Cory Kleinheksel: Improving education

Cory Kleinheksel is taking steps to improve education for future generations of students and teachers.

Cory KleinhekselCory Kleinheksel, an Iowa State Alumnus with a Ph.D. in computer engineering, grew up in the small town of Wilton, Iowa, where he was one of the few of his class to make the journey to Iowa State in 2004. When he arrived on campus to begin his undergraduate degree, he found a second family within the Iowa State University Cyclone Football ‘Varsity’ Marching Band and the dorms.

Kleinheksel knew he wanted to be a computer engineer, but he was not interested in research until he met his major professor Arun Somani, Sproul Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Anson Marston Distinguished Professor and associate dean for research and graduate programs.  As he completed his undergraduate degree in the fall of 2008, Dr. Somani encouraged him to apply for the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program and to pursue a Ph.D. at Iowa State.

While a Ph.D. student, Kleinheksel created methods to improve algorithms in the growing field of bioinformatics. He also worked on building an understanding of how all the nodes in optical networks communicate, and he created different routes for these nodes to connect.

One of the reasons Kleinheksel pursued a Ph.D. was to educate. During his time at Iowa State, he participated two programs that are exploring how to best incorporate STEM subjects into the classroom.

Symbi, a GK-12 fellowship funded by the National Science Foundation, includes fellows from Iowa State working collaboratively with selected middle school science teachers to leverage each fellows research experiences as they develop innovative and engaging science activities for middle school students.

Trinect, which is funded through NSF’s STEM-C Partnerships: MSP program, works to address the critical need for well-prepared elementary teachers to have confidence in and a commitment to engaging their students in experiential learning of essential scientific and engineering concepts in the early grades.

Both programs involve interdisciplinary partnerships across the university, local school districts and CBiRC, the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biorenewable Chemicals located on Iowa State’s campus.

During his time with Symbi, Kleinheksel worked at Meredith Middle School in Des Moines, where he decided to set the bar high and teach computer science. “When I began work at Meredith, I realized the students had a lot to learn. Many of them were just learning how to use Microsoft Word, so we had to get creative in how we would teach them a technical subject like computer science,” explains Kleinheksel.

Kleinheksel developed an interactive project featuring a robot, which he says was inspired by his experience with the FIRST® LEGO® League, an annual competition that has students researching and developing solutions to real-world problems. He secured funding for LEGO MINDSTORMS® robots that help teach the fundamentals of computer science by giving the students an interactive tool that they could see in realtime as they learn.

The curriculum was a success and many students found enjoyment in the class, so much so that all Des Moines Public Schools began offering the curriculum last fall.

His work with Trinect has made a personal impact. The program involves a student teacher, a public school teacher and an engineering graduate student all working together to understand how to more effectively teach STEM subjects. He says the Trinect triad’s cohesiveness comes from the incredible resources each person brings to the group, including pedagogical knowledge or knowledge about specific subjects.

“Working with Trinect has helped me with communication,” Kleinheksel says. “I’m better able to present my knowledge and background in interviews, and it has helped me explain the bigger picture of my research. In the end, I also have a deeper appreciation for teachers. They are in charge of the next generation of students, and they are doing important work.”

Kleinheksel received his Ph.D. this past May 2016 and has plans to begin full-time shortly after graduation.  His experiences teaching STEM in K-12 classrooms these past two years has had a tremendous impact on him and he looks forward to continuing to volunteer and contribute in the classroom in future years.