University of South Carolina

Mastering the art of teaching

By Steven Powell, spowell2@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-1923

The state of South Carolina has become a magnet for modern manufacturing centers, from BMW to Bridgestone to Boeing. That kind of technically demanding commercial production requires a sophisticated, highly educated workforce.

Donn Griffith is helping the state meet that demand. He began a teaching career in secondary education more than 40 years ago, and today he serves as the director for a teacher training program in the College of Engineering and Computing at USC, working with both students and the teachers who will introduce them to the challenging engineering foundation they’ll need to excel in a high-tech economy.

Griffith has had a wide-ranging career, involving teaching as well as putting the principles he teaches into practice. After earning an associate’s degree in commercial art from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Griffith served three years in the military, including 13 months in Vietnam. Upon discharge, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the California University of Pennsylvania and took a job as a high school teacher.

“I taught metal shop – we called it industrial arts back then – for 10 years,” Griffith said.

That was just an early step – and an instructive one – in a varied career. Griffith later moved out of education, working as an engineer for F.L. Aerospace Corp. in Greenwood, S.C., and doing consulting work as an engineer for Ford and several other firms.

His background as a teacher served him well in engineering.

“As a senior manufacturing engineer, my responsibility was to bring in new technology that would make the process work better,” said Griffith. “The whole concept was to answer the question, ‘How do we improve the way we’re doing things?’”

His colleagues with pure engineering backgrounds could successfully identify new equipment that would streamline a work flow, but they often overlooked something very important: training.

“What many engineers don’t realize is that somebody has to run the new technology,” said Griffith. “And that’s where many of them would fail – they never built in any kind of training. Because I started out in education, I know that somebody’s got to learn how to run a new machine, and it takes time. Even if you’re dealing with robotics, everything has to be programmed.”

Training was frequently part of Griffith’s job description in his work as an engineer, and his skills at making training work for his companies brought him success at many stops – sometimes too much, in fact. In the mid-1990s, he was offered a substantial promotion to take over the training for two additional plants for F.L. Aerospace, thanks to the success his program had enjoyed at one plant.

But Griffith turned it down, and instead took a much-less-lucrative position as a school-to-work coordinator for the Anderson County, S.C. school districts. The reason was simple: he had a child starting first grade, and he didn’t want to miss out.

“With my son I was the T-ball coach, I was the 8-and-under coach, I taught Sunday school, and when he was in middle school I was on the school improvement council and president of the PTO,” said Griffith. “I was involved in everything, and that meant a lot to me.”

His return to pre-college education also soon led to Project Lead the Way (PLTW), the engineering curriculum for secondary and high school students that he now oversees as program director at USC. “At that time, South Carolina was looking for a pre-college engineering program to adopt,” Griffith said. “B.T. Martin, with the South Carolina Department of Education, put together a group of educators to look at what was available, and we found Project Lead the Way, which was brand new.”

Griffith became a PLTW teacher at the F.P. Hamilton Career Center in Seneca, S.C., in 1999, and was hired in 2006 to run the teacher training program headquartered at USC. The training program has since become one of the largest in the country, training 300 teachers this summer in 29 courses.

Funding from BellSouth to implement PLTW in 1999 also enabled the startup of the FIRST Robotics and FIRST LEGO League, two engineering-based competitions that drew competitors from throughout the state. “That gave us both a curriculum and an extracurricular activity for kids to be engaged in,” said Griffith. “In a competition, there are real consequences – you win, or you place, or you don’t.”

But having his students find success, whether in the classroom or in competition, isn’t Griffith’s sole goal as a teacher.

“I feel it’s important to instill a sense of responsibility and purpose,” Griffith said. “You can just go through life and pass those items by, without really thinking about them.”

For five years, Griffith taught University 101, and he enjoyed getting his students involved in mentoring. “We would partner with teachers in high schools in the area, like Keenan or Columbia high school. And in September our class would meet these high school students – and these were first-generation college-bound students, no one in their family had ever gone to college,” said Griffith. “I know this whole college application process is a nightmare for anyone, and if you don’t have a parent who can mentor you through it, forget it.”

The U101 students would communicate with the high school students over the next month, whether by cell phone or Facebook or texting, then meet in November and talk in person again about the application process.

“I remember one young lady in particular from Atlanta, I ran into her at Bi-Lo the next year, and she said it was one of the best experiences of her freshman year,” Griffith said. “She was still in touch with the student that she was mentoring, and had helped get him into college.”

Teachers were the source of some of the most memorable examples in Griffith’s life, and he’s seen fit to try to serve as a role model as well.

“I guess I was just lucky to have very influential educators in my life. That’s what keeps me here,” Griffith said. “I can remember what it was like at this age. It’s like the whole world is your palette. I remember having the dreams of all the things that you’re going to do – and to still be a part of that, with the kids I’m working with here, is very exciting.”

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Posted: 07/15/13 @ 8:00 AM | Updated: 07/10/13 @ 12:25 PM | Permalink