Dec 5, 2013

Holiday gift giving for your budding, current, or should-have been engineer

A timely segue from my series on Girls and STEM: What to give your engineer for the holidays. Well, I made a few purchases based on the variety of personalities on my holiday list that you might be interested in:

Our nephew has enjoyed a variety of movement toys from an early age: My standard Gearation has been received well by young and old, with him being no exception. The Kidzooie Super Spiral Play Tower with its whistling frog and "frog return" button as my husband called it entertained him for a strangely long period of time for a 1-year old. Recently, the Zingo 1-2-3 game has been a hit, and this holiday, I'm hoping that the spatial reasoning Q-Ba-Maze and mechanically modular system-thinking Constructables will be a hit.

Our niece is a bright girl, especially strong in verbal skills. But her mother and I have also encouraged her visual-spatial abilities as well as her math skills; I buy the games and toys and her mother does them with her. In the past, she has received Zoob: the game and Dino Math Tracks which were very well received. Her mother would prompt her when she struggled with some math challenges: "Remember how you did it with the dinosaurs?". In fourth grade she had fun putting together her Spy Science Intruder Alarm. She asked me to do this with her, and once she understood how to read the instructions (visual literacy in action), she did a great job and got a working model relatively quickly. For the holidays this year, she will be getting Hyperswipe which I hope will keep up her spatial thinking skills.

STEM AS A CREATIVE TOOL (7th-11th grade)
We are hoping that the Little Bits will work with step-nephews, one who plans to go into engineering and had always enjoyed playing with LEGO and the other who has an artistic interest in making things. I debated between this and World of Goo which is a fun game of dynamic structures. I decided on this because, selfishly, I have been wanting to see these things in action for two reasons: 1) They seem to be one of the few electronics items which don't seem to assume prior experience with electronics (I like to call this "easy entry") and 2) They capture the essence of engineering. Engineering may be learned with kits, but the ability to transfer that knowledge to the materials lying around is real engineering.

Of course, I'm also getting items that Engineer's Playground made, too: t-shirts for nephew and son, Calendar for my husband (complete with birthdays of engineers), and a slinky woman engineering tank for me, but I'm most excited about the ability to see STEM skills continue through play in our next generation.

Nov 26, 2013

Girls in STEM > Guideline #5: STEM and...

No, you didn’t miss four other posts in the Girls in STEM series that followed The Curious Case of Girls in STEM post. As a woman engineer, I seem to I defy stereotypes about engineering in more ways than one. Being non-linear at times is apparently one manifestation.

There is logic behind my apparent madness, though. In early October, I moderated a panel about women in computing for high school girls. During the Questions and Answer session, I was reminded continually that “STEM and …” was something that girls need to know how to resolve. Let me elaborate:

The girls kept asking about how to combine their interest in engineering or computers with their interest in music or art. They asked for help in picking colleges since they were too artsy for a typical tech program and too geeky for a typical arts one.

I wasn’t surprised. Girls tend to be “opportunity gatherers” (as opposed to “opportunity hunters”). They open their eyes and see what opportunities are available, then nibble to get a taste and see if it suits their plate. Research on computer science majors described men having a “turning point”—a discovery moment – sort of like when a fine buck is noticed in the wood. Then like a focused hunter, they pursue computer science with all their might. Women, on the other hand, described “trying out” computer science, often in college, often because the course was required. Instead of love at first sight, their stories talk about growing to appreciate it gradually, like a fine wine.

This may help explain why girls who are good enough to go into STEM don’t choose STEM careers. Research shows that talented students with a “tilt” towards math versus verbal abilities will tend to pick careers that leverage them. While boys tend to be at the extremes in math performance (very, very good, and very, very poor), girls fill out the math spectrum in a more “normal distribution.” Additionally, they tend to have comparable, if not better verbal scores. While boys good in math are specialists, girls are more academic decathletes, all-rounders. As a result, they have the luxury of choosing to use their skills in areas that they find more appealing. This may be why girls choose the careers they do. If they can be successful at anything, it is easy to see why they choose pursuits that will challenge them creatively (e.g. humanities, arts) or provide a sense of purpose (e.g. medicine, law, social work, education). 

