While some students work on mapping electronic circuits in Karl Ruff’s
class at Roosevelt High School, Ruff asks others to get behind the
controls of their airplanes.
“What I’d like you to do is to go above Mercer Island at about 800 feet
headed south, and land at Renton field,” Ruff instructs the five
students in Aerospace Engineering. They engage their flight simulators
and take off.
Ruff’s innovative, industry-based teaching approach has earned him the
K-12 STEM Engineering Teacher of the Year award this spring from the
Puget Sound Engineering Council. Under his direction, Roosevelt is the
only PRIME-designated school in the state, meaning it is recognized as a
leader in manufacturing education by the Society of Manufacturing
Cleverly employing student leadership, Ruff juggles roughly half a dozen
courses in one period – and he does it five periods a day. In any given
period and in the same room, students may be enrolled in beginning or
advanced levels of Aerospace Engineering, Computer Integrated
Manufacturing, Digital Electronics, Engineering Design or Project
For each course, he asks students to elect a “subject matter lead” who
takes attendance and keeps track of tasks. Students even make the
classroom rules such as the hall pass policy.
“I’m in charge of curriculum and safety, that’s it. I’m not in charge of
the daily routines; they are,” Ruff says. “If you treat people in this
room like adults, they’ll step up.”
When Ruff isn’t pulling small groups aside for mini-lessons, he walks
behind the banks of computers, monitoring student progress on various
assignments and troubleshooting when students get stuck.
Ruff designed the system seven years ago when he ran into a big problem
at Roosevelt, shortly after leaving his 16-year career at Boeing to
teach. Back then, he taught two different courses offered in separate
periods, but kept losing students to scheduling conflicts.
“I went home and expressed my frustration to my wife, and she said, ‘If
you don’t have the [enrollment] numbers, then you’ve got to teach them
at the same time.’”
Now any Roosevelt student in grade 9-12 can take any of his courses
almost any period of the day. Ruff also advises four student clubs: the
Iron Riders First Robotics team, the Girls Rocket Club, the Society of
Manufacturing Engineers student chapter, and the Technology Student
In class, Ruff incorporates real-world software and scenarios as often
as possible, from having a student project-manage each class to
requiring industry-level professional presentations to something as
simple as cleaning. Each day, one period of students is tasked with
spending a few minutes cleaning the room.
“In industry right now there aren’t a lot of custodians. That is the
experience in the engineering and manufacturing workplace. You clean
your area. You just do.”