How Does That Work?

 In Partners Magazine
Bruce Elgort teaching a Clark class

Bruce Elgort launches popular open-source, virtual communities on his laptop at his kitchen table. He encourages his students to experiment with their ideas.

Bruce Elgort is a tech geek and entrepreneur. Though his formal education is in electrical engineering, he morphed into a tech guy early in his career. He also likes to talk. Mix his experiences together and you get an information technology wiz and software creator who likes to teach.

Elgort, 50, is used to training colleagues in the latest business software or presenting in front of an audience at IT conferences. He’s also right at home assembling IT infrastructures from scratch or peddling video monitors to Apple or Blackberry.

Equipped with an affinity for IBM technology, Elgort built a reputation for knowing his stuff in the virtual world because of software he developed.

By day he worked for Sharp Microelectronics of the Americas in Camas, Wash., supporting and training the sales staff —by night he pounded on the computer keys at home, building an open-source, virtual community.

Elgort and his wife Gayle Ujifusa formed a side business, Elguji Software LLC (a combination of their last names) in 2007 with a London-based business partner. The Elgorts have worked out of their home turning out software ever since. They have experienced low overhead and big margins, he said, something he encourages his students to explore.

Out of the open-source community experiment came IdeaJam—a platform for sharing, discussing and voting on ideas—basically a corporate social network. The software costs from $12,500 to $28,500, depending on the number of jams.

PricewaterhouseCoopers bought a copy in 2008; Ernst & Young, HSBC Bank, Tim Hortons and A&W followed.

Teach by modeling

You don’t always have to wait,” he tells his Clark students. “Instead of playing video games until 4 a.m., try writing software code or designing a website. What if you took that energy and spent an hour a night writing down your ideas and developing something?”

Elgort joined Clark College as an adjunct instructor this year after his friend and colleague Chris Martin, also a Clark instructor, told him the college had an opening for a general-purpose scripting language instructor. Armed with a master’s in engineering management from Polytechnic Institute of New York University and a bachelor’s in electrical engineering, Elgort grabbed at the chance to “get out of his comfort zone.”

Thanks to the support from Clark faculty, staff and a few conferences he’s attended while at Clark, Elgort has learned that “teaching is about demonstrating problem solving; it’s not about presenting.” Students find PowerPoint presentations dull; hands-on experiments or discussing fledgling projects are where it’s at these days, he said.

Elgort is getting support and mentoring from seasoned colleagues to help him develop his instructional techniques, while accessing professional development opportunities through Clark’s Teaching and Learning Center. The college is currently raising funds to support the center as part of its $20 million Ensuring a Bright Future: Campaign for Clark College.

Legally blind, Elgort once used a telescope to see the blackboard when he was in high school. Today, with the help of mobile devices and his knack for memorizing his surroundings, he has succeeded at teaching—after only six months on the job, Elgort received Clark’s Exceptional Faculty Award in June.

He comes to class, fresh off a conference call about a new idea he had while talking to a customer and tells his students about it. Together they brainstorm ideas and ways to make a product better. “The students appreciate hearing real-world business processes that I’ve got going on now,” he said.

Encouraging critical thinking

Part of making a product better, is to understand what makes it run. At its core, engineering is about how things work and why. Bill Wheeler knows a thing or two about how machinery works.

“If students get interested in why it works, then they’ll be an engineer,” said Wheeler, a former full-time engineering professor who spends a portion of his retirement teaching Clark’s thermodynamics course in the spring. “If something breaks and they throw it in a corner, then they won’t become engineers.”

Wheeler, 70, spent three decades as a naval officer working on ship propulsion systems before he landed at Clark in 2001. He learned from Tina Barsotti, chair of the engineering department, and other faculty members, that the key to capturing people’s attention about engineering is to start them young.

“You’ve got to get kids interested early,” he said, adding that making science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fun is what initially excites elementary students and triggers their imaginations.

Since he’s been teaching, Wheeler has seen a precipitous drop in the number of shop classes offered in middle or high school because of budget cuts or liability issues. It’s unfortunate, he added, because these classes are where students get to build and see how things work.

As a result, opening children’s eyes to STEM before they move on to higher grade levels has become even more critical, Wheeler believes.

Clark’s engineering department has clubs and regular events targeted at getting kids interested in how stuff works. Want to know how many pennies it takes to sink a miniature barge? Team up with the Not Even Remotely Dorky (NERD) Girls club when they visit local elementary schools to craft barges made out of aluminum foil to teach displacement. Or come to campus when Clark is the epicenter for the regional and statewide Science Olympiads or Washington’s Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) events that challenge students to test their creative and problem-solving skills.

No space to grow

The possibilities for thinking critically and discovering something new abound—but the space to test theories at Clark does not.

That’s because the college’s STEM facilities are cramped and in some cases, crumbling. Only two chemistry labs are in fair condition; the remaining chemistry, biology and other life science labs are in very poor form, with numerous mechanical and electrical deficiencies. The labs lack adequate plumbing, ventilation and technology infrastructure to support effective teaching and learning, according to Jim Watkins, Clark’s project manager.

A new facility must be built for Clark to train the influx of students expected in the coming years. In 2011-12, the STEM unit served more than 31,000 students across a variety of disciplines, according to Peter Williams, dean of STEM. That number is expected to grow as more jobs become available in those fields.

The Washington Employment Security Department predicts that the number of STEM-related jobs in Southwest Washington will increase to 16,849 by 2015 and 18,074 by 2020.

Construction of a state-of-the-art facility is set to begin in 2014, though funds are still being sought to augment state funding. The building will boost the skills of faculty like Elgort and Wheeler and help them provide a rigorous learning environment based upon innovation, collaboration and creative problem solving. Graduates can then enter the workforce or transfer to four-year institutions for advanced training.

Or perhaps a Clark student will write the next hot mobile phone application.

 

Clark's Bill Wheeler at an engineering fair

Left: “The quality of education at Clark College is excellent because the faculty is focused on teaching. So the students build a stronger foundation here.” – Bill Wheeler

Bill Wheeler, retired faculty member who still teaches thermodynamics at Clark, donated to the construction of the new STEM building. He also established endowments for nursing and engineering scholarships in memory of his parents, and in honor of his wife, Vera, who had a long career as an oncology nurse and teacher. He believes community colleges are the future models for accessible and affordable higher education.

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