A cynic would ask, How to counter this? But I like to ask, How to use this? In my years advising at a women’s college, I explained to my students that learning STEM deeply gives them more to work with, mastery of tools and abilities that allow them to create or to help folks: A strong chemistry background provides the knowledge to develop new drugs; Understanding physics gives insight into determining what happened in a crime situation regarding ballistics, blunt force trauma, and electrocution; Mastering the computer turns the machine into a paintbrush to create animations, robotic recitals, or musical concoctions. When students see that studying STEM gives them expertise useful in their other interests, they are more excited and committed to pursue these fields.

For those who want more formal recognition of their multifaceted selves, double majoring or minoring is another option. I have seen chemistry, math, and environmental science combined with philosophy, French, theology, sociology, music, and critical studies of race and ethnicity.

History provides examples of multitalented women and the unique path they took in STEM, often motivated by personal desire and leveraging non-STEM individual talents and interests:

  • Take Lillian Moller Gilbreth: Originally an English major (she had to make a deal with her father to even let her go to college), she got a Ph.D. in Psychology when she realized she needed to think of the human side in the efficiency methods she was developing. Her work became the foundations of today’s Industrial Engineering.
  • Or Hedy Lamarr: This famous 1940’s actress developed and was awarded a patent to create encrypted wireless communication during WWII and is considered the basis of today’s secure cell and wireless technology. Despite her desire to use her brains to help the war effort, she did the best she could by using her starlet status to sell war bonds.
  • Or Grace Hopper: This mathematics major was also an athlete, playing basketball, field hockey, and water polo. When WWII broke out, she wanted to do her part as her grandfather did and join the Navy. Even though she was too old and too light for the Navy’s program, they made an exception because they wanted her brains to work on the forerunner of the computer. Later she used experience from basketball plays to develop the computer compiler that allows humans to use English words when programming rather than numeric codes.
The “AND…” element is important to the inner identity of girls; it is what will motivate them through the difficult times of studying in a traditional STEM program. That is why when I consult with schools, I ensure that connections are an important element of how teachers STEMify their lessons. Being conscious of these will help girls remind themselves, as I did in the tough times, why this was the right path for me (see How a toilet saved my life). It is also why I encourage parents to help their girls find ways to explore and combine their multitude of seemingly disparate interests. These intersections are the elements that make their daughters unique and interesting individuals (see It’s my thing: A new approach to girls and STEM).

More importantly, history shows us that the ability to see the connections is how important contributions to STEM are made. Girls don’t need to “fit” into STEM stereotypes. By following their natural passions and combining them with STEM, they will makeover the STEM image to reflect its actual nature: “STEM AND…” is not innovative; it is innovation itself.

Blog post series:

Want to learn more about girls in STEM or STEM in general? Check out the professional development and consulting packages at Engineer's Playground or contact Yvonne to discuss your unique situation.

Oct 31, 2013

The Curious Case of #Girls and #STEM: Guidelines to keep your girl in STEM

Photo by Heriberto, via
From my Facebook feed:
My husband and I have been talking about how our daughter is showing a head for math and yet, I have NO IDEA about how to sustain her interest and encourage it. I see so clearly the road ahead and all its enticements away from the STEM path, and I don't know how to keep her on it.
She is very much a girly girl but also loves to play chess, Rush Hour-type games, and I just want to make sure that we can support her interests in this kind of thinking before the tide of growing up sweeps her to other things. Her school is progressive and awesome, and I feel like she will be supported there. Curious to watch her trajectory considering her interest now and how that pans out in a decade or so. 
I love this question. I get really pumped, providing a fire hydrant of information. So, I'll try to keep this brief and useful!*

I've been watching girls in STEM, particularly girls in engineering, for quite some time**. Through the years, I have seen a lot on the science of girls and STEM: from cognitive studies on how people learn engineering to questions about whether biology made a difference (Thank you, Larry Summers, for opening that can of worms...). All of these are informative on the topic of girls in STEM, but as an engineer, I find myself wanting to find solutions... things to do instead of just studying the issue.

In short, I find that both girls and boys start with the same "raw ingredients" required by science, engineering, and mathematics professionals -- inclinations to investigate the world, find patterns, and use those to get what they want (solve problems) (see talk on STEM in early childhood). They differ only by the experiences (toys, challenges, guided learning) and environmental factors (supportive or hostile environment, prejudices, finances, and opportunities); they are, in a sense, engineered to go into STEM, rather than born that way.

