Connecting Industry to Classroom: A Conversation with Joe Carpenter, Northrop Grumman Engineer Turned Educator
As the nation recovers academically, economically, and emotionally from the COVID-19 pandemic, education and economic leaders have a unique chance to deepen existing college and career readiness work and to create new opportunities that connect young people to real, relevant learning.
Research shows that early access to career learning through work-based learning, internships, and career-technical education courses engages young people during their high school experience, keeping them on track to enter higher education and their community’s workforce upon graduation. Many schools in California and across the nation are leveraging the Linked Learning approach to bring real, relevant, hands-on learning to young people. Proven to engage students, transform communities, and advance equity, Linked Learning brings together rigorous academics, state of the art career-technical education, a continuum of work-based learning, and comprehensive student supports to prepare young people for college, career, and life.
It takes many components to bring the Linked Learning approach to life in a community context. When educators, administrators, families, workforce experts, higher education leaders, and community partners come together in service of innovating the high school experience, student and adult lives can be changed. One such example is the experience of Joe Carpenter, an engineer for TRW/Northrop Grumman. His story illustrates how one company, one teacher, and one school partnered to deliver highly rigorous and engaging experiences for high school students.
Joe began teaching at The California Academy of Mathematics Science (CAMS), a Long Beach Unified School District high school located on the campus of California State University, Dominguez Hills. Now a Silver Certified Linked Learning pathway, CAMS has been reimagining college and career readiness for many years. Joe taught one class per semester for twenty years while continuing full time employment at TRW/Northrop Grumman. In 2014 he retired from Northrop Grumman and took a full-time position at CAMS.
I sat down with Joe to learn more about his experiences teaching in a Linked Learning pathway, what drew him to innovative college and career learning, and what advice he has for others seeking a similar experience.
Cindy Bater: What made you want to get involved in teaching?
Joe Carpenter: I actually never did! But one day I got a call from the principal of a new school named the California Academy Mathematics and Science. Because of the secure nature of my work, there were always people trying to find an angle to get information from us… so I hung up on her! After several more calls and my own research I decided to meet with the principal. She was interested in getting industry professionals to bring authentic teaching, and they wanted someone to teach one class of Computer Aided Design (CAD). I never thought of myself as a teacher even though I had just trained folks at my work on CAD. When I asked about the curriculum and what she wanted me to teach she said, “teach what you do at work.” I agreed to try it for one semester. I never left. She empowered me then and that is what I try to do with my students now: empower them.
So, tell me a little bit about the arrangement. Were you still working at TRW/Northrop Grumman while you were teaching at CAMS?
I started teaching the one class in 1992 while simultaneously working at TRW/Northrop Grumman. I was given permission to take an extended lunch hour (2 hours) twice a week. I started out teaching CAD, and later I taught the 12th grade Engineering Design and Development course. I was able to use my industry experience to obtain an emergency teaching credential and eventually earned my clear Career Technical Education credential.
That’s amazing! What was it like to work in industry and at the school at the same time?
It was hard at first, with some long days on the days I taught, but it gave me fodder for what to teach in my classroom. I worked on a lot of DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] things that I can’t really talk about, but those experiences in my job inspired me to create the CARPA initiative: CAMS Advance Research Projects Agency.
Can you tell us more about CARPA?
I tried to create an internship-like experience and run the class like a business vying for a DARPA contract for the government program. When I went to college so many students dropped out of engineering programs because they didn’t really realize what it was about. It’s more than just going to Home Depot and buying a few things and putting them together and seeing how it works. There are so few opportunities for high school students to get an internship or engineering experience, I was thinking if I can provide that early on, they would get a better sense of the industry. So, the way CARPA worked was each team of 30 students would create a fantasy company. The students interviewed for the different positions, then ran their project like a business. I teach them project management, personality profiling to better communicate, that sort of thing.
Why did you focus in on those skills specifically in the CARPA projects?
You know, when I was at Northrup Grumman, the things we wanted from our college grads that we weren’t getting was the ability to collaborate on large teams, ability to network, information finding skills, and practical skills sets. At the time, about 57 % of engineers were over 50. We needed to get some new people in there and I always wanted to create opportunities where we could use my students to intern at Northrup Grumman. I wanted them to be interested in the kind of work we were doing, to have them work on their passion and their goals.
