Amanda L. Hough was not a teacher by trade, she says.
With a degree in marine biology, she spent years doing research and development, a career that took her from Cambridge to Falmouth and presented opportunities like the chance to study cancer in the brains of zebrafish.
“I realized that I wasn’t necessarily where I wanted to be … and decided that I wanted a more human career,” Ms. Hough said in an interview.
Although her father had always encouraged her to get a teaching certification, Ms. Hough dismissed the idea she would ever take that path.
“I kicked myself because 10 years later, I was back in college getting my teaching certification, and my dad and I laugh to this day about it,” she said.
Now a teacher at Mashpee Middle-High School—and a 2018 finalist for the state’s STEM teacher of the year award—Ms. Hough says her students often ask why she left that career to pursue education.
“I’ve had so many students say that to me: ‘You were looking at curing cancer and figuring out why cancer does what it does, so why would you come start teaching?’
“And my response to them is always, ‘Well, I thought I would do a better job of affecting the minds of young people and promoting them to go into those fields, helping them see where they could go to maybe cure cancer.’ ”
The job of affecting students is a critical one, and for Ms. Hough, it has a lot to do with uncovering the real-world applications of engineering and technology skills.
She said part of her inspiration comes from a mentor at Plymouth South Middle School—her first teaching job—where Ms. Hough said she was a bit surprised to end up as a tech education teacher in a wood shop.
“I expected to become a science teacher,” she said, based on her background. “He taught me to be a hands-on, problem-solving teacher.”
“What am I going to teach you that’s going to help you succeed in your life? Not everyone that comes into my classroom is going to become an engineer, not all of them are even going to go into any STEM fields,” Ms. Hough said, “But at some point they’re going to own a house … or live in an apartment and something’s going to go wrong and they may have to use a drill or handle a power tool, or they may just have to problem solve … and they’ll remember the skills that they learned and how to identify what the problem was and research it and come up with some different solutions.”
Ms. Hough teaches courses in technology and engineering for students in grades 8 through 12, and she also works with the school’s competitive robotics team, a program that has been growing over time.
In the years Ms. Hough has been in Mashpee, her students’ work has taken them across the globe, from Laos to China and back home to the shores of Cape Cod.
How does a STEM class take you more than 8,000 miles across the globe?
Last year, Ms. Hough partnered with another educator who had brought a 3-D printer to a remote village, which opened the door for Mashpee students to send them designs for items they could not otherwise access: like tic-tac-toe boards.
Her class got to pose questions to a scientist in China, partnering with the school’s Mandarin students to translate their questions from English.
This year, 8th graders in Ms. Hough’s “Engineering the Future” class are working close to home, building lobster traps that are in line with all the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regulations for such devices.
It is a chance to hone their engineering skills and learn about an important local industry, Ms. Hough explained.
The students built prototypes with recycled plastic, but Ms. Hough is quick to clarify they will not be putting plastic traps in the ocean. Plastic is everywhere and often gets tossed in the trash, Ms. Hough said, but this project allows students to repurpose the plentiful (and free) material.
Once they complete their designs, however, students get to meet with industry professionals to learn what they would use to build the real thing.
Cross-age collaboration is important for Ms. Hough. Although she teaches students in grades 8 through 12, she always likes to find a way for the students to share what they have learned with the younger children at Quashnet Elementary and Kenneth C. Coombs schools.
For example, this year, Ms. Hough’s technology and engineering students are collaborating with 1st graders at KCC to build their own miniature golf courses. The 1st graders draw out a course, and the high schoolers use their skills to build them. They’ll communicate via Google Hangouts throughout the process, and when the building is complete, they will paint and design the courses together.
“I really truly believe that the best assessment a teacher can do of a student is to see a student teach what they’ve learned,” Ms. Hough said.
Her classes have also partnered with the biology department this year. The bio students were learning about enzymes but did not have an appropriate model, so Ms. Hough’s students jumped in to help out. They used a software program called Autodesk Fusion 360 to design a model of an enzyme and will print them out on a 3-D printer.
Her students’ project will now help biology students to better understand a key concept, Ms. Hough said.
“I love what I do,” Ms. Hough declared, “Where else can you say, ‘Oh, today we’re going to make pens’ or ‘Today we’re going to make ice cream scoops’ or ‘Today we’re going to learn why paper airplanes fly the way they do’ or ‘Let’s go launch rockets outside,’ ‘Let’s build catapults.’ ”
And she believes it is critical that this love and passion show through in class. Students can tell, she said, when a teacher wants to be there.
But for Ms. Hough, a mother of four, it all comes back to family. While she works hard at school all day, she goes home to a husband and her kids, to cook dinner and help with homework.
“I am a mom outside of school, and the hardest thing is, how do you balance both in life? How do you become a career woman? And without the husband and the parents I have to support my children, I wouldn’t be one of the STEM teachers, top five of the year.”
She also thanked Mashpee Superintendent Patricia M. DeBoer, MMHS Principal Mark L. Balestracci and Michael P. Looney, her supervisor and the director of career and technical education.
Ms. Hough was recognized as a finalist in the state competition during a ceremony at The Hall at Patriot Place. The Hall launched its STEM Teacher of the Year award six years ago, according to their website. Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft first announced the initiative during the 2012 Massachusetts STEM Summit at Gillette Stadium.