Sorry to say, I haven't found a silver bullet for introducing and keeping girls in STEM: no one curriculum, no one type of school, no one toy. There are some half-hearted efforts (e.g. "pink-ifying" erector sets) and some really thought out ones (e.g. combining stories and tinkering as GoldieBlox does). While there isn't one solution, I have found that girls who become women in STEM have traveled a number of different and interesting paths.

While I can't endorse one product that will fit all girls, I can suggest guidelines that activate positive conditions:
  1. ENVIRONMENT MATTERS: Picking the right school for your girl does matter. Kudos to parents who take the time to find a good fit. Some find that girl-inclusive is good enough, an environment where teachers don't fall into the subconscious habits outlined in the classic study, Shortchanging Our Girls. Others find that girl-only may be the best for their girl, where girls do not fall into the habits of waiting to be invited or defer to the vocally eager boys.
  2. WHAT IS TAUGHT MATTERS: For better or for worse, a lot of girls come into school with more head and heart rather than hand experiences. In the "old days" girls may have actually had more hand skills that gave them a base for STEM knowledge, even though they were stereotypical: cooking, cleaning, sewing, crafting. But these hand activities still developed the needed skills for STEM. In other words, your girl doing "girly" activities isn't necessarily a detriment (see "Women Art" and Engineering). Today, with a largely virtual and microwave world, these basic experiences in chemistry, manufacturing, and material technologies are lost. If you, your school, or the out-of-school activities she does can help her develop other skills like programming, tools, electronics, and construction, all the better. Good toys, teachers, and parents provide opportunities to learn the basic traits needed for STEM (I call them "the 8 traits" in Engineering for the Uninitiated).
  3. HANDLING FAILURE MATTERS: Too many times girls find their sense of confidence from getting answers right the first time; to fail is disastrous for their belief in future success. But failure is inevitable when one approaches anything new or challenging, so while it's good for you to be there to pick her up when she stumbles and give her encouragement, don't overprotect her. I have chided friends who anticipate future difficulties by telling their girls who bring home A's in math, "You don't have to get an A every time." STEM, like other professions, has its challenges, and the ability to learn from failure is an important skill no matter what she will do. Action is important, too. Girls try to avoid failure by planning too long. But if the challenge is in a new area, the faster action needs to happen to learn more. I like to say "fail early, fail often so you can learn faster" (see Failure, healthier than you thought).
  4. SUCCESS WILL LOOK DIFFERENT: Too many times, people assume that if a girl is "hooked" she will be obsessed (as young boys often are) with STEM, doing kits, blowing up things... living and breathing that one passion. Statistically, this won't be the case and you may miss the positive impact you may have made (see One Small Step). Instead, look for the activities she tries to engage you or friends in, games she likes to play, projects she finds interesting. Realize this is an indication of her growing passion.
  5. STEM AND... MUST BE ADDRESSED: This is related to Guideline 4. Don't create an ultimatum where your girl must choose between STEM or some other interest such as sports, dance, art, music, or friends (see It's My Thing: A New Approach to Girls and STEM).Girls statistically are interest gatherers (not interest-hunters), sampling and trying things out early until they weed out a few and develop them. Work with her to find ways that she can pursue her multiple interests -- even into college. I can't tell you how many women I know take courses in a broad range of areas for fun. It is this diversity of interest that will let them see how each complements the other; it also may be where their unique contributions to STEM may come.
This is just a brief outline of the guidelines. I will expand more on these in future posts.

Blog post series:

*Other resources can be found at Engineer's Playground > Resources > Educational Issues and > Fun Stuff
**Following girls in STEM started early when I read biographies of women scientists. Lifestyle considerations became more concrete when when my mother put "The Leaky Pipeline" report in my hands as I graduated from high school in the late 80's. My own experiences as a woman engineering led me to compiling what may be the first "reflection" book by women in engineering (She's an Engineer? Princeton Alumnae Reflect), all of which informed the decade of my time at St. Catherine University advising engineering and computer students and being an all-purpose contact for NSF STEM scholars.

Want to learn more about girls in STEM or STEM in general? Check out the professional development and consulting packages at Engineer's Playground or contact Yvonne to discuss your unique situation.

