Sep 30, 2012

The ASVAB and Me: A Clue to Widening the Pool

This is the fourth and last installment specifically inspired from my visit to the USS Carl Vinson. A lot has happened in a year: I welcomed my son into the world and was convinced to downshift my maternity time to become interim Executive Director of St. Catherine University's National Center for STEM Elementary Education. This post is a result of my trying to shift from teaching individuals to making larger systemic changes. 

It's hard to believe that it is a year since I was on the Navy aircraft carrier. Since then, the Navy and the military in general have been on my mind (could that have been their master plan for providing such an amazing experience to a civilian??). I see connections to them everywhere now. -- It's like when I bought a new car: Suddenly, I saw so many more more people driving Saturns.

I find myself realizing I have many friends who served, both as volunteer enlisted or after attending military academies. I recently reconnected with old family friends who knew me ever since I boldly knocked on their apartment door at the age of 3. They currently teach at West Point Military Academy faculty and reminded me that the Army is also interested in talented STEM students.

In light of all these connections, I recall my own introduction to the military's interest in talented students: While a high school junior, I was shuffled into the cafetorium to take the Armed Services Vocational Assessment Battery (ASVAB). As I took the reading comprehension and mathematics portions of the test, I thought it was an achievement test or an SAT-like test.

But then there was a portion with 10 questions, asking whether a 10-digit number was in a list of about 50 numbers in a ridiculously short period of time. I was puzzled. Unlike any other test I had taken, which had obvious connections to school classes, there was no class that required this kind of performance.

Then there were portions asking about shop tools, bridges, and gears. I plugged away, answering them as best I could before the time was up. During one of the breaks, my girlfriends and I chatted briefly. The technology-based questions seemed pretty straightforward to me, almost simple at times, but among my friends, I was the only one who apparently thought so. "I was just guessing" more than one of them said about these mechanical-based quesitons. Gosh, I wondered, what did I do wrong? The questions they griped about seemed obvious to me.

They weren't the only ones... my college roommate who was (and still is) quite brilliant had difficulties. She had found herself randomly guessing at the mechanical questions. It's no wonder she became an electrical engineer (which she said was mainly math) and a computer science expert (which she said was mainly logic), and felt herself lucky that she never had to take a class like mechanics of solids. Trusses, static forces, and schematics of bending beams unnerved her. She far preferred the mathematically based circuit analysis and algorithmic designs of her discipline. This, she felt, school had prepared her for.

I was puzzled at why mechanical questions seemed so easy to me and so hard to my very intelligent friends.  Later, I learned from a guest speaker that the entire ASVAB was developed over the years by the military to determine the potential of an individual. He, for example, took the test and somehow, the military determined he would be good at languages, even though he only knew his native tongue at the time. But, he was shuffled along that path, taking language classes and miraculously picking them up. I think he learned 3-4 languages by the time we met him. In any case, it seemed that the writers of the ASVAB knew what they were doing.

Throughout the years, it did seem that the ASVAB could identify people who could immediately jump into particular areas of military interest, but for the language prediction, it really only identified who had the experience, not necessarily the potential. The test correctly identified that, at least intellectually, I had what they wanted.  I became a mechanical engineer, and as a colonel once told me, "We LOVE engineers."

Still, the test seemed to be good at evaluating current knowledge and skills. Thus, when I was looking for questions to evaluate students in my "engineering for everyone" course, now titled "Engineering in Your World", I immediately thought of the ASVAB. It is one of the only standardized tests for engineering concepts that doesn't require higher level math like calculus. We now use questions similar to the mechanical aptitude and electronics ones in our pre- and post-tests.

Using these questions in evaluation for almost 10 years now underlined some interesting things about our  students' potential, that is the capacity to learn and succeed in a certain area (Recall that all my students at St. Kate's are women):
  • Success with Tools questions required exposure: Seems logical when you say it out loud. The students who had previous experience with tools did better in this section than those who did not. What did we do to tackle this? We required a toolkit with the most basic tools, taught students how to use them as part of our simple machines unit, and gave them projects that encouraged them to use their new-found skills.
  • Mechanical understanding improved with hands-on experience: When we had the women play with gears, figure out how mechanical toys worked, and create LED circuits, they answered related questions correctly more often and felt more confident about their answers. If they didn't know the answer to a novel question, they were often more able to narrow the choices down to two.
  • Standard engineering skills improved with specific instruction: Spatial rotation was difficult for many of the women to learn, and the practice of interpreting engineering drawings as a result was also challenging since it essentially documents an unfolded viewing box that has the objects projections on each face. Most of the modern technical drawing books leaped directly into CAD. Even the books that were used when I was in school spent most of their time on drawing, not on translating 3D to 2D. I had to go to a technical drawing book from the 1940s (WWII era) to find exercises that helped build drawing ability with physical models. We also developed clear plexiglass boxes that students actually put objects into. They then traced the shapes in each face of the box and unfolded the box to get the engineering drawing, laid out correctly. This explicit instruction of how the 2D drawing was created from a 3D world improved students performance on these types of questions.
  • Lack of visual literacy made the accuracy of Mechanical Aptitude questions questionable: While students were able to speak more intelligently, design more reliably, and troubleshoot more effectively after the above instruction, we found that most still struggled with the written test questions. When we probed further by having them indicate their confidence in their answers, we discovered that most had no idea what the questions were actually asking. The ability to read a question, with a diagram (common for mechanical aptitude questions) is a spatial literacy skill which we found needed to be taught as well. Without this ability, the students  missed visual clues such as the arrows indicating direction of motion and circles drawn within circles representing  pulleys that shared the same shaft. This was probably the problem my high school girlfriends had when they said they had to randomly guess at answers.
This last bullet is a vital clue to how we can improve the assessment of student potential, particularly from underrepresented populations who may not share the experiences required to understand "standard" questions. An analogy to this would be a child who has seen cats, maybe even raised cats. As a result, this child, in reality,  knows a lot about cats. However, if she doesn't know that the letters c-a-t represent the familiar furry creature, she will not do well on a written test because she doesn't understand what the question is asking.

Combining research, formative assessment results, and creative instruction is what I learned while teaching STEM with my education colleagues at the National Center for STEM Elementary Education. When I worked with teachers, I share the genesis of these findings and help them be aware of how to turn up their sensors to their student learning. Together, we figure out creative instructional activities that will engage their students while leveraging the teachers' individual specialties, talents, and interests.

National security is one reason government agencies like the military are interested in improving STEM education of our young folks. Unlike industry, they cannot import talent since they often have citizen requirements. Thus, if they want to widen the pool of talent, they must work with the home-grown population. While it is important to improve STEM education starting in the early years, a short term solution of improving students' ability to answer assessments accurately may give a faster return on investment for those currently in the pipeline.

Want to learn more about encouraging females in STEM or STEM in general? Contact Yvonne at Engineer's Playground.