“I always had a great amount of respect and admiration for teachers and decided to become one,” said Oak Park resident Dan Burroughs. Not an unusual comment-except it comes from a 57-year-old, who, for 25 years, worked as a civil engineer for several top engineering firms, including Parsons, where he was often the project manager on multi-million-dollar projects in Europe, Asia and North America. But the prospect of teaching kept creeping into his mind. “I had a really great career that was very good to me,” he said. “Now it’s about giving back.”
Burroughs’ wife, an attorney, was supportive.
So in 2002, Burroughs waited until a multi-million-dollar project had reached a stage where he could take a break and he did just that. “I told the people I was working with that I was quitting and wanted to become a teacher-do something different,” he said. “They were surprised. No one had really done anything like that before.”
Since becoming a teacher, Burroughs has met other career-changers.
“It actually took longer than I thought to become a teacher,” he said. Burroughs enrolled at Dominican University full-time. “Despite the fact that I had a bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s, I still needed 17 additional general education credits,” he said.
He did his student teaching in Melrose Park at Stevenson Elementary, working with seventh- and eighth-graders. “I taught math and was really amazed at how much work teaching is,” he said. “It requires so much multi-tasking and so much preparation. I spent my weekends grading and planning.”
He landed a full-time for one year in Des Plaines at Friendship Middle School, teaching sixth grade math, science and social studies. For the past two years, he’s been at Komarek Middle School in North Riverside, where he teaches science and math to sixth, seventh and eighth-graders.
Burroughs brings many aspects of his engineering past to school. “In science I had them build bridges with K’Nex sets,” he said. The students also created truss bridges to demonstrate load testing. “I was surprised at how sturdy the bridges were that they built-part of the grading process involved seeing how much weight they could withstand. Some held more than 15 pounds.”
Another lesson in force, motion and gravity involved creating a container that could safely package an egg. “The students could make any kind of package they chose, then we we dropped the eggs off the top of the roof,” he recalled. “The egg that survived the fall was packed in Gummi Bears, something I would never have thought to do. I probably would have gone to the container store and bought packing material,” he said. “But the gummis absorbed the shock and then were a treat for the students who ate them.”
Burroughs also had students work with catapults during the study of projectile motion. “They used Mentos for ammunition, and some went over 40 feet,” he said.
Next, students will be challenged to build their own Rube Goldberg machines as part of a study of simple machines. “The students learned all the different kinds of simple machines and drew posters of them. I was so impressed by their drawings, I’m putting them into binders to make each student a book to keep,” he said.
He often refers to his previous career and his students are much more aware of engineering. “It’s interesting; I experienced working with minorities from other countries, but I rarely worked with minorities from America. It’s something I really missed and, through teaching, actively encourage all students to, first and foremost, choose a career and to consider math and science.”
He’s sensitive to the reality of “fear of math” and tries to offer additional support and esteem building. Burroughs knows firsthand that math and science don’t come easily to all students.
“Growing up, my older son was very accomplished at math and sailed through school easily, but my younger son was not mathematically-inclined and definitely felt overshadowed by his brother’s accomplishments,” he recalls. “He had a difficult time, and we weren’t sure if he would even attend college, but he pulled it together the last few years of high school; we are really proud if him.”
Burroughs and his wife have lived in Oak Park for 15 years. “We moved here from Colorado and really love it,” he said. Their two sons, now in their 20s, went to school in the village. “My kids went to Mann, then Julian and graduated from OPRF-it was a wonderful experience,” he noted. The older son is an engineer and the youngest is a psychology major at the University of Tampa.
Burroughs is continually delighted and surprised by his young students’ questions. “When the Minneapolis bridge collapsed, several students asked me if I had built that one,” he laughed. “I was glad to say I hadn’t.” Some of the projects he did work on were a $600-million bridge crossing from Prince Edward Island to New Brunswick and a bridge over the Mississippi River at Dubuque, Iowa.
But for Burroughs, that’s all water under the proverbial bridge.
“I’ll teach as long as I can,” he said. “Becoming a teacher was the right decision for me.”