Oct 1, 2013

Giving STEAM schools the full power of STEM

In my recent #EDTalk*, I was asked about STEAM. It's not the first time that I have been asked about how the Arts and STEM are related.

I deplore the elimination of the arts in favor for STEM, with the idea that the later will develop a more employable student. The two are important partners in reaching all kids and improving the creativity of students to apply STEM for our future technological world (see How engineering can save the arts). However, I do have some cautions.

Sadly, I have heard cases where art experts say they do STEM by incorporating simplified, cursory references to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Examples include counting as part of a dance lesson (math), representing the seasons in a series of drawings or paintings (science), using the computer (technology), or using a kit where each student's product looks the same as each other (engineering).

From the STEM side. I have seen the activities to be silos: The STEM is done first, and the performance of those concepts are a more "artistic" assignment: a drawing, a play, a poem, or a song.

I feel these approaches are more about the limited experience and knowledge of the current instructors. I make no claims on being an expert in art, which is what makes me such a good collaborator in these "consulting" gigs. I am eager to add more art understanding to my portfolio because it shows me more connections to STEM.

When I have taught art instructors -- whether performance or studio arts -- the basics of STEM, they realize the power that STEM understanding has to offer them to achieve their creative vision. This is what a real STEAM program needs to offer: deep instruction in both STEM and the Arts. It's not easy to do, but the results can be amazing.

Consider my touchstones when I think of a STEAM education:

Photo by Thomas Faivre-Duboz
  • Les Paul. Inventor of electric guitar. Also played with electronics in his youth, making a crystal radio at the age of 9. I had a much greater appreciation for his self-made STEAM education after seeing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit.
  • Ken Knowlton. Early photomosaic artist. Computer professional used his technical expertise to create mosaics from individual photos: A portrait of President Obama made of separate photos of Obama.

George Rickey. Kinetic sculptor. Former Army engineer turned artist, creating sculptures that move. Pieces are either powered mechanisms or balanced structures that respond to the environment.
Photo via
  • Start small. Connections between STEM and the Arts can start as early as elementary school, just on a smaller scale. For example, the kinetic sculpture starts with an understanding of center of gravity, which is also addressed in science simple machine (levers) lessons. Mobiles are a small scale concept of the lever ideas and are a classic project in art classes.
  • Parallel inquiry, engineering, and design processes. All are the ways that science, engineering, and art "step into the abyss" -- the unknown, the not-yet-made. Don't try to make them the same. Appreciate their differences to address the main focus of each discipline as well as their similarities. Otherwise, you risk diluting one for the others.
  • Think about technology as tools. Too many times, folks think of technology as computers. Computers are one of my tools of the trade, but it irks me when such a limited definition of "technology" is used. Computers were invented in the 1950s, maybe the 1940s if you include ENIAC. But all would agree that there have been technological advanced well before then. One way to start thinking broadly about technology is to think of it as tools for creation. For example, humans made holes first with their hands, then with a stick, then a shovel, then with power tools. Today, there are computer-controlled tools. Each represents a new technological change, and each have their own benefits.
  • See science and mathematics as methods of pattern finding and information packing. Mathematics is the tool used to find the patterns to predict what will give us our desired vision: Les Paul used knowledge of sound in materials to experiment with the solid guitar in pursuit of the sound he wanted.  Physics concepts about light and binary numbers allowed us to represent colored images with bitmaps. More mathematical processing permitted more efficient data packing so stretching and shrinking was possible with less memory.
So let's STEAM ahead together -- art and STEM educators -- to give STEAM the full power STEM has to offer.

*The #EDTalk was a great event put on September 24, 2013 at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall by AchieveMpls. Citizens League, Young Education Professionals-Twin Cities, DRIVE Emerging Leaders, and tpt.

Want to learn more about STEM+ (beyond STEM schools) or STEM in general? Contact Yvonne at Engineer's Playground. 

Sep 11, 2013

Gravity movie making STEM sexy?

Photo by Richard Goldschmidt, via
I was just told by a friend that there is a new sci-fi movie coming out in October called Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock as an aerospace engineer and George Clooney as an astronaut. Besides reminding me that motherhood keeps me so busy that I'm out of the know, I was also reminded of a past blog post I wrote about STEM women being too beautiful (It's my thing: A new approach to girls and STEM).

