.” What did you get out of your undergraduate degree in math and what led you to pursue engineering for your masters degree?

Chou: “My undergraduate degree was in mathematical sciences. At UC Santa Barbara there were two wings of math – you could take pure math or applied math. Applied math was my focus from the beginning so all of my undergraduate courses were upper level math but applied to something. I did take a few pure mathematics classes and I did horribly! It was the kind of math I did not understand and I would wonder why am I doing this? What is this math applied to? But pure mathematicians do think that it’s just for the love of the math that you pursue theoretical problems. I needed to take math and solve problems.

“I was in UC Santa Barbara Professor John Doner’s operations research class where I found the coolest application of math I’d ever seen. It was through conversations with him and his mentoring that sparked my interest in pursuing engineering. When I went to UC Berkeley for my graduate degree I focused on operations research classes rather than industrial engineering.” How do you help students see past math being a lot of work, being perceived as hard because of the amount of work required to understand and apply the concepts?

Chou: “When I talk to struggling students about their investment in math, and why they should even pursue math, I tell them that for me math has always been challenging. Even though I always enjoyed math, I was never the student who could just sit there and have everything come to me right away. I always had to spend more time digesting and going through the math to fully understand the concepts. For me, I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy having to invest more time to really understand the concepts, that math isn’t just something I could memorize.

“Whenever I talk to students who say ‘math is so hard’, I remind them that nothing that is really worth doing is going to come easily. Everything that you take pride and joy in at some point is going to be something you sweat over. That’s what I believe. If something is so easy that anyone could do it, then you can’t take pride in understanding and knowing it. I’ve always found the challenge of math is what made it rewarding.” What drove the decision to pursue education rather than a career in engineering?

Eugene Chou with Engineering Academy Students

Eugene Chou with Engineering Academy Students

Chou: “I worked on a project while attending Berkeley with a group called ‘Engineers Without Borders’ (which has since been renamed ‘Engineers For a Sustainable World’). I was working a water quality testing project for the Lake Merritt water shed, looking at pollutant trends, and part of the project included community involvement. I was linked up to an Environmental Sciences Academy at Oakland High School where I taught students about the project, and they helped me with some of the water testing. It was through those experiences that I discovered how cool it is to work with kids, the different energy they bring vs. adults. It was nice to work in an environment where you felt you were making an impact every day you were there.

“The teacher I was working with at the high school told me I was really good working with teenagers, and he invited me to work with the school. I met with the vice principal, had an informal interview, and they called me up mid-year to take over a math class where the teacher had left. I’d never really thought that teaching was a career for me – I was on an engineering, corporate track – but when I thought back some of my best experiences were with tutoring students.

“My best times in college were working with a UCSB peer tutoring organization called CLAS, ‘Campus Learning Assistance Services’. I worked in small group settings tutoring students in math. And the more I thought about it I realized I had always been following a path to teaching, but not knowing it. I tutored students in high school too, and I’ve always loved working with people.

“I get what it feels like to struggle with math. I felt like I was able to break things down. Even though I wasn’t consciously following a path to teaching it was always there, a thread in the background. And in the end it made complete sense to pursue education.” You also lead the Dublin High Gael Robotics Club. For students not involved in robotics, what is it all about? Why are the kids involved in robotics so passionate about what they do?

Chou: “I think it comes down to problem-solving, the same things that have always attracted me to math and science. The students that commit a lot of time to the club really enjoy solving problems, and not just mathematical or technology type of problems. In addition to facing issues like ‘why isn’t my robot arm moving up?’ or ‘why isn’t this program working?’ they have to face problems on a social level including how to manage teams, how to get everyone on their team to participate, and how to resolve conflicts between themselves and other team members.

“For members of the Robotics Club it’s not just about applying what they’ve learned academically towards some application like robotics, but also growing socially.” A terrific example of problem-solving was the duct tape suspension bridge built by the robotics club students on the Dublin High School campus, over a long weekend, as part of Engineering Week in 2012. What did you take away from that effort?

Duct Tape Suspension Bridge

Duct Tape Suspension Bridge

Chou: “Pride. As a teacher you have a lot of little moments, when a student finally understands something. For something as large as the suspension bridge to be accomplished, a project you can actually walk across, made me so proud of the individual students and the program. The suspension bridge project gave students an opportunity to apply everything they’d learned from math and science in class, as well as apply the social and team-building skills necessary to build the bridge in three days, managing time, space and resources.” How do you feel about the first three years of the Engineering and Design Academy at Dublin High School?

Chou: “I feel like we’ve been very impactful, and I’m excited every day about what we do. I feel like we’re offering students an opportunity that I didn’t have when I was in high school, and many other high schools around the country don’t have. I feel like our students are very lucky to be in the Dublin School District, in a high school that is able to provide them classes like this. I also feel very lucky that I’m the teacher at a school like this, that we’ve been given this opportunity to do something great for these students.”

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