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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