Don't get me wrong; I love Sandra Bullock. She was a computer expert in the first movie I saw her in, The Net. I remember it well because I vowed not to buy any movies that didn't have strong female characters in it that year (my movie purchases were significantly curbed); The Net was one of the few movies that met my criteria. According to the research, she may be have been acceptable to girls because, though she is beautiful, she was stereotypically shy and awkward (a key part of the movie) so she didn't break too many barriers. It will be interesting to see what her character must keep in the way of stereotypes. I hope that the final product succeeds in girls seeing themselves as engineers as Iridescent Learning, a non-profit who partnered with Warner Brothers hopes.

Though I applaud a new movie about STEM, I wish we had a TV show about it. There is nothing like a show to create the real dimension and everyday drama of a profession. For as many movies there are about lawyers and doctors, why can't we have one about engineers that doesn't have all its characters falling into the stereotypical realm. Then you can have an ensemble cast and portray different walks of the profession. Imagine:engineers struggling with ethical issues regarding their work or their company; engineers dealing with bullying by bosses or colleagues; or engineers just dealing with being a dual career family. How about engineers who give up their lucrative corporate job to help communities in Africa get clean water? Engineers who take temporary part time work to help with global crises? As I discussed in Start Seeing Engineers, engineers make appearances every so often as regulars on TV, but not always as a centerpiece. Heck, there could be a miniseries about the 60s, with a character being NASA engineer working on the mission to the moon and another working on atomic weapons.

Aren't viewers sophisticated enough to start seeing engineers as part of their everyday lives rather than oddities like on The Big Bang Theory?

Jul 22, 2013

What is a STEM school? Now and in the future

Photo by Chris, via

A colleague forwarded this question to me:
If a child is in a program rich in science, math,  is using technology, is interacting with materials, is building/creating with lots of different things, what is the difference between that and being in a STEM classroom?
This is a great question! Everyone in the STEM arena, I'm sure will have his or her own answer, from his or her own perspective (or agenda). Here's mine:

Before the "STEM" acronym became vogue, there were "Science and Technology" or "Science and Math" schools. Engineering wasn't that much in the mix. Then, the boom of STEM schools started. At first, schools that were doing good science and math set the bar as hands-on math and inquiry-based science, with some discussion of engineering as "applied" -- perhaps a project. Technology was equated to computers, mainly the activity of using them not programming them or using them to do calculations. The efforts were good, though incomplete.

Then around 2009, declaring oneself a STEM school became trendy. Teachers who finished my professional development courses (18-months or more for 12 graduate credits of education courses complete with engineering projects ~ See: Step 1: Help Them Believe) came to me and demanded to know what made a "STEM school". After all, they had just put their heart and soul, egos and creativity to the test (and were all the better for it), but it seemed that other schools just did their traditional science and math, required an art project and called it engineering, and used SmartBoards. What really made a school a "STEM school"?

Today, we have a multitude of research available on the relationship of interest and proficiency, the need to integrate not "add on" more topics to teach, and the importance of sensorial, context-driven teaching. As a result, the bar for a STEM school has been set higher in the following way at the elementary school level:

  • Hands-on and active development of concepts and skills needed to succeed in STEM: from science methods to engineering design to experience with tools and technology to do both to logical problem solving
  • Development of foundation traits/dispositions needed to succeed in STEM (such as spatial skills, creativity, persistence See: Engineering for the Uninitiated)
  • Engineering projects which are authentic: with measurable specifications, constraints in time or materials, and requiring an iterative creative process
  • Technology as being more than just computers: it includes understanding and experience with materials, manufacturing methods to cut, fasten, and form materials, power technologies such from hand- to spring- to battery- or electrically-powered devices as well as foundations in understanding how the computer works: from basic ideas of logic to programming simple formula calculations with spreadsheets or programming languages
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics lessons being integrated in grades with unifying projects or investigations (See: How Does STEM Look in the Classroom?)
  • STEM complementing other content areas such as Reading, Social Science, History, and Art... even Physical Education
In secondary school, STEM schools today should
  • Require students to connect knowledge learned in other content areas (e.g. using history for insights about designs, using literacy skills in communicating with design team or when presenting final products/findings)
  • Develop higher level skills (tools related to wood and metal, not just paper or cloth)
  • Require more accurate prediction using mathematics to minimize material costs and iterations
  • Engineer on a larger scale either in terms of size, complexity, or thinking about processes as well as products
  • Be transparent in how what is learned relates to career options today and ones that will most likely exist in the future
  • Develop foundations in good communication and team skills
While that seems like a tall order, I see teachers in STEM schools today working diligently towards them while trying to meet standardized test requirements. This rapid progress made me wonder what the future STEM schools would look like. That is, what would our students be learning? What would a well-educated population be able to do, whether or not individuals went into a STEM career?

