Apr 19, 2011

The Points of My Compass

I recently moderated a panel on Technology in Education at the Minnesota High Tech Association Spring Conference. The common thread, interestingly, was about access to education. It got me thinking about my own teaching philosophy, and in a sense, why I continue to do what I do.

It's good practice for me to occasionally locate myself as I travel through life and make sure I'm on a good heading. Here's where the points of my compass come from:

  • North - Education is the doorway to opportunity: Dad is my touchstone for this. As a boy who grew up on a rice paddy field in China, education, provided by the Maryknoll fathers, enabled him to end up a NASA research scientist with a couple of patents under his belt. He instilled in me the importance of investing in education and endless stories about how hard work is what is needed to get ahead.

  • South - Women's access to education has been long in coming: Mom is my touchstone for this reality. Even though the university Mom went to had engineering, she knew that there was no way she could become one. Why? Well, in Hong Kong, they have annual testing of students to determine their rank in several subjects. The top ranking student in mathematics, physics, and chemistry one year was a woman who applied to the engineering school. Despite her qualifications, her application was declined. Mom said the message was clear: Women could not become engineers. In a way, becoming an engineer was our little family triumph over injustice, but with women making up only 10% of practicing engineers, there is still a way to go.

  • West - Everyone develops on a different schedule: My husband is my current touchstone for this. Like many others, mathematics did not come easy for him, so he enrolled himself in remedial math when he was in college. With success and understanding, he built confidence and improved his grades with each level of mathematics. If the college he attended did not permit him to start where he was comfortable, he never could have become an engineer or eventually own his own engineering company. I remember him every time I meet with a student who is struggling but who has drive. Despite the fragility of the human ego, it also flourishes with just a little bit of nourishment.

  • East - Sometimes people need a hand to believe they can do it: My teenage angst is my touchstone. When I was a teenager, I was convinced that my artificial leg meant I couldn't do anything in gym class. I don't know why; When I was in 2nd grade, I could run faster than a lot of other kids. But, as a teen, I was pretty sure that those days of athleticism were over. I explained, very logically to the gym teacher why it would be foolish for me to jump over the pommel horse. I explained that since I would jump in an asymmetric manner, I would not be able to mount the horse, let alone pull my legs up to clear the horse. My instructor blankly replied, "Run and jump." Fine, I thought, I will slam my face into the horse and then she'll know I know my physics. As I raced towards the horse and hit the springboard, I saw the horse flying towards my face, just as I had predicted. But then, there was something on my butt, pushing me over. It wasn't graceful, but I cleared the horse and somehow didn't die. That experience changed something in me. Even though I didn't do it myself, I had seen what success could look like. It was a good feeling, to have a chance at success rather than continually have to explain not even trying. When I teach, I remember that sometimes students need a little hand-up to build their confidence so that they have the inner strength to take on the challenges ahead.
Something seems missing. Perhaps, I should include, as the Chinese do, the Center or "stay where you are" direction. Life isn't always moving in a particular direction. Sometimes if where you are is in balance, that can be the best possible result of life:
  • Center - Develop all abilities so that many options are open: My sister is my touchstone for this. Throughout her life, she has developed her mathematical and science abilities as well as her literary and artistic skills. I have always been amazed how she has been able to do so many things: As a child, she ran a fix-it service for our home, running "advertisements" in the home newspaper she wrote, designed, and distributed. In high school, she wrote poetry and plays which were published and produced, and in college, she made miniature food and then sold them on a website she created. When my engineering and computer science students complain about their liberal arts core requirements, I realize I need to help them discover how these other abilities allow them to do amazing things.
So, as I sit here, wondering why I, as an automation engineer, am teaching at a university with no engineering or computer science program, I realize that I am just where I should be.

St. Catherine University continues the Catholic tradition of providing access to all students. Working with the STEM program, I help not only the women that do discover and engineering and computer science is for them (and help them navigate our dual degree and ACTC programs), but also help teachers develop the engineer inside each child. Personally, I continue to be grounded and enlightened by my fellow faculty who value the balance that the liberal arts tradition provides.

I guess I'll hold this heading for a while more.

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Apr 3, 2011

Engineering Engineers

Where did March go? I sit this Sunday morning, with remnants of a persistent cold/cough that has plagued me in some way for well over a month. Illness affects the memory and apparently, and I forgot to post a blog for March. My apologies for the tens of people who were eagerly awaiting something ;). It was a busy month, despite my illness. As I reflect back (darn, that liberal arts education I had), I realize that there are some key themes linking the seemingly different, major events of the month. Together, they frame my general strategy of engineering our future engineers. Briefly:

  • Invest in brains, not kits. This was one of two major points I made at a STEM roundtable held by Al Franken in late Feb. Teacher development can give so much better return on investment than any particular educational (often over-priced) kit. Too many times we look for "plug and play" solutions that will work with every person. Instead, we need to think about educating our teachers about engineering, so that they may be able to use their teaching knowledge and skills to educate our children about engineering in age-appropriate ways.


  • Start early. This was the other major point. Like an Olympic champion, the journey starts early. Capturing children's imagination early helps them capitalize on the full educational lessons they learn in school, and with this positive mindset, gives them the opportunity to continue learning what's needed for engineering.


  • It's never too late for change. While it's valuable to introduce children early to engineering, the same can be said for teachers. This is why I helped develop the course, Makin' and Breakin': Engineering in Your World, for our education majors. Though for college students who chose not to become engineers, the course is designed to women on to engineering early in their college career. This way, they have the time to see how it permeates life as they know it... and how inspiring, understandable, and useful it is. At the presentation, "Engineering is ... Developing Competent, Confident, Comfortable STEM Teachers" at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) national conference in San Francisco on March 11, my education collegaue and I shared the larger lessons teachers-to-be took away from the course (St. Kate's faculty play to a packed house at NSTA).


  • Make engineering the right scale. Bigger is not always better, but that's how engineering has been sold: Big buildings, bridges, rockets! But this limited image of engineering makes engineering seem foreign to many, especially women that I have worked with. The success of our NSTA workshop's introductory activity supported this. The Yvonne's Story activity has been used in many of our engineering classes. With just index cards and tape, the activity awakens the engineering spirit in people who were skeptical of their ability to learn or do engineering. This tabletop activity brought engineering within reach (literally).


  • Make the education relevant to the practice. Creating engaging activities and challenges isn't so difficult if we remember that engineering is a balance of technical and soft skills applied towards meeting a need. The American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) magazine (toilet story) interviewed me in a recent article, citing activities I developed after reading the results of a survey of computer professionals. Soft skills are not just important when the engineer has entered the workforce, it is valueable to make technical challenges require the full spectrum of skills. Doing so helped me entice women who were not typically motivated by the technical challenge alone (ASEE 2008 Conference: Awakening Interest and Improving Employability: A Curriculum That Improves the Participation and Success of Women in Computer Science).


  • Address the whole person. Working with women engineers, in particular, I realize that the studies that come out analyze the barriers women face, but seldom translate that factual realization to meaningful strategies. The Science Club for Girls posed a challenge for me to reflect on the coping strategies I used throughout my life and advise "my younger self" in a meaningful way. I realize the value of all my experiences: engineering education at a liberal arts institution, being Chinese, being disabled, being a woman, caring about people, respecting teachers, etc. Together, they help me solve the problems. Engineering is not just a brain activity, it is a heart one as well.
Not too bad for being sick for a month...

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