West Hills engineering teacher up for statewide grant

Photo by Mary York. Kathy Worley opens up one of the CNC machines in the West Hills engineering workshop. Worley is a semi-finalist in the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools grant competition.

The old West Hills High School auto shop looks barely recognizable now. Its high-vaulted ceilings may be the same and there is a familiar echo in the large room, but the workshop has changed both face and purpose and great things are coming out of the doors.

For ten years, Kathy Worley has been building up the engineering program at West Hills and her efforts have paid off immensely, both in state-wide program recognition and in the successful launch of students into careers and other paths of higher education. 

To walk into her workshop now, the changes to the garage are clear. Half the room is occupied by tables and chairs where students learn how to sketch – later, they will learn how to use the drafting instruments. The other half of the work space houses large professional-grade equipment like CNC machines and 3D printers. Most of the equipment was purchased with grant monies, some of which recently came from County Supervisor Diane Jacob. 

But, easily, the most valuable resource in the department is Worley herself. 

“She always wanted us to succeed,” said program alumnus Nick Hammond, who now attends San Diego State University as an aerospace engineering major. “She really cared about our education beyond high school. Last year we took a college tour all the way up to Cal Poly Pamona. We toured Cal Poly, we toured the Harvy Mudd school, like four schools in total. That was really cool. I was eye-opening.” 

Hammond heard about the program as a Wolfpack freshman and decided to join the three-year pathway in his junior year where he began hand-drafting and isometric drawing by hand before moving to the more advanced computer programs as a junior. In the summer before his senior year, he got a full-time paid internship that gave him experience in an engineering room.

These hands-on learning opportunities, Hammond said, were completely a result of Worley’s resourcefulness in building their own engineering room.

“Anything that was available to her, she got and used for her students,” he said. “It was a great class to learn the basics of how to be an engineer.” 

Worley taught for 22 years at Mount Miguel High School in Spring Valley before starting what has become a decade of dedication at West Hills. 

This year, Worley is a state semi-finalist for the Harbor Freight Tools for Schools 2019 prize for Teaching Excellence, a grant that she has applied for every year. The essay-based, multi-round competition receives nearly 700 applicants every year and only 50 make it to the final round. 

“The last two years I think I’ve seen where they’re trying to focus, so I think that’s helped,” said Worley. “They talked about how to attract students to shop classes because shop classes normally get kids that aren’t going to college or aren’t the academic type. It’s trying to attract kids that are the AP/honors students also, while still meeting the needs of kids who say, ‘I’m not college bound,’ or, ‘I want to do military.’”

Worley does both. It might be easy to assume that Worley would have her hands full as the only member of the West Hills engineering department, but the self-declared “party of one” said she takes time to sit down with each of her students and figure out their plan. 

“Where are you going to be in five years?” she said she will ask students. “What do we need to do to get you there?” 

She said she does not try to push them one way or another.

“I have one young man, he’s not college bound,” she said. “He’s already gone to El Cajon Valley High School and he’s already got his first welding certificate. I’m not going to push him into college because it would be a waste of his time, a waste of money and it would frustrate him. He’s a hands-on guy. He’s continuing at the night school at ECV. He’s doing this program also, so he’s got a wealth of experiences. He’ll become a certified welder and make more than me in three years. That’s the way it’s going – the trades are huge.”

But Worley is trying to open up pathways for college-bound students to reach their goals more quickly. 

“Of last year’s graduating seniors, one is at University of California, San Diego for mechanical engineering, one is at Cal Poly also for mechanical engineering, one is at SDSU for aerospace, and four or five are at Grossmont and Cuyamaca because they want to save money and transfer, and to be honest a lot of schools like taking transfer students because they know they have the skills to make it at a college level,” she said. “We have a matriculation agreement with Cuyamaca college,” said the lone ranger of West Hills engineering department. “If they get an A or a B both semesters, they get three units of credit [at Cuyamaca] and get to skip the first steps of the engineering program.”

Hammond said Worley’s class set him up for success at university in ways he wasn’t expecting. 

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I know how to do all of this already,’” the college freshman said of his first mechanical engineering class at State. “I explained that I knew how to do programming on 3D printers and CNC machines. [The professor] was impressed and said ‘wow, that program sounds amazing, more high schools should have that.’” 

Worley said she received word from Hammond’s professor at SDSU shortly after this semester’s courses began.

“I got an email from the professor that night asking to look at the syllabi because he thinks it might be a waste of [Hammond’s] time, he already knows all this stuff.”

Although Hammond said he won’t get credit for the high school classes, he feels much more comfortable entering SDSU’s program with such a strong foundation already built in the material.

“It just makes this class easier,” he said. “I’m just going to fly through it.”

Hammond’s classmate Janidu Goonatilaka is attending Cal Poly Pamona, one of the schools Worley took her class to during their tour of engineering colleges. Goonatilaka said he joined Worley’s program to fulfill some arts requirements but that he was interested in the engineering pathway as well.

“Initially it was all AutoCAD and then we started doing machinery and it gave me hands-on experience and something to put on my resume,” he said. 

When Worley explains the program, descriptions of the equipment and the pathways are interrupted by hilarious retellings of in-class projects that relate to their machines or course goals – things like building solar-powered cars or a glider construction competition, which naturally leads to what might be described as educational chaos. 

“It’s not just sitting here at a computer, we actually go make it,” she said. “Our motto is ‘we make stuff.’ I tell them, ‘If you can imagine it, you can create it.’” 

Goonatilaka said he remembers the three weeks they spent building and racing solar-powered cars, carefully reviewing designs after each race. 

“There’s just so much that goes into that class that I think can be used down the road,” he said. “And the work ethic, she really helped us shape that through the projects she assigned us. It was very real-world, she gave us real-world scenarios.” 

Goonatilaka and Hammond both praised Worley as their favorite teacher, saying that the environment she built in the program was one that emanated outside the walls of the workshop, generating an excitement that had students spending the night at each other’s houses before heading out on a field trip.

“We still talk to Miss Worley and we’re going to go visit her whenever we can,” Goonatilaka said. “She’s just a really inspiring teacher. She inspired me to go down the path I’m going down, even going to this school was because of her.” 

Hammond said that Worley called him this semester to say that she was at SDSU for the morning. 

“I gladly got out of my bed and went down there and talked to her for like 30 minutes. She’s probably the only high school teacher that I’d want to see outside of school,” he said. “She’s super friendly, such a genuine person. She was never that teacher that would get mad at you if you did something wrong, she’d help you get it right. She really took time to bond with the class. There’d be times when we’d stay after class and just talk to her about our lives and how everything’s going. She was teaching me everything that needed to be taught, but by junior year she seemed like a friend.”

Worley’s goal is to continue widening the pathway toward engineering for her students at West Hills – something she communicated on her submission for the Harbor Freight grant.

“My hope is that by attracting more students, we’ll have to get another teacher in here,” she said. “They asked the question, ‘How do you measure success?’ and I answered, ‘that I wouldn’t be alone anymore.’”