Self-proclaimed nerd Dr. April Andreas, associate professor of engineering at McLennan Community College, marches to the beat of her own drum in every aspect of life. Whether she’s at work or play, with her family or her students, Andreas is passionate about what can be and not at all concerned with what should be. And that works out great for Andreas, her rocket scientist husband, Derek, and their two kids: son, Kivan, 8; and daughter, Branwen, 3. Theirs is a life filled with adventure and exploration.
WACOAN: Describe yourself in three words.
Andreas: I can only come up with two. Does this mean the interview is over?
WACOAN: You’re not getting away that easily.
Andreas: How about driven … passionate … happy … and awkward.
WACOAN: Hey, that’s four! Why awkward?
Andreas: I’m a giant dork. In college I was in marching band and the Society of Physics Students and stuff like that. So I can identify with all the nerdy students who come through the program. And I’ve become even nerdier, if that’s possible, since I’ve been teaching.
WACOAN: Tell me a little about your position at MCC. How long have you been there, and what do you teach?
Andreas: I came to MCC in 2009 to teach math and maybe a little engineering on the side. I started out with one introduction to engineering class, which very quickly grew into a full two-year program. There are now two of us working as full-time engineering faculty. Paulina Sidwell is an industrial engineer and fantastic in the classroom.
WACOAN: I didn’t know MCC had an engineering program. So it’s just the two of you in that department?
Andreas: Whether you are looking at civil, mechanical, electrical or other specialty engineering fields, we can provide the first two full years of an engineering curriculum. Between Paulina and me, we teach nine different engineering-specific courses, in addition to all the math and science that a student would need.
WACOAN: How many students do you have in the program? And where do the engineering students go after MCC?
Andreas: We have about 130 to 140 students at any given time. They can apply to any engineering program they want and enroll as a junior [after they graduate with an associate of science degree].
WACOAN: Has the program been successful?
Andreas: The last six years at MCC have been amazing. Our engineering program has grown about 35 percent per year since we started. We have been able to add all kinds of opportunities for our students. We have students doing undergraduate research on campus. We teach engineering economics as part of an international study abroad trip. We have students presenting at local, state and national conferences, and we have students earning coveted summer research positions at places like the National Institute of Standards and Technology in [Gaithersburg,] Maryland.
WACOAN: What brought you to Waco?
Andreas: In one word: Mars. My husband read a book called ‘The Case for Mars’ [by Robert Zubrin] back in high school, and that book has probably shaped our lives more than anything else. The book discusses human space exploration and the role of intrinsic motivation to push the boundaries of technology and imagination.
Back in the ‘60s, everyone thought we would land humans on Mars by 1980. Then it never happened. We waited and waited and waited. Then came SpaceX. Elon Musk started Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) in 2002 because he wanted to send a greenhouse to Mars to reignite public interest in space exploration, but it was going to be so expensive that he got frustrated and decided to start his own rocket company.
We started following SpaceX back in 2003, and when they set up the testing facility in McGregor, we just kept an eye on it and waited for an opportunity. Then in 2007 they put up a job posting. Derek applied and was accepted, and within a few months we were in Waco. As a ground support equipment (GSE) engineer at the SpaceX rocket development facility in McGregor, Derek gets to turn cow pastures into rocket test stands. He designs the structures and fluids systems to hold down and test components, engines and rocket stages.
WACOAN: Where did you go to college, and what is your degree in?
Andreas: I got a bachelor of science in pure mathematics at Southern Methodist University. I also got an M.S. in applied mathematics there. My Ph.D. is in systems and industrial engineering from the University of Arizona.
WACOAN: Did you always want to teach?
Andreas: My colleague, Paulina, said I was created by the universe to do this.
I’ve always loved the academic setting. Unlike most people, I actually love doing homework and puzzling through difficult concepts. I love the rhythm of the semester, setting up the syllabus, coming up with ideas for projects, everything.
I always tutored when I was in college, but I always thought I had to have a real job. Then I got one and realized it was a terrible fit. But once I got the opportunity to teach at MCC, it all just clicked. Teaching just made sense to me.
WACOAN: What’s the most interesting or fun day-to-day part of your job?
Andreas: I’m very lucky in that I get to have my students pretty much every semester for the entire time they’re in the program. That means that over two or three years you can really see them grow and fulfill their potential. And every class we move the bar a little further, make them stretch just a little more. I fundamentally love working with the students. I love being in the classroom.
WACOAN: What do you think makes MCC such a great asset to the Waco community?
