Half of McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology faculty are workplace experts and masters of their craft • Current Publications
At the McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology in Lawrence, hands-on experience is valued. That’s why principal Mari Swayne said up to half of her teachers – known as ‘workplace specialists’ – started their professional careers in the trades they teach.
Automotive instructor Randy Craig started out at a Chrysler training center in Cincinnati 18 years ago. Even then, he said the need for auto technicians was great.
“I was sitting there with 10 other auto techs, and we were looking around and the average age of a tech going through training was 50,” Craig said. “I knew at the time that there was a big void in this profession.”
Craig left the automotive industry after he began to lose the use of his hands. When he heard about the opportunity with the McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology to teach a craft he loved, he took it.
“I couldn’t believe this setup and how nice it was,” said Craig.
Craig became certified to teach, a process that took about a year.
“It was worth it,” he said. “What I look at these days is that our students can learn anything, but the world becomes a different thing when you get your hands on it. Tear that engine apart and understand all the parts involved, then you spec it, reassemble it, and get it running—that hands-on experience here is essential for them to get into the auto repair business.
Engineering instructor Elizabeth Sobota also had no intention of being an educator. She earned an engineering degree from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and worked in engineering before deciding to stay home with her children. Then she heard about the possibility of getting her teaching license and teaching at the McKenzie Center.
“It’s a good choice because of the schedule, and I can be home when my kids are home,” she says. “I was already involved here with the robotics team as a coach, and it was an opportunity to do more of what I love. I really like passing on this knowledge and making sure that there are enough people entering these fields.
“The future is hugely important for STEM jobs and there is a high demand, so I make sure the demand is met, and the students have the opportunity to learn from someone who really knows this information. .”
Cosmetology instructor Casandra Evans was also inspired to teach.
“It’s very rewarding because you have this moment to shape your industry,” she said. “My love for the cosmetology industry has turned into a chance to train stylists in the industry now. It’s hard but rewarding work, and I feel like I’ve left my mark on what’s going on in the industry and making sure I have good stylists working in the industry.
Gracie Sahm, an advanced culinary arts teacher, is one of the workplace specialists at the McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology, but she started with a teaching degree. Sahm majored in journalism and teaching English, but later entered the restaurant industry, where she worked for 22 years.
“I was lucky to get the education license, so the teaching part was easy for me,” she said. “The benefit of having 22 years in the restaurant industry helps with what I do here in teaching advanced culinary arts.”
McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology director Mari Swayne said having industry experts become teachers is beneficial for students, especially those who might not excel in a traditional school setting.
For example, in Randy Craig’s automotive course, a student may not like geometry, but may apply what they have learned in geometry to a task, such as reassembling an engine.
“(Craig) is a master mechanic. He’s been doing it for 30 years,” Swayne said. “He’s teaching these students, and even if there’s a kid who says, ‘I’m not good at geometry,’ he’ll show them, ‘You know you just did geometry. Together with the traditional teacher and our workplace specialists, he really does a great job of providing our students with project-based learning.
“Every day when I go to classrooms, I can walk up to any student and it’s clear they’re learning everything they need to learn.”