My bet: There really won't be STEM-only schools. In fact, I believe that there will be "STEM+" schools; I am already seeing schools experiment with these ideas today, though they are in the initial stages. Elementary schools would concentrate on creating broad life experiences that are so hard to come by in today's largely urban, test score-oriented world. They would, in a sense, formalize what children did in the past that helped them develop STEM skills: The schools would be
  • STEM and the Environment where children would have lessons connected to outside experiences
  • STEM and Sports where athletic children would be able to analyze the sports they love using STEM
  • STEM and Performing Arts where theater, dance, and musical productions would be integrated into the STEM lessons
  • STEM and Fine Arts where art, sculpture, photography, ceramics, woodworking, jewelry making, 2-D and 3-D design would be integrated with STEM lessons
  • and even STEM and Stories (or Literature, to be more sophisticated) which is actually a pet project of mine these days (See: Coming Around Again--This Time With STEM)
High (and even middle) schools would be more "taste of" career experiences, putting the STEM ideas into more vocational context: 
  • STEM and Aviation where students would learn to glide and/or fly at local airports, tying STEM lessons with the experience, getting their license as early as 14 years of age
  • STEM and Medicine where students would learn not only about health professions (and the STEM related to those) but also medical research and medical device development
  • STEM and Athletics which would have students learn about performance technology as well as injury treatments
  • STEM and Entrepreneurship which would show students how STEM is at the root of many new companies and industries
  • STEM and Communication where students would learn the STEM behind communication technologies such as radio, lasers, and computers
  • STEM and Public Policy where civic minded students would learn and apply knowledge to larger governmental issues
  • ... the list goes on
Sorry, this vision obviously has been influenced by my liberal arts background. Since I see the value of STEM everywhere, and value all fields and careers, it is no wonder that I see these multiple areas intersecting rather than isolating. Of course, wasn't treating each area as a completely separate entity the problem we had before?

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

Jul 7, 2013

Coming Around Again--This Time With STEM

Now that my stint at St. Kate's National Center for STEM Elementary Education is over, I'm able to focus on the doing rather than the administrating again! .

Every 4th of July, I like to watch 1776 to remember the circumstances regarding the birth of our nation. Yes, I know it is a dramatized version of the events (with some artistic license since I'm pretty sure that all members of the Continental Congress were not great singers and dancers); however, I am always amazed at how the desire to define a new nation pulled together folks from different classes, perspectives, and walks of life.

An interviewer recently reminded me that we are at a similar juncture today regarding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). So many are united on the importance of STEM for the people in the United States.They also seem to agree that in order to be competitive and "keep jobs in America," solutions need to tap into the potential of all our individuals whether they come from rural or urban areas, from working class or academic families, or from the myriad of races, genders,and ethnicity.

In true American fashion, the progress has been rather federalist in nature: solutions are seasoned by local, state, or national perspectives. The good news is that government is working with industry and small business, as well as communities. With all hands on deck, there is a good chance of success.

If my personal experiences and endeavors are any indication, we seem to be deepening the general endeavor to create an educated citizenry, but this time, we are aiming for a STEM-educated one to complement the literacy and civic one that was the aim of our educational forerunners. I intend to provide affordable and useful resources as my contribution to the effort.

Pattern finding with shapes is
a part of mathematical development
Republican Motherhood was the movement in the very early days of the United States to ensure that girls were educated as needed to raise future (male) citizens. Having them educated in more heady topics such as literature, the arts, and mathematics (compared to manners and deportment) would ensure that they could prepare their children to be the leaders of the republic's future.

