Ellen Nightingale, 2016–2017 Trinect Fellow, learns true meaning of education

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February 13, 2017
Ellen Nightingale
Ellen Nightingale
Students in Erika Buckner's classroom learn how engineers design roller coa
Students in Erika Buckner's classroom learn how engineers design roller coasters

“It worked!” said one student in Jeff Wenke’s elementary classroom at Studebaker Elementary in Des Moines, Iowa.

Ellen Nightingale, a transportation engineering student from Iowa State University's Institute for Transportation, is at the head of the classroom, instructing students to first draw and then explain their response to the question: “What do you think engineers do?”

Hoping for an “ah ha” moment, she instead thought “oh no.”

One student had drawn his idea across three panels.The first showed an engineer looking at a river while asking “How will cars get across?” The engineer was drawing up plans in the second. And the student had drawn a bridge in the third panel along with a happy engineer saying “It worked!”

“You expect their answers to fit into a box, but sometimes it just doesn’t work like that,” said Nightingale. “For the amount of time and work put into this program, I doubted the impact I was making. But after really reviewing the drawings, it was eye-opening. The students were actually gaining a deeper level of understanding, which is even better than reciting a textbook definition.”

Wenke’s classroom was Nightingale’s first classroom placement as a Trinect Fellow, an ongoing Iowa State fellowship program funded by the National Science Foundation's STEM-C Partnerships. Currently, Nightingale is teaching in Erika Buckner’s classroom in the Downtown School, also in Des Moines. Serving as “resident engineer,” she teaches the students one full day every week, which allots time to develop what she calls “essential skills.”

“Although being an educator isn’t on my career path, there will be a lot of other opportunities for me to mentor and teach others in the future. Trinect helped me better understand that when I do teach it isn’t simply about getting out the information but making sure they are truly learning the content.”

Nightingale admitted that she learned just as much from the students as they from her.

“Adults and children both learn in similar ways. It’s about exploration and learning organically.”

She admitted that there are a lot of things that just aren’t known yet about the world, and she challenged her students to reach for the unknown. 

“For all of them, with hard work, study, and passion, nothing is out of their reach. I tried to tell them that—to not sell themselves short, because, in the end, they will be their own worst enemies in achieving their dreams.” 

Nightingale will continue teaching in Buckner’s classroom until the end of the 2017 school year. She plans to graduate from Iowa State University with a master’s degree from the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering in May 2017 and work for a private engineering firm.

For more information on Nightingale’s involvement in the Trinect project, see the story.

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