Dec 20, 2010

Thoughts while putting up the tree

Another story of failure... sort of

Christmas time is very nostalgic in my family. Our tree, rather skinny and pathetic by modern standards, has been in the family for just about 40 years. It's an old style artificial tree - with prickly needle bunches, protruding from prickly branches, and pressed into metal holes in the not-to-scale tree trunk. Without garland, lights, and ornaments, it reminds one of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, only taller. With the 1970's lights and decades of ornaments, it creates a charming picture, that perhaps only a family member can appreciate.

As Mom and I were carrying the tree box up the stairs, I asked her if she was going to take the tree when she moved from the house next year. "Yes!" she said, a surprised look on her face. "I will keep this until it disintegrates."

With such fierce loyalty to a tree, you can imagine the degree of loyalty my parents show to their own children. As typical Chinese parents, they had no illusions about us: We talked too much and we needed to work harder. And they always wondered if we really worked as hard as we could (no matter what grade we got). But with all their criticisms, when it really came down to the wire, Mom and Dad were there for us, with the ferocity of lions.

Take when I was in 3rd grade. After finally conquering the 2nd grade speed tests, I proceeded to turn in flaw-filled multiplication homework. Again, the teacher told my mother, I didn't know how to do math. Mom, a bit irritated with the whole thing, told her to test me. I was pulled aside from class and given a series of flash cards. I got performance jitters but apparently answered correctly enough times to verify that I did know how to multiply and divide. However, my poor homework grades were still a mystery.

Mom, not giving up on me, watched me as I did my homework. She had me talk out loud about what I was doing, verifying that I multiplied correctly. However, when my answers came out incorrect yet again, she looked closer. Mom, with her practiced eye, saw that my numbers were all misaligned. I was adding up the wrong numbers. She arranged for me to use graph paper so that I could keep my numbers straight. If it weren't for her loyalty to me as an intelligent student, I would have been branded as a poor one, especially in math.

Mom, a chemistry professor, was as equally demanding on her students as on her children, but she supported them with as much ferocity as she did us. I think that is why they always tried their best for her. I try to do the same with my students.

Loyalty is about making sure the people you care for gets what they need, not necessarily what they want. The trick is how to provide high goals, support, and care all at the same time. Mom never hesitated to give me a good dressing down when I was behaving badly. Like the time in 6th grade when I, for some reason, thought I didn't need to turn in a library assignment because it was "stupid." I ended up with a B that term and had to explain how that could happen. Wow, I never knew Mom could scold me so severely. That was when I learned the hard lesson that sometimes things I thought were stupid still needed to be done - and if it was stupid, then there was no reason I couldn't get an A on it, she added.

Logical, demanding, and loyal. Those were my mom's characteristics as a teacher and as a mother. I only hope that I can continue that tradition with my students and loved ones.

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Nov 25, 2010

Math and Thanksgiving

One of the failure stories...

When I was in 2nd grade, I failed every math test I took.

I feel we need to take a moment to discuss what this meant: Many students believe that "failure" is anything lower than what they want (usually an A). By definition, failing a test is getting less than 60% correct.

I was scoring 4 out of 100 questions correct on many of my tests. Yes, that's 4%. I rationalized to my parents, that it wasn't that bad because I only answered 8 questions.

As two physics and math double majors themselves, my parents were not appeased by a performance of 50%. They quickly moved into action: I recall parent-teacher conferences, some heated discussions about whether a timed test was a good measure of mathematical ability, some comments about how I still used my fingers and whether that was an indication of ability... but it still came down to the fact that no matter how it was sliced, I was failing math. Truly an emergency in my family.

To their credit, my parents approached the problem in a very systematic manner. They always shared this philosophy with other parents who marveled at my mathematical abilities later in life. They explained that if they had been sports parents, the process would have been the same:

1. First, they made sure I actually knew how to add and subtract. In the sports world, this would be equivalent to making sure I knew how to put the basketball in a basket, for example.

2. Once they knew I knew how to do the math, they worked on my ability to be fast and accurate. This was done through practice. In the sports world, this would have been involved in practicing making baskets in the back yard, at the park, or even with the wastebasket. The venue, however, required some figuring out:
  • First, they gave me flash cards, but I had to do them by myself because if someone were doing them with me, I stressed about what they thought of me
  • Next, I was given worksheets, but that was only good after I got my speed up. It was boring as a means of practicing for practice's sake.
  • Finally, they programmed a calculator to give me random problems (this was before personal computers). This turned out to be the magic solution for me. Armed with my pocket calculator, I practiced math in the car, waiting in line, and even before church started. The calculator said "good" to me (in very old-techie text) and gave me another problem. If I got it wrong, it showed me the answer and gave me another problem again. It never judged me and never got bored.
3. Then, they made my "game" more professional. They didn't tell me that I couldn't use my fingers; they just told me that I needed to still do it quickly and correctly and that I needed to make sure the teacher never saw me using them. In the sports world, this would be the little rituals individuals do to reassure them, but they don't let others know, for no other reason that they are personal.
    My parents are tricky: They made sure that math was a continual part of my life. In fact, that figured out ways to make it so that math would give me an edge. Their most popular tactic was to use games to keep my math skills sharp. In fact, even holidays like Thanksgiving would be guaranteed hours of practice.