Andreas: It was important to me to show that you can have an engineering program at a community college that rivals any four-year university in the state. Engineering has the power to transform lives.
By having it at MCC we are making this career accessible to anyone who has the brains and drive to see it through.
Maybe you don’t have the math skills when you start, but with hard work and determination, we can get you there. Maybe you have three kids and a full-time job and can’t go to school full time — we can help get you a solid foundation so that when you’re ready to take the leap and enter into a four-year program, you know you’re going to have what it takes to be successful. Unlike many beginning-level courses at larger institutions, our largest classroom only seats 32 students. At MCC you know you are going to get individualized attention and support to be successful. You just have to want it.
WACOAN: In what ways do you feel your job contributes to the greater good of education and the world? And is that something that’s important to you?
Andreas: Engineering is a field that changes lives. The classes students take with us translate to real world jobs and opportunities. Being able to build this program from the ground up has really given us the opportunity to do things we couldn’t have done otherwise.
For example, in industry you get a lot of wide-eyed graduates who earned straight A’s, but have practically no experience in actual design and real world analysis. At MCC engineering we give our students exposure to design in the very first semester. In every engineering class our students are practicing skills that are going to give them a huge advantage when they graduate. They’re developing and building prototypes, working in groups, writing design documents, presenting their research, even conducting their own research. This translates into being well-prepared to enter the workforce.
The work Paulina and I do changes lives, and that means so much to me.
WACOAN: If you weren’t in engineering, what other work can you see yourself doing?
Andreas: When I was little, I thought I might grow up to be a writer. I have a YouTube channel where I post videos about how to do math and science. If I didn’t work here, I’d probably spend more time on that.
WACOAN: What’s your work schedule like? How does it fit in with your life as a mom?
Andreas: My husband and I joke that our work schedules are very flexible — we can work any 60 hours a week we want. There are certain times that I just have to be in the classroom or in my office. This means that when the kids are sick, a lot of times Derek is the one who stays home with them. But then we have the summer and holiday breaks, which are great times for me to spend with the kids. I also can fit in the doctor visits, the dentist appointments, those kinds of things, a lot easier than he can. Also, I don’t teach on Fridays, so there’s a lot of flexibility there as well.
WACOAN: What’s a typical day like for you? What time do you get up, and when are you out the door? What’s your morning routine? What do you spend most of your day doing? And how do you close out the day?
Andreas: Derek tries to be out of the house by 5:45 a.m., so I’m almost always on duty for getting the kids up and going to school. At work I’m in the classroom, grading, advising students on classes to take, answering emails, doing committee work, all kinds of things. I joined the MCC Friday Band, and once a week I get to go play my flute and piccolo with them, so that’s fun. [Editor’s note: Friday Band is an MCC class that helps people who used to play a musical instrument brush up on their skills.] I turn into a pumpkin pretty quickly at the end of the day, so right around 9 p.m. I put myself into bed with Netflix and my cat, Edgar, before I crash.
WACOAN: What do you eat for breakfast? Do you drink coffee or tea or something else?
Andreas: This morning I had a Hot Pocket and Diet Coke, plus some soggy Froot Loops and the remnants at the bottom of a can of [Cheddar] Cheese Pringles. I’m the queen of nutrition, obviously.
WACOAN: That sounds yummy!
Did you ever consider not going back to work after having children? How did you decide you would continue to work?
Andreas: Kivan was born in October 2007, and Derek started at SpaceX in February 2008. Our old company supported me while I was earning my Ph.D., so I stayed with them until August 2008. I was commuting back and forth between Waco and McKinney for about seven months until I was able to join Derek in Waco permanently. I took off a few months, but then started at MCC as an adjunct in the spring 2009. By fall 2009 I was teaching full time at MCC, and it was great.
Staying at home was never a good option for me. I feel like I get all weird and forget how to function in society if I’m not forced to interact with people on a daily basis.
WACOAN: Is there someone who has inspired you in your work or your life?
Andreas: Derek inspires me. His trust in me gives me the strength to try things that may seem scary. He always encourages me in everything I do and helps me keep a level head.
We’re both the same [Dungeons & Dragons] alignment, [which means] we have the same general worldview on most important issues. And we work together in everything. The biggest decisions in our lives have always been the easiest because at a basic level we are both motivated by the same values. Derek is confident in who he is, and he knows why he is here. That’s inspiring to me.
WACOAN: Is Derek a hands-on dad? In what ways does he help you most with running your household?