The idea that a child's education starts early is a key part of today's STEM movement as evidenced by the National Center for STEM Elementary Education and organizations like Talent Management Alliance (TMA) who asked me to present "Opening the Pipeline: The Impact of Starting STEM Early" in their August summit to address what can be done even before children enter kindergarten.
  • Early STEM is a webinar series that I will be releasing soon for early childhood teachers and proactive parents who want to develop the traits that create the foundation of STEM professionals. The good news? Most good early educational practices already do this. The webinars will point out the STEM-aspects of these and give tips on how to provide more growth opportunities.

Horace Mann was Massachusetts Secretary of Education in the 1800's and led educational reform with two main concepts: The "common school" which had all students learn similar topics (thus creating equal access to them) and the "normal school" which prepared teachers to teach students on those topics.

Today, many STEM innovators, including advisers to the White House, realize the power of preparing teachers in STEM. The impact of a single teacher teaching STEM well can extend to many more children throughout that person's career. Because teachers are the front line for identifying and preparing STEM potential, I decided my keynote speech for the Minnesota Independent School Forum (MISF)'s STEM Teacher Seminar would be "Tips for STEM Talent Scouts Like You," using the 8 traits outlined in my book, Engineering for the Uninitiated. Dedicated teachers get the importance of STEM; now they need practical tools to do what they do so well.
  • Besides creating a revised edition of Engineering for the Uninitiated and continuing this blog, I will be coming out with the STEM. Literature. Life. curriculum. Inspired by my literacy colleagues and the interest in GoldiBlox, I am finally putting together STEM lessons that relate to popular classic and modern books used in schools today. STEM is not an add on, but is a part of real life (see No broccoli in my brownies, please). Little House in the Big Woods will be the flagship classic book, and the first modern one will likely be The Hunger Games. Brief lesson outlines aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will be provided along with webinars explaining more of the lesson in detail. 

The creation of land-grant universities in the latter part of the 19th century was a way that labor unions felt they could better themselves while leveraging their hands-on skills. As a result, these public universities specialized in "the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering" as opposed to the more abstract curriculum of the liberal arts institutions. In a way, this was the start of the STEM-specific education movement.

And the job is not yet done, even at the college level. A recent survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace showed that while Science/Technology employers greatly valued public universities, they felt the job applicants were "lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving." With over half of all employers saying they couldn't find qualified candidates for the openings, a change is needed in the land-grant institutions (at least) to provide the practical education needed to make all its students more employable.

In STEM, I have found that well-designed projects are good ways to develop skills like project management, team skills, or communication with non-technical audiences; however, they also need to be taught. Not teaching them but creating a situation that requires them sets students up for frustration or even failure, with only those who developed them elsewhere to succeed.

I have seen this frustration in students' faces when they muster the courage in conventions like the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) or the Grace Hopper Convention (GHC)to ask the panel of successful VPs how to manage difficult team situations. I also saw it in future employers when I participated in a post-semester Senior Design meeting.
  • Based on my years of teaching computer science and engineering students projects and the requisite soft skills, the webinar series, Expected But Not Taught: Soft Skills in a STEM World, will be for proactive students who want to develop these for both their sanity and their success. The first webinar will be "Team Triage: What to Do When You Sense Disaster" and will move to more positive topics like "Project Management Basics", "Preparing a 6-minute Update" and "Creating Your Job Portfolio." Students I taught who are now in both start ups and Fortune 500 companies indicated that these skills were what got them their jobs, despite the tight job market.

With the retro feel of these initiatives, some may feel jaded, believing that going down the same road in our educational system. I like to think of the work as I do engineering projects: We are just iterating to a better solution.

Watch this blog for notifications on when these resources become available.

Apr 6, 2013

Next Generation Science (and Engineering): Beware repeating history

Recently, I was invited by colleagues at the Minnesota Department of Education to take a look at the engineering aspects of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). 

I was very excited by the Frameworks of the NGSS... they were simple, essential, foundational and included engineering. How exciting that the nation would consider introducing engineering to children as early as kindergarten!

The standards are the implementation of the Frameworks organized along main concepts (e.g. Physical Science) and grade level. For those of us in engineering who are trying to decipher the educational structures, the Frameworks are like the end objectives, the standards are the verification tests to show you met them. It was a challenge to get through them, and a bit disheartening as I saw the slim Frameworks document explode into densely packed volumes of standards. However, anyone who has implemented anything knows that the devil comes out when filling in details-- thinking of all the details is a job in itself.