I know you assign a different CARPA project each year. What was one of your favorites?
Most recently before the pandemic shut us down, we did the Azorian Project, which was fashioned after the real Project Azorian, a CIA project to recover a sunken Soviet submarine from the Pacific Ocean floor in 1974. My dad worked on that project when he was in the merchant marine and I was always proud of him for being involved in the real thing, that kind of romantic, glamourous, sort of dangerous type of a job, trying to steal a Russian submarine. So for this CARPA project the students had to build a drone that had to fly 209.9 feet, land in a pool, submerge itself, swim around and pick up items of interest from a 3D printed plastic submarine, come back to the top, fly out of the pool, and deposit the items on the side of the pool. It was a very ambitious project. There were two teams and students had 8 months from concept to design, build, and present, typically to a field of industry professionals who have evaluated and given feedback on their project along the way. One team had a catastrophic failure the night before the final presentation: they incorrectly mounted a propeller, and it flew around and crashed into several pieces. The other team was wildly successful.
How do you see the pathway and your role as a driver for equity for young people?
You know the old proverb: give them a fish, you feed them for a day; teach them to fish, you feed them for a lifetime? I think that’s what we’re doing in this pathway: giving students opportunities that set them up for a lifetime. I think that the best way to do that is through project work like what we’re doing with CARPA and other projects. I also think knowing students’ stories can help you make a bridge, helping them cross over into the opportunity. You must have empathy and listen to their stories and knowing their challenges can help you make that bridge for them to cross over to better future. A lot of people come from tough situations, I think you must provide the students with opportunities and provide a situation where they can prove to themselves that they are capable of doing these kinds of things. That is why the projects are so outrageous, they need to sound impossible to the students when the project is revealed to them so when they complete 50% or 75% or all they will have that sense of accomplishments, they feel confident and can say, hey if we had a little more money, or a little more time we could have finished, we had to make some compromises—which is also part of life—and we could have gotten it done.
You are clearly doing stellar work at CAMS that I’m sure other folks will want to replicate. How can districts and schools make it easier for industry professionals to participate in the classroom?
One thing that made it easier to do at CAMS was that it was a small school open to experimentation and if something didn’t work, you could change it. There was a lot more flexibility than in a traditional school with regards to the school schedule and implementation of new courses that addressed the needs of the students and the school’s mission. The pathway model today is attempting to offer that flexibility. I think helping to streamline and support the credential process and allowing for a flexible schedule such as I had would really help bring others into the classroom. But you can also start small: maybe the professional comes in for one class on say 3D printing, or maybe pathways could develop courses that rotate the professionals in on a regular basis. That way they aren’t requiring too much of a time commitment from any one professional. CAMS did that through a 1 credit, 9-week class taught once a week. Scientists, systems engineers, mechanical engineers, geographers, and other professionals from Northrop Grumman took turns teaching the class with help from teachers at CAMS who facilitated the logistics of the class and helped with the design and delivery of the material. Long story short: invite corporations, give them opportunities, and make it easy for them to come. They do want to contribute but need to understand how and it needs to be made a lot easier.
So, Joe, how long do you think you will continue to teach?
Well, it’s been a wild journey… this is my 30th year at teaching at CAMS. As long as I can provide value, I’ll be here for the kids. They are the only ones who can provide a validation of what I do. They are the user. If I don’t provide value for them then I should stop. So, who knows?
Joe has had considerable impact on his students over the years. Many have gone on to earn full scholarships at institutions such as Harvard, MIT, Rensselaer, UC schools, and more. At least twenty of his former students now work at Northrop Grumman, and many more work in the aerospace and manufacturing industry across California.
Students need more of this kind of access to professionals. If we truly want to offer all students an authentic experience, we need more teacher-professionals like Joe, and more schools and districts willing to take them on. I am encouraged by Joe’s story and look forward to educators and industry professionals working together to bring equitable opportunities to all our young people and tapping into their vast potential.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.