Andreas: Derek does it all. You should probably be interviewing him for this article. Derek helps equally with the children, and we are both disasters in the kitchen. While I take on the mornings and getting kids fed and off to school, Derek tends to help more with the children’s bedtime routines. It would never occur to Derek to come home, put his feet up and ask for dinner. Unless he was trying to make me laugh, which he’s also great at.
WACOAN: When did you two meet and how? And when did you marry?
Andreas: I was in the SMU marching band [Mustang Band], and my best friend was Derek’s suite mate, so that’s how we originally met. He was also a math major (he did a double major with mechanical engineering), and we both had minors in computer science and physics. We were always studying together, and one day I just kind of had this realization: I’m totally in love with this guy.
We got married in March 2002. It was an academic-themed wedding — we had old textbooks opened up to interesting pages and handed out pencils, bookmarks and notebooks with important facts, like the Taylor series for sine and cosine.
WACOAN: Now that’s something unique.
Andreas: Yes. It was an official SMU Society of Physics Students event.
WACOAN: In the craziness of life with kids, how do you and Derek make time for each other? What do you like to do just the two of you?
Andreas: Derek and I have date night once a week. Our favorite spot is to go to Maker’s Edge and take classes together. We’ve done welding, metal lathing and some basic Arduino programming.
WACOAN: What’s Maker’s Edge?
Andreas: Maker’s Edge opened in downtown Waco last year. They have a wood shop, a metal shop, a welding and digital fabrication shop. You pay a monthly fee, sort of like a gym membership. It’s basically a shop class for grownups.
Also, I took a class with some friends called ‘Women, Wine and Welding’ where we made wine racks and then had a glass of wine afterward.
WACOAN: That sounds really interesting.
Andreas: It’s really fun to do something besides just dinner. We also get out of town together. Our anniversary is over spring break, so every year we go somewhere we’ve never been before together.
WACOAN: Where do you like to travel?
Andreas: When the kids were babies, we went to exotic destinations, like Houston or Wimberley. But we have also traveled to Greece, Scotland and Italy, to name a few.
WACOAN: Who keeps the kids when you are traveling?
Andreas: We are very lucky that both our parents help out a lot. Even though they live out of town, they’re willing to come in for a week and help watch kids, plan birthday parties, that kind of thing. Otherwise, a lot of this wouldn’t be possible.
WACOAN: How has motherhood changed your relationship with your husband?
Andreas: I don’t know that it has, specifically. We’ve always been full partners in life, and we still are.
WACOAN: Describe each of your kids’ personalities in a few words.
Andreas: Kivan is clever and kind. Branwen is headstrong and precocious.
WACOAN: Your kids have beautiful, but unusual names. How did you choose them?
Andreas: Derek and I love playing video games. When we first started dating, we played a lot of the game called ‘Baldur’s Gate,’ which is a game based off of Dungeons & Dragons. Kivan and Branwen are both names from ‘Baldur’s Gate.’ Kivan is a ranger in the game, and I always kind of liked the idea of my son growing up to be like Aragorn [from J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ series]. Branwen is a druid, and they cast a lot of spells. So when they grow up, I hope we can go adventuring together. In reality, Kivan is more of the druid and Branwen is more of the ranger. But, yeah, their names are from a video game.
WACOAN: Where do your kids go to school?
Andreas: Kivan and Branwen both go to Waco Montessori School.
WACOAN: How do you like Waco Montessori?
Andreas: I love it because the students stay with the teachers for three years, so they really get to know how the kids learn and can use strategies tailored for the specific child. I love how the older kids in the classroom help to mentor the younger kids, and how the children can work independently and at their own pace.
WACOAN: What are some of the ways your family connects when you can all be together for quality time during the week?
Andreas: During the week, things are pretty hectic, so it’s mostly one-on-one time. Derek is the den leader for Kivan in Cub Scouts. Branwen loves having girl time, where we snuggle on the couch and watch ‘Scooby-Doo’ after her dance class at Joy’s [School of Dance]. Derek will read Branwen a story at bedtime, and Kivan and I will talk about math or current events or anything else that happens to come up. In the evenings we play video games together.
WACOAN: Where could we find your family on a Saturday afternoon?
Andreas: Some Saturdays we just sleep in, eat junk food and watch TV. We may get motivated enough to have a Nerf gun fight in the backyard. Most weekends, though, we’ve got a lot going on.