    Since my parents were new immigrants, Thanksgiving needed to be introduced to our family by neighbors. They were big Yahtzee fans so playing the game became a tradition. Fast adding, figuring out how much I needed for the "bonus", and getting a feel for that more advanced concept of probability were all the by-products of our Thanksgiving ritual.

    The value of practice was one of the best lessons I learned from the event. Years later, my father reminded me to use this strategy with my SATs. I foolishly replied, "It's measuring my aptitude; what good would practice do? Isn't that cheating?" The look he shot me was reminiscent of the look he gave me when he gave me the programmed calculator. It was one that said, "Do now; you can thank me later."

    He was right; parents usually are. My perfect SAT math score gave no indication that I had struggled with math in the past and was yet another example of how practice is a necessary part of mastery.

    Something to think about this holiday...

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    Oct 16, 2010

    Failure, healthier than you thought

    Well, the term is in full swing, and I am amazed at how often students realize the same things from term to term. The frequency of these realizations remind me how profound they are.
    Take the idea of failure, for instance. Most students I know don't want to fail. Sure, some of them play it cool, pretending they don't care if they don't do well (usually the ones who haven't done well in the past). But despite all the bravado to the contrary, they love it when they do succeed.

    Failing to meet project requirements or specifications (specs) in some of the in-class engineering projects is a matter of course. Statistically speaking, it is to be expected, considering the restricted materials and time students have to work on the project. We work through the "failure" with them: Students report what they did; which specs they achieved and which they didn't; and what they will do next time, or if they had more time. Learning from failure is important, not only for their final project, but for themselves. As the Harvard Business Review cited, tolerance for failure is an essential attitude for countries that want to create an innovative culture.

    Funny thing, my education majors in particular don't like to fail. One burst out recently, "I have a real problem with being less than perfect. Am I the only one?" No, others reassured her, they, too, had that dilemma. We, the instructors, reassured her as well; many students have made similar exclamations at some point.

    These are great "teaching moments". These same students will exclaim at the end of the course that we helped them learn to make the impossible possible. But that happy ending starts with the uncomfortable first step of learning from failure. Only then can they start to chip away at the impossible.

    More importantly, for them to become good teachers, they needed to experience the failures and find the lessons from the failures for themselves. Only then will they be able to offer real advice (maybe even wisdom) to their little guys and gals.

    Why can't we just talk about it? Spare them the inner conflict that comes from "failing"? Sadly, because children know when they are being lied to. Consider a teacher who never learned the lessons of failure. When that teacher tells a kid that it's okay to fail, the message will sound like a platitude--well meaning, but with something missing. On the other hand, consider a teacher who has experienced failure. Saying "Ah yes, I remember when I made that mistake..." will actually mean something.

    Come to think of it, one person's "failure" is another person's "goofy trial". You know, those things you do that make you say afterwards, "Huh, well that didn't go well" or "I guess, now we know." It's all a matter of perspective. Failing, and sharing the lessons from failure, might actually be a good thing, not only for an individual, but for many others. As a recent engineering graduate said to me, "It's okay that I lived through some bad times, but if I can help someone through those lessons, then it makes it worthwhile." Since a good teacher practices what she preaches, I'll share some of my greatest failures and goofiest trials in future blogs in the hopes that the stories help someone else in some small way.

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    Sep 6, 2010

    Teachers as Learning Engineers


    I know I've made myself a reputation when multiple people send the same article. For example, I am fan of Dr. Seuss fan. In fact, while in college, I subscribed to the "I can read" books in the name of my mythical daughter, Yvonne, Jr, so I could get discounted books each month. When Theodore Geisel passed away in Sep 1991, just a few months after graduation, I was innundated with letters from friends who expressed their condolances.

    This year, I realized I made myself a reputation about teaching engineering to teachers when I received the June NY Times article, "Studying engineering before they can spell it," numerous times - even my massage therapist sent it to me!

