Q & A with Alumnus Ed Hernandez ‘91

Dec. 14, 2016 - Ed HernandEd Hernandezez, an engineering teacher at Tustin High School, was named the 2015 California Career and Technical Education Teacher of the Year by the Association of College and Technical Educators and the 2014 High Impact Teacher of the Year in STEM by Project Tomorrow, an Irvine-based organization that supports educational excellence in STEM. He earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science in 1991. Ed is a first-generation college graduate who is now using his experiences to help a new generation of college hopefuls achieve their goals.

Q.  How and when did you know you wanted to be an engineer?

I’ve always been fascinated by technology and how things work.  I’m naturally curious so engineering seemed like the perfect way to satisfy that curiosity. I had very little career counseling in high school; in a way I was lucky to have chosen the right field for me.

Q.  Why did you choose UCI for your college education?

I was accepted at a few other universities, including a couple of the larger UC schools. However, I felt comfortable the minute I arrived at UCI. It is still a large campus but the circular design made everything seem closer and more inviting. In 1986, UCI was not known for its engineering programs but I took a chance and was not disappointed.

Q.  What was your biggest challenge as an engineering student? What were your strategies for overcoming it?

As an incoming freshman, I was completely unprepared for the academic rigor of engineering. I did well in high school so I thought, “how hard can this be?” Well, I was on academic probation my second quarter at UCI!  I quickly realized that working with others was the only way to succeed. I gradually developed a routine and work ethic, and I also adopted the “five-year plan.” My grades improved steadily all the way to graduation.

Q.  Favorite class or professor at UCI?

Special Relativity, the last class of our five-course introductory physics sequence. It is about what happens as you approach the speed of light. Mind-blowing stuff.

Q.  Favorite UCI memory?

Definitely the dorm experience. I encourage all of my students to live on campus if at all possible. Living under the same roof with a bunch of young, bright and equally motivated peers was amazing. From study sessions to social events, it was really a home away from home.

Q.  Describe your role at Tustin High School.

I teach Engineering Principles, Product Design and our Engineering Capstone course. In addition, as director of the T-Tech Academy of Technology & Engineering, I manage the logistics involved with the development and maintenance of our STEM program.

Q. Why did you go into teaching?

After working in the semiconductor industry for 13 years I no longer felt passionate about my work. I still loved technology, but felt that I belonged elsewhere. I began pursuing my master’s in education at night and quit my job to do my student teaching. It was definitely a leap of faith but it has proven to be the right move – I look forward to going to work every day; not everyone can say that.

Q. How would you describe your teaching approach?

My experience in industry shaped who I am and the way I teach. As a result, I bring technology and real-world applications to what is traditionally a drab curriculum. As students we’ve all asked “When am I ever going to use this math and science stuff?” I can actually answer that question! I also have to realize that I wield an incredible amount of influence over my students’ choices and outlook on life. I try to put myself in their shoes and give them the same advice I would give my younger self.

Q.  Speaking of that, if you could give your college self some good advice, what would it be?

First I’d tell him that he is not as smart as he thinks he is. Then I would tell him to surround himself with as many smart people as possible and learn everything he can from them. And work on your communication skills, they are horrible. Oh, and take some golf lessons, in a few years you’ll be glad you did.

Q.  Proudest moment as an engineer and/or teacher?

I’ve guided a number of my students to pursue engineering at schools throughout the country and of course, UCI. I am super proud of my role in inspiring those students, but sometimes it is the unexpected successes that stand out. Last year I got an email from a former student thanking me for inspiring him to pursue a career in aerospace. He is now working for NASA. Wow.

Q.  What are some of the most challenging aspects of your job?

Teenagers can be …well… challenging to work with. But we’ve all been there, and I have to remind myself that I also thought I knew everything back in the day. Keeping your cool and delivering your message in spite of all the teenage angst and drama is tough. Interestingly enough, it is the parents of my students who sometimes pose the biggest challenge.  I can probably write a book on that.

Q. What are some of the most rewarding?

As sentimental as it may sound, a teacher does have the ability to make an immediate, long-lasting impact on the lives of his or her students. I’ll never make the kind of money that I used to make in private industry but I do get to make a difference.

Q. What can you share with us about the next generation of STEM learners?

It is finally cool to be smart. Students are being introduced to STEM in grade school and are given the opportunity to explore technology at a much younger age. Technology does not intimidate them! I hope this brings about a cultural shift where students are drawn to math and science because they can see the applications and pursue jobs, not just in engineering, but throughout technology.

Q.  How do you spend your free time?

I like to spend time tinkering in my garage, making gadgets and gizmos, and fixing things that don’t need fixing.  I also started playing golf a few years ago and got hooked.  Of course, being the geek that I am, I make my own clubs! 

Q. Are either of your parents engineers?

I was the first one in my family to graduate from high school so the whole world of higher education was new to me.  I have two younger sisters who luckily followed in my footsteps and also graduated from college. My youngest sister is a mechanical engineer who now works for Tesla Motors.

Q. Anything else you’d like to mention?

It is entirely possible to major in engineering and have a social life!  You just have to make sure to manage your time wisely and realize that you will have to work just a bit harder than most.  OK, a lot harder – but it is worth it.

- Lori Brandt