Couple meld English, engineering
Arizona Republic
May. 11, 2006

Collaboration isn't new to Wendy and Bassam Matar. Married for 17 years, the Gilbert couple do almost everything together.

"You know how some couples are. The guy does the guy thing and the girl does the girl thing. That's not us," Bassam said.

This year they've added one more "together" to their long list of joint activities. The two teach an integrated English and Engineering class at Chandler-Gilbert Community College. It's the first time in the Maricopa County Community Colleges that engineering and English are being taught together. The class combines First-Year Composition and Engineering Problem Solving.

For years the couple have talked about the need for better communications skills in engineering students and the frustration engineering students felt in composition classes where they had no interest in the topics.

The couple began teaching the integrated class last fall.

The two instructors say students gain needed skills in both areas, and the students like the chance to hone the writing skills on topics of interest.

"Students love it. They are writing about what they like," said Bassam. And since communication is so important for engineering students, the class helps students with both disciplines."

In one assignment, students are given 50 index cards and some tape and told to make a prototype for dropping an egg from a high building. Students are required to write their design plans and a set of instructions for a second team to complete.

"The fact that Wendy and Bassam are husband and wife is actually a good thing, because they live together they have time to talk about things and make sure the lessons work together," student Juanita Jones said.

Students learn quickly the importance of strong communications skills, Wendy said.

Students often work in teams, and students have developed strong bonds as they work and write together. The students have become so comfortable with each other they often socialize outside of class with each other and have become good friends.

The Matars have made Gilbert their home since 1989. They bought the home Wendy had grown up in as a child.

Wendy moved to Gilbert when she was 9. She remembers when Gilbert was a small town and she could ride her horse to Dairy Queen and the library and leave her mount tied out front.

Bassam, 43, has been teaching engineering for the Maricopa County Community Colleges for 11 years, beginning his teaching career at Glendale Community College. Instrumental in beginning the engineering program at CGCC, Bassam started at CGCC in 2001 with just a few students. The program has now grown to about 125 students.

Wendy, 39, is working on a doctorate in English and is part of the school's adjunct faculty.

"Students are really attracted to these learning communities, such as the one the Matars have created for engineering students," said Maria Hesse, president of CGCC.

Working side by side inside and outside the classroom has its challenges.
The couple have their share of disagreements, but students have commented they like to hear an occasional disagreement and the exchange of ideas in front of them.

Teaching together has also allowed Wendy to learn things from Bassam.

"I have learned a lot from Bassam's 17 years of teaching experience," Wendy said.