    This year, we're teaching engineering to teachers in Richfield School District's new STEM school. It's always heartening to work with such motivated participants; I learn something more about the essence of engineering each time I teach teachers. Six lessons I have learned so far:
    1. Spend time helping people see engineering in their world. Too many people don't know what engineering is and believing it has little to do with their everyday lives.
    2. Be clear that engineering has been part of the human endeavor throughout history. Though the pyramid builders may have not known science and mathematics as well as we do, they used what was known about the forces of nature, quantitative reasoning, and spatial reasoning. Providing experiences for people to discover the engineering spirit in themselves makes engineering seem understandable. In this modern world, many people shut down because they believe engineering is only the high-tech and will be too far above what they could even start to understand.
    3. Understand and communicate that teachers practice the engineering spirit everyday in their work. Engineers must meet measurable specifications within constraints such as time, money, and physical resources. Teachers need to take the students that are in their classroom and help them perform satisfactorily according to dictated standards using the resources provided them in the time allowed during the school year. The American Society of Engineering Education calls psychologists "learning scientists." I believe that teachers are "learning engineers."
    4. Respect the expertise teachers bring. Engineers are well versed on tasks (efficiently accomplishing the impossible, as the Army Corp of Engineers boast) while teachers are versed on getting people to accomplish tasks. Together, engineers and teachers can do great things, but there must be respect and balance. Maybe that's why the Gilbreth children still loved and respected their parents, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. While Frank kept searching for the one master plan ("the One Best Way") using his many children as guinea pigs of sorts, he was balanced by Lillian who had "a way of making each child know he means something very special to her. Not just as one of the group, but as an individual person who has his own special claim on her heart" (Belles on Their Toes).
    5. Show how engineering can be used as motivating or cumulative. Engineering projects can be used before math and science are learned to motivate why those topics are important. Engineering can also be used after the concepts and calculations to have students apply and practice the concepts in a meaningful project. Engineers need to remember that some kids will be like them, eager and able to do engineering right away, but many others (in fact, the majority) need the door to engineering continually propped open without shoving them through it. Too much too soon can make engineering seem a chore rather than an excitement. Respect that for some, engineering is a calling, while for others, it is an acquired taste.
    6. Work with women's education experts. With about 80% of elementary teachers being women, new ways of teaching engineering are needed. The current way of introducing and teaching engineering has proven to be unsuccessful at engaging girls and women. Continuing doing the same ineffective things harkens of insanity, not innovation. Engineers are up to the challenge, though. We are all about finding new and creative ways to solve problems using the resources (human and otherwise) available. Unlike technicians, we take joy in coming up with an end product that satisfies specs but may look very different from what has been seen before.
    I look forward to the lessons I will learn this year!

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    May 31, 2010

    Step 1: Help Them Believe

    AAUW's recent report, "Why So Few?" examines some causes for the dearth of girls and women in STEM areas. It stresses the importance in creating a "growth mindset" early on as an essential part of the foundation necessary to keep STEM career fields a viable option for girls. Obviously teachers play an important role in forming this mindset. However, the report indicates that teachers themselves have negative stereotypes about the field and about girls and women's abilities in the field. For real change, teachers' mindsets must also be considered.

    This makes me feel that I have not wasted this academic year which has turned out to be "The Year of the Teacher" for me. It started in August when I worked with 11 current teachers in the Engineering and Invention certificate program and won't end until Jun 26 when the Weekend College 15 teachers-to-be will finish their final "Invent Something" project. This year alone, I will have taught almost 80 current and to-be teachers about engineering.

    It hasn't been an easy road for me (please permit me to do a bit of whining): This is the first year that all teachers-to-be were required to take engineering (offered through the physics designation) as part of the STEM Certificate program. Coming into the class, they admitted to mixed emotions, mostly negative: dismay (There goes my GPA), resentment (I have to take ANOTHER lab course?) and fear (I was scared, not only of physics, but also of engineering which I knew nothing about). Getting all the teachers to really embrace engineering was going to be a challenge. Traditional fact-based lectures and test evaluations were not going to do much to help the teachers believe they had any meaningful relationship with engineering.

    Pleasantly, my Education co-instructor and I found that the project-based learning (so essential to engineering) actually shifted the teachers' perceptions. Carefully formulated inquiry (guided play as we like to call it) coupled with achievable projects (though the teachers often thought them impossible at first) resulted in final statements like I will never look at the world the same way again, Never again will I accept the world as it is presented to me, and I will never give up on an idea because it seems impossible at first. These self-proclaimed lessons were richer rewards for us than the ability of the students to solve typical problems on mechanical advantage, Boyle's Law and Ohm's Law (which they accomplished as well).
    I was particularly impressed with the learning that they showed through their projects which were not only functional but also creative. Their work was especially impressive considering that many started with nothing (from knowledge about engineering and even physics concepts to construction skills to design experience) and created:
    • a traffic light with motorized signs to help a teacher with classroom management
    • a doggie doorbell that allowed a dog to signal the owner when she wanted to go out
    • a hydraulically driven vulture that picked out the liver of a Prometheus stage prop
    • a foot-powered breast pump for developing countries
    • fun house and arcade game concepts in a 2 week timeframe using electricity and hydraulics or mechanisms/machines (see videos)
    If these will be the teachers of the future, what could our children become?

