Electrical Engineer Creates ‘Light Bulb Moments’ in Classroom

04.01.2012
Workforce

Tutor helps with energy-themed math, science classes

By Lesia Winiarskyj

Katie Connolly was that kid in school who could walk you through a quadratic equation.

An electrical design engineer with Hamilton Sundstrand’s air management systems division, Connolly admits she’s always been good at math.

“Teachers used to ask me to work with classmates who were having a hard time,” she recalls. “I liked helping others.” Little has changed.

Every week, when she’s not testing and troubleshooting aircraft air conditioning and pressure control systems, the 27-year-old huddles in small groups and one-on-one with students at Hartford’s Academy of Engineering and Green Technology (AoEGT). The students: 21 juniors and seniors: are enrolled in Mathematics of Electricity and Renewable Energy & the Smart Grid, two 15-week online classes delivered by Virtual High School in Massachusetts. This unique program is made possible by a grant from the Department of Energy to the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). Grant partners include the Electrical Providers Coalition for Education (EPCE), Northeast Utilities, and CBIA.

“This is rigorous, challenging high school work,” says Dayl Walker, a project manager for CBIA’s Education Foundation, which coordinates the grant in Connecticut. “It helps to have someone in the classroom like Katie who does high-level math and science for a living: someone who can demystify it for the students. She knows how to differentiate her instruction so that everybody understands. Everyone ends up on the same page.”

“I love it when students figure out the answer,” says Connolly, “when you see that light bulb go on.”

This is her second year tutoring at AoEGT.

Where the Jobs Are

The online classes at AoEGT, which are focused on energy-related concepts in math and science, are part of a broader program to prepare students for potential careers in the electric utility industry. Open to students with good attendance, solid academics, and a willingness to do the extra work, the program includes paid summer internships at Northeast Utilities.

“Significant job openings are anticipated in the energy sector as a result of retirements, system upgrades, and innovations,” says Tom Burns, director of training for Northeast Utilities and co-chair of the Connecticut Energy Workforce Development Consortium (CTEWDC).*

The combination of hands-on internship experience and virtual learning, says Burns, not only strengthens students’ understanding of key principles in energy and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) but also has them interacting with information in new ways. “They’re sharpening their problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication skills.”

“Many other countries outperform the U.S. in math and science,” says Connolly. “We as a country need to do a better job at giving students a reason to pursue and achieve in STEM. I hope my presence and assistance in the classroom shows students that the material they’re learning is important and useful.”

“It helps having an engineer to talk to,” says Jama Abdirizak, a senior at AoEGT, “because everything is about engineering in this school. I was struggling with some of the material. Katie explained it in a way that was clear.”

Erroljh “Raj” Barrett, a junior, agrees. “I wasn’t getting it. She helped me understand the terms. She has the background, because she is an engineer and has done this before. She broke it down for me.”

* CTEWDC works to ensure that a skilled workforce exists to meet the needs of Connecticut’s energy sector. CBIA’s Education Foundation brought together stakeholders from business, education, and government to form the CTEWDC. Consortium co-chairs are NU’s Tom Burns and Joe Ryzewski of United Illuminating, and CBIA’s Education Foundation is the managing partner.

Lesia Winiarskyj is a writer/editor at CBIA. She can be reached at lesia.winiarskyj@cbia.com.

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