In October we usually spend a weekend camping with a large group of friends and family at the Texas Renaissance Festival in Plantersville. For Labor Day weekend we rent a cabin in Oklahoma and spend time kayaking, playing Scrabble and generally relaxing. When we have a decent chunk of free time, we almost always spend it with our friends.
WACOAN: Do you bring your lunch to work or eat in the student center?
Andreas: I eat most lunches from vending machines and stuff I can keep in my drawer for months at a time and microwave on a moment’s notice. Queen of nutrition, remember?
I love the rare day when I can get away from campus to eat. My favorite spots are places with free refills and free Wi-Fi because I can get a ton of stuff done and no one knows where I am!
WACOAN: Do you cook often?
Andreas: I cook about twice a year, and it’s a big deal. We invite people over to witness it. Kind of like an eclipse, only rarer.
This is one of those balance things. Can’t be good at everything, so this is one of those things that takes a back seat.
WACOAN: When do you find is the best time to go to the grocery store?
Andreas: The best time is right before we run out of chocolate milk. But usually, it’s right after.
WACOAN: That’s hilarious, and I can relate!
What do you do to care for yourself physically and emotionally?
Andreas: The best way to relax is to really get away from it all, which is why we travel a lot. A few years ago, I took Kivan to New Zealand and Australia for a month. Derek joined us about halfway through.
In the spring, I’ll be going to the Mars Desert Research Station with research students for a week.
MCC is, as far as we know, the only community college to send students to the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah, to conduct their analogous research projects. Our students spend a semester designing their research projects and then conduct them as if they were living on Mars, eating shelf-stable food, wearing space suits, the whole thing. It’s a wonderful opportunity for MCC students, and we are proud to provide this opportunity to our students. All the other research crews are from places like MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], Rutgers [University], even crews from Japan, Belgium and Peru. And there’s MCC![After that trip,] then to Australia/New Zealand with engineering economics students for another 18 days. As soon as I get back, Derek, the kids and I are doing a weeklong road-trip with my parents to go see an international Mars Rover competition. Then Kivan, Derek’s dad and I are going to Space Camp [in Huntsville, Alabama].
WACOAN: Do you have any favorite, must-have products that you can’t live without, like a favorite lip balm or phone case?
Andreas: My TI-89 calculator and my hiking boots.
WACOAN: Are you into social media?
Andreas: I use Facebook to harass students about getting off Facebook and doing their homework.
WACOAN: Are there any areas in which you feel you struggle or wish you had better skills?
Andreas: I’m never going to be the woman who wakes up at 5 a.m. to go for a quick 4-mile jog to the farmers market before coming in to gather fresh eggs from the family’s chickens and make a quick breakfast from organically grown asparagus and quinoa. Honestly, I wish I had more time to play ‘World of Warcraft.’
WACOAN: What do you want your kids to know about being a person who can do everything she or he wants to do?
Andreas: I want my kids to lead a life of adventure and joy. I don’t want them to think they have to make fitting in a top priority.
WACOAN: When you think about your life, how do you prioritize the things that are most important to you?
Andreas: Everything is optional — really and truly. You may not like the consequences of not doing something, but no one can make you do it. That really helps me not get frustrated because it helps me remember that everything I’m doing, I’m doing it because I specifically chose to.
WACOAN: Is there anything interesting or unusual on your bucket list?
Andreas: I don’t really keep a bucket list because if I want to do something, I tend to just do it.
I have a Gantt chart in my closet where I keep a schedule of the big things I would like to accomplish. For example, in three years I plan to get a hotel reservation at the Marriott overlooking Times Square and watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve.
There are a few other things that aren’t on the official schedule yet, but are definitely in the planning stages.
WACOAN: Do you have a motto or a favorite quote or words you live by?
Andreas: Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.
WACOAN: What do you see as the most important job in your life?
Andreas: Helping people become everything they can be. This applies to everyone in my community, including my children, students, friends, husband and myself. I believe the best way to get what you want in life is by helping enough other people get what they want.
WACOAN: Is balance in your life something you think about or is it something you just do? Do you have to work hard to balance your life, or does it just comes naturally?
Andreas: It’s probably more like work-life integration. Just like there’s not a time that I turn off being a parent, there’s also not a time I just turn off thinking about teaching.
WACOAN: How do you practice flexibility in trying to balance everything?
Andreas: I guess I kind of gave up on the whole idea of balance because it wasn’t working for me. I don’t worry about things that don’t matter to me and just dive in 100 percent to the things I do care about.