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    Apr 16, 2010

    The Dryer's Not Broken

    April 5 was Qing Ming, the day for remembering the dead. I would like to dedicate this post to a memory of my father, Daniel Ng, physicist.I was talking with Mom one weekend when she said abruptly, "I've got to go and pull clothes out of the washer and hang them up so that they will be dry by tomorrow." My mother is very much a career woman and has always lectured me on the importance of buying clothes that can be machine washed and dried ("It's just not worth hassling over ironing or dry cleaning"). I was confused. "Mom, did you cave in and buy high maintenance clothes?" "No," she replied, a tinge of irritation creeping in. "The dryer is broken." "Why don't you have Dad look at it? I'm sure it would be a great puzzle for him." There is a running theme in the family to give Dad "puzzles" to keep him in good humor and occupied during family social situations (e.g. Thanksgiving, Christmas). "(grumble) Talk to your dad," she said and put him on the phone. "Hello, Yvonne?" Dad's voice come through in a cheery sort of way. "Hey, Dad, Mom says the dryer is broken." Dad immediately responded, "The dryer's not broken." I was stumped. Mom is pretty astute in knowing whether something is working or not. Dad continued, "The dryer's not broken. I know exactly what is wrong with it." Ah, I rephrased the question: "Dad, is there heat coming out of the dryer?" "Well, no." After encouraging Dad to move into phase 2 of the solution process quickly, I hung up the phone and pulled Troy, then my boyfriend, over and relayed the story to him. I watched his reaction to see if I fell in love with my father (so to speak). To my relief, he laughed, and said "What a scientist your father is! He figured out why, and the actual implementation was 'left as an exercise for the student...'. Don't worry, I'm an engineer. I would fix the dryer. I need to see things work and I like my clothes warm and dry."

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    Mar 7, 2010

    Social Benefits of Studying Engineering

    When I was in college, the college humor magazine published a top 10 list titled "Don't break the ice, make it!" It listed a variety of opening lines guaranteed to stop a conversation at party. My friends and I joked that saying "I'm an engineer" should have been on the list as it often seemed to have the same effect.

    I was recently talking with the teachers in my engineering class, and they believed that after studying engineering for over 6 months now, engineering has actually refined their social experiences. One woman was told by a friend that she was more interesting since studying engineering because she could connect current conversation topics to related engineering tidbits ("Did you know that..."). Another student found herself asking more detailed questions of people who introduced themselves as engineers ("Really, what kind of engineer? What are the projects and challenges you work on?"). Yet another student said she felt she was taken more seriously because she was more conversant on engineering topics.

    Who would have guessed that engineering knowledge could be the gateway to interesting interactions with people? Now if only the teachers could teach me patience with children, organized but flexible methods of teaching, and ability to handle the emotional learner!

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    Jan 31, 2010

    How a Toilet Saved My Life

    I have a confession to make. I almost dropped out of Mechanical Engineering in college. Those who know me will probably be surprised, but it's true. It happened after sophomore year.

    By that time, I had made it through the first year fundamentals (physics, math, computers) as well as the notoriously intense sophomore year (my roommates even named the term after my classes: Fluids/solids/thermo/math term). I actually did well those years, but I entered summer depressed: Was mechanical engineering just about planes and cars? That's what the examples were in class. The others in my class -- Motorheads, Airheads, Copter-guys -- were kids in a candy store. I liked these devices, but they really didn't turn my crank. I didn't see myself working in these industries for the rest of my life.

    That summer, my mother told me to go to the library and find out what else mechanical engineers did. So, I traveled on bus (3 hours round trip!) to the University of Pittsburgh engineering library. There, I discovered Mechanical Engineering magazine. While there were stories of cars, planes, weapons, there was also a short brief on a new toilet. It used fluid dynamics to have a maximum flush with only a little water. I was ecstatic. I was finally reassured that engineers solved problems that were interesting to me. It is the ordinary that enraptures me rather than the superlative (faster, stronger, bigger, cooler). I love engineering because as I learn more about it, I see my everyday world in a different way.

    Later, I found that I was not alone. Anita Borg spoke of how computer science is often sold by the superlatives, not how computers can help literacy, for example, or even save lives. She indicated that emphasizing technology for technology's sake turns away many, especially women. Engineering suffers from the same kind of PR. We need multiple images of what engineering is about. It's time for the ordinary to have a chance to inspire.

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