Bringing the Real World to the Classroom and the Classroom into the Real World

When Eva Fernandez, Project Engineer with McMillen Jacobs Associates (MMJ), an engineering, environmental, and construction firm specializing in underground water resource projects, was invited to share her career journey and day-to-day work with teachers at San Francisco’s John O’Connell High School (JOCHS), she jumped at the chance.

“Teachers are very important for a person’s career choices. My own career was guided by teachers I met in community college after I moved here from Peru. So, when I had the chance to volunteer and provide guidance to teachers, I wanted to do it.”

Fernandez was invited to contribute to a three-day teacher externship made possible through the SFPUC’s Social Impact Partnership (SIP) program. SIP invites private firms working on SFPUC construction projects to make commitments to the community, including volunteerism. The teacher externship, designed to help local public school teachers educate San Francisco students about utility systems, STEM, public service, and other career pathways, benefits from the expertise and time of many engineering firm volunteers. The program is developed in partnership between engineering firms MMJ and Stantec, John O’Connell High School, and the SFPUC.

Through the externship, JOCHS teachers learned about engineering firms working on local projects, the role of the SFPUC in those projects, what day-to-day work looks like on engineering projects, and a little about the personal career journeys and experiences of those in the industry.
Fernandez’s motivation for volunteering stems from meaningful personal experiences with teachers during her own educational journey.

Eva Fernandez, Project Engineer with McMillen Jacobs Associates, with her two children.

“When I moved here from Peru, I had to start over. I did adult school, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and then community college before transferring to U.C. Berkeley. I had a calculus teacher who always paid attention to me and guided me. When he learned I wanted to study engineering, he asked me which kind. He pushed me. In his mind I could do something harder, and I believed him. It took me almost eight years, and I was much older than many of the students around me, but I did it,” said Fernandez.

Beyond the teacher externship, the SFPUC’s SIP program also creates opportunities for engineering firm representatives to connect directly with students at JOCHS and bring their real world job experience to the classroom. This partnership benefits JOCHS’s model to prepare students for careers in utilities and other professional pathways outside of the traditional four-year college route.

MMJ engineer Kush Chohan shared, “We chose JOCHS because of a [SFPUC] project that we are working on is literally a block and a half away from the high school. The students live and walk through that project area and will be impacted by it. So, we wanted to use the benefit of that project and apply the STEM concepts they are learning in school and tie those things together. We can show them how a lever might work or how you can use building blocks to demonstrate physics and engineering. For them, it is a real life laboratory where they can learn.”

JOCHS physics teacher Maurisa Thompson explained, “We really want the kids to see real world connections between the science that we are learning in textbooks or through labs and how people actually use it in everyday life to solve problems. JOCHS is a tech focused school, so a lot of our students come here with the expectation that we’re going to help them with opportunities, high school internships, and connections to other industries here in the City.”

Chohan’s own personal career journey is a testament to the impact of such outreach.

“I grew up in a poor farming community here in California,” said Chohan. “I was interested in STEM, but I didn’t think I was smart enough or that there was opportunity for me. People that came and talked to me about STEM had the biggest impact on me. I want to have that same impact on someone’s life.”

Chohan, whose parents are Indian immigrants, explained how the externship at JOCHS helped him to “pay it forward.”

“I got to work with a young student [who was] also from an immigrant family and I got to work with him hands on,” said Chohan. “He got to see someone who looks like him, who came from the same background and language, be successful in the community.”

Fernandez agrees that the impact is mutually beneficial. “I felt happy and proud [to volunteer] because one of the things I wanted to highlight is how important teachers were in my career. I wanted to pass that message along,” said Fernandez.

Eva Fernandez was invited to share her career journey and day-to-day work with teachers at San Francisco’s John O’Connell High School.