PLTW Alumnus Spotlight: Austin Laugen

For nearly 25 years, PLTW has offered transformative classroom and learning experiences for PreK-12 students. Now, many of those students are professionals in STEM fields. We recently reached out to several PLTW alumni to learn more about their educational and career journeys and find out what advice they have for current PLTW students. If you are a PLTW alumnus interested in sharing your story, we’d love to hear from you here.

Austin Laugen lives in Davenport, Iowa, and works as a Software Delivery Supervisor for John Deere. In high school, he completed the Introduction to Engineering Design and Principles of Engineering courses in the PLTW Engineering program.

In what grades did you participate in PLTW? What were some of your most memorable experiences from PLTW?

I participated in PLTW, a new program at my high school, from my sophomore year through to my senior year. I have a few memories like working for weeks on a Rube Goldberg machine for one of our projects, trying to design it so it’d work for my final demo, and touring Iowa State to present a project for a competition, thinking someday I might want to go there (spoiler alert – I did).

My senior year, a friend and I joined a CO2 car competition at the local university. A lot of other teams went for appearance and aerodynamics, but we decided it’d be better to reduce inertia. We focused on cutting weight while still creating a car that could survive multiple races, which our first test couldn’t do. Ours ended up working great and survived just long enough to get through the competition.

Because PLTW was so new, I was able to join our district’s advisory council as a student representative. I connected with lots of great people and worked on many fun projects. My favorite project was creating an engineering kids camp, which has evolved and still is held today – over 12 years later.

What did your journey look like to get to where you are today?

After high school I studied computer engineering at Iowa State University and interned three times at John Deere before graduating. I started off in IT, but really liked the idea of working on vehicles so I was able to move into engineering for my last internship. I worked on cars as a hobby growing up, so using software to control a big machine was enjoyable for me. I started my career developing software for combines. I spent about five years working on our header height control software, which included traveling to other countries to test combines and other platforms. I loved meeting with customers and reprogramming prototype machines to develop features to better meet their needs. I then moved into a project management role where I planned software for our X9 combine, which has recently gone into production. During my time at John Deere, I also completed the Systems Design and Management certificate program through MIT.

What is your current role within your company?

I currently work as a Software Delivery Supervisor for combines. My team creates embedded features for our grain and residue handling systems. If you see a combine in the field (– : They’re the big green ones out harvesting at the end of the season – everything that comes out of the machine is controlled by what my team works on. I supervise a team of eight people, planning what we’ll work on, as well as helping solve technical problems.

What did you learn in PLTW that still helps you today?

Since I’m a computer engineer, I didn’t take any classes on drafting, 3D modeling, etc. in college. I still use a lot of the skills from PLTW when I’m working on hobby projects. More than anything though, PLTW taught me how to work in a group and collaborate for solutions. This gave me a great taste of what the industry is like, and I still use some of the skills I learned in class.

Outside of work, I’m president of Quad City Engineering and Science Council (QCESC), a local non-profit focused on furthering STEM in the community. I met many of the connections I work with through QCESC for the first time during PLTW over a decade ago. I’m very thankful for the perspective I gained from the advisory council, and it’s fun to still work with some of those connections today.

Do you have any advice for current PLTW students?

I think PLTW provides a great opportunity to find out what you may want to pursue for a career, and to also round out your experience. You may not end up wanting to 3D model parts or design a building but understanding the basics of these areas will make you much better at other jobs too. A lot of engineering is cross-functional and the better you understand the other functions, the better you can network and complete yours.

The other part I’d recommend is thinking about where you want to make an impact in the future. Do you want to work on hard projects and contribute to innovations, or to help more people learn about STEM fields who might not otherwise have the opportunity, or do something else? What would make you really satisfied when you look back in 20 years? If you find a purpose that you’re passionate about, you’ll enjoy the journey so much more.