By the time Jason Roth earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, he had already worked with Formula 1 race-car engines and jet-engine tubing at Pratt and Whitney. However, after assistant-coaching a high school football team led to a job substitute-teaching welding, woodworking, and CAD, Roth decided to forgo engineering for education.
“I often say, ‘Try it; you just might like it,’” Roth says. After his undergrad degree, the perpetually busy Roth taught Project Lead the Way courses, which introduce grade schoolers to high-level applied science and high school tech-education classes—all while coaching football and earning a master’s degree in technology education from Ball State University.
Nine years ago, Roth joined Ivy Tech, Indiana’s 32-branch community college, which offers some of the best Building Information Modeling (BIM) and manufacturing-design programs in the state.
As an assistant dean at Ivy Tech, Roth has redesigned his department’s classroom to resemble a collaborative makerspace complete with 3D printers, laser cutters, and other shop tools. He’s also working to bring Ivy Tech’s Design Technology curricula to remote students in a Gonaïves, Haiti, K–12 school via a live Google Hangout feed so that those students can earn a living wage and take an active role in building their communities.
“Sometimes we give so much to Haiti but don’t allow them to do their own thing and to help themselves,” Roth says.
Why did you feel the need to change your traditional classroom into something like a real-world lab?
Three years back, my Ivy Tech colleague Jamie Hamilton and I said, “We need to make a change, or we’re going to get left behind technologically.” So we put together a plan with a lot of creative things that aren’t normal in the school: bright colors, experimenting with pods of computers instead of rows of desks, and making it a place to feel at home. We instantly found that it works.
But our space isn’t very big, so we had to decide what technology to teach and if we needed industry-size versus tabletop-size machines. Indiana is big on small manufacturers, and they’re moving more to 3D-scanning inspection and 3D printing.
The industry’s hardware and software is advancing so fast, how tough is it to keep up?
In addition to the proprietary software that all 3D scanners and 3D printers have, we have to know Autodesk Revit, AutoCAD, Inventor, Navisworks, and others—but our bandwidth is too low to be experts on everything. We transitioned more courses to Autodesk Fusion 360, and it definitely helps students understand the other software better—how you go from 2D to 3D to physical space. But in the end, a line is a line, a circle is a circle, a cube is a cube, and how we teach that makes a difference.
How did all that work pay off with students?
When we went to these pod-based classrooms, I think they realized there were other students in the class. They actually started talking to each other. That let us enjoy the diversity among the students and have some really cool conversations and collaborations between students.
One day in our second semester of the open lab layout, after lecturing, when I’m usually walking around answering questions, they were all talking to each other and answering each other’s questions. They were collaborating. As the instructor, I had nothing to do. I just kind of sat in the back of the room having this “aha” moment—you know, a tear-shed-down-the-eye-type thing, thinking: “This is working. This is why we did this.”
Can you describe the challenge of wearing the different hats of assistant dean, professor, career counselor, and so on?
Because of my assistant-dean position, I’m down to teaching two classes: a face-to-face statics and engineering course and an online portfolio-prep course, which is really a career-readiness course. But then I have several independent studies doing specific projects. I also help with equipment issues: purchasing new materials, making sure students have everything they need and instructors have what they need. And I have meetings all the time trying to figure out issues with machines or software in the lab, fixing equipment, helping students, whatever it may be. That’s the struggle!
And you help connect hiring companies to students?
We work with employers daily and have a career-development department on every campus. From all our outreach, I think companies have finally realized we’re teaching what they need. They may not need a four-year engineering graduate.
We also instituted a reverse career fair every spring, where the students have a booth and the employers come around to them. Of 15 students last semester, all but two got an interview within two weeks.
What are the most important skills you try to impart to students looking to be hired?
One, they can show up on time. It’s funny; if we talk to an employer for an hour, a good 30 minutes of that is about “soft” skills: Can they communicate? Show up on time? Can they work independently?
Digital literacy is another one: understanding cloud basics, proper file-saving techniques, et cetera. With millennials, a lot of students just use phones and tablets. They’re rarely on actual PCs, so we’re coaching that a little more.
The other skill is learning certain software. We’re very big in the architecture, engineering, and construction space, which includes a lot of Revit and Navisworks. Architectural companies are starting to use Fusion 360 to create 3D families and then bring them into Revit families to make it easier.
How can education and industry work together better?
Two-way communication. It can’t just be the industry saying what education should do. We try to teach them that employees don’t need two years of experience or a four-year degree in a lot of cases. We talk to HR departments, as well, and tell them our success stories.
What’s been your most rewarding experience at Ivy Tech?
We changed our program from top to bottom, including the lab redesign, how we teach, and the technology involved. Putting that together and seeing it happen after three years was a big triumph.
We have to do things the right way and make sure students aren’t left behind, but we can’t be afraid to fail. Our administration supports our failing, as long as we back it up with an informed plan and don’t bite off more than we can chew. The best laid plan is not often the first one.
What has kept you motivated throughout your career to keep putting in the long hours?
I have a passion for the industry and appreciate the technology of the past, present, and future. I also have a real passion for when a student finds something they love to do. That drives the hell out of me.
I really got into teaching so I could be a football coach. Then I fell in love with the teaching side: the trials and tribulations and the successes and failures. I just soaked it in. I’ve brought a lot of the skills from 18 years of coaching football into the classroom to teach design technology. That always sounds odd to say, but it’s true.
Redshift’s “The Real Life” series reveals the trials, triumphs, and truths of being an architect, engineer, contractor, designer, or educator. Since his interview with Redshift, Roth has accepted a position with Autodesk as an outreach liaison for higher education.