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Engineering Real-life Problem Solvers

By Shannon O’Connor, communications coordinator
Upper School computer science and engineering educator emphasizes hands-on learning in the new applied engineering class.
Engineering provides solutions that make the world a better place. Misha Kutzman, Upper School computer science and engineering educator, emphasizes real-life, project-based learning of STEM foundations while consistently creating opportunities for hands-on student projects and meaningful collaborations in and out of the classroom. 

Ms. Kutzman started at La Jolla Country Day School in 2004, teaching physics, then math and computer science, before leaving to earn her master’s degree in applied math. She worked in the for-profit sector, raised a family, started a food blog, taught engineering at a local college, and eventually returned to LJCDS in the 2021–2022 academic year to join the Design and Innovation team. 

This year, Ms. Kutzman is teaching a brand new course: Applied Engineering. Enrollment interest was so high she filled two classes (one honors, one regular). The class is project-based, with a different unit for each major engineering discipline. Ms. Kutzman explains, “It’s an opportunity for students to do hands-on projects and develop their intuition by jumping in. We’re not just giving them career information and talking about these disciplines, ‘This is what you would do as a civil engineer.’ It’s more like, ‘let’s do a project that is something you would do as an engineering major.’” 

Students constructed balsa wood bridges in the civil engineering unit. “It’s kind of a rite of passage,” says Ms. Kutzman. “Our guest speaker was a bridge engineer from a top international firm. He spoke about some of his projects, his career trajectory, how he got there, what his day-to-day work life is like, and then he gave the students tips and pointers on their bridges.” In the electrical engineering unit, students learned basic circuit analysis, analog circuits, and how to build amplifiers, and they are now hooking up their own EKGs to monitor their heart signals. Next up are bioengineering, mechanical engineering and aeronautical engineering. According to Ms. Kutzman, the students are excited about designing airplanes and building a custom wind tunnel to test their prototypes.

Her best advice to students: “Don’t be afraid to be bad at something. Being bad at something is the first step to being kind of good at it.” She continues, “I think we tend to look for activities that come naturally to us. But especially with something like computer science and engineering, it’s a different way of thinking, and there’s a learning curve. I was not very good at first. But if you think it’s cool and you enjoy doing it, just keep doing it. Get more practice, and before you know it, you love it, and you’re kind of good at it.” 

Ms. Kutzman’s positive impact extends well beyond the classroom as an advisor to four student clubs and flex groups: Science Olympiad, Coding Club, Chess Club and the new STEM Learning Center (SLC). 

Students created the SLC after visiting San Diego State University’s Math and Stats Learning Center on the SD STEM Tours option during LJCDS’ Experiential Education Week. Ms. Kutzman’s connections at SDSU also landed a Coding Club collaboration with Professor Jérôme Gilles. Students are writing a Python toolkit for his image turbulence mitigation research project, with the exciting potential for publication of the students’ coding work. 

What’s next for LJCDS’ applied engineering students? “We are talking about possibly offering an advanced engineering class or maybe an advanced circuits class,” she shared. “There are so many students interested in engineering—some are entrepreneurial and business-minded and some are STEM students who want to major in engineering or computer science, so we’re giving them some of those experiences in high school. And many are starting in Middle School with courses like the wearable tech class.” 


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