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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