I was interested in how folks tried to nail down specifics of what children need to demonstrate in order to show they have the foundations of what an engineer needs. As someone who recently read over the Minnesota state standards of science and engineering, the NGSS started to look familiar. I could see where traditional science standards were peeking out as I read through the various topics and grade levels.

I struggled to think of the larger picture of engineering, a field that until the last 10 years, was considered a "post secondary" topic... how could you ever teach engineering without calculus, physics, chemistry, and computer science? As both a practicing engineer and someone who has been teaching “engineering for everyone” classes, particularly to elementary and middle school teachers since 2003, I knew that Department of Ed folks were wanting me to think of what might be missing rather than what was there.  
I thought of the struggles my women students had, the insights my inservice teachers have given me about their immigrant and lower income students, and the research I have read and done regarding these underrepresented populations. The following were my concerns that arose from the current standards. The suggestions are shortened versions of what I submitted to the state.

ITEM 1: "Hand" as well as "Head" needed: The standards currently emphasize analysis (“head”) skills without complementary fabrication (building or “hand”) skills, especially at the lower grade levels.

CONCERN: The lack of “hand” oriented experiences will perpetuate inequities for underrepresented groups such as girls and low income students who often enter school without these experiences and who don’t have the resources or social environment to encourage further experiences in upper grade levels.

SUGGESTION: Parallel the analysis experiences dictated by the standards with specific hands-on experiences that are key to any engineering design challenge requiring the creation of physical devices. This ensures that challenges posed in the higher grades can be met by all students, not just those who have the benefit of these experiences at home. Throughout the Core Disciplines standards, remember that the creation of a solution requires more than hands-on and analyzing. Remember, in the basic Analyze-Design-Build cycle of the engineering design process:
  • Building is different from “hands-on” because it can be enhanced or limited by a student’s skill with different technologies (e.g. those who have not experienced working with wood or metal will not design with those in mind and may limit selves to familiar material technologies such as paper or cardboard).
  • Designing is limited by technological experience (as indicated above) but can also be enhanced with brainstorming practices (e.g. SCAMPER), technical drawing, physical modeling, etc. While some design in their heads, others design on paper or the physical world. Explicit instruction is needed to counter the phenomena of students deciding they are not “artistic”  or “creative”. 
These multiple design/problem solving methods need to be recognized or we may perpetuate the misconception that only the person who can do it all in his head is the one who should become the engineer.

ITEM 2: Engineering has its own path of development that is currently missing in the standards: The standards appear to be focused mainly on science with just a few engineering aspects. Engineering itself does have some very distinctly different aspects which would benefit from early development.

CONCERN: Framing engineering problems from a scientific investigation standpoint diminishes the authenticity of the engineering challenge. If the desire is to teach engineering early to widen the pool of interested students, it is important that engineering practices are distinctly problem-oriented and need to be taught explicitly, just as the scientific method is, especially at the lower grade levels.

SUGGESTION: Tweak the “engineering” intended practices and core discipline objectives to underscore not only the similarities of engineering design with the scientific method (this is done rather well already) but also to scaffold the development of design strategies used by engineers. Guidelines in this process follow what real engineers do naturally:
  • Develop the ability to transfer essential ideas that solve one problem to solve others that share constraints or specifications: One example of this is the computer. Originally, it was developed to accurately process large amounts of data. But then, someone realized that the elements of storing alphanumeric data and outputting it to a printed page could also be used for text editing/word processing which allowed quality printing by an individual (instead of having to go to a printer or hiring a typist).
  • Have students reverse engineer and modify existing engineered solutions before having them create something completely new: Creating something completely new is one of the most advanced practices of engineering and is usually done after trying to understand and improve existing designs. To require students to be able to develop something substantially new without knowing how to improve the existing technology is to set the inexperienced student up for frustration and failure.
Without more authentic engineering experience, we will not give engineering its own identity as a field or career of its own separate from science.
ITEM 3: Provide specifications of the function of the engineering challenge. “Function” needs to be more explicit in the objectives intended to develop engineering abilities. Currently the objectives are vague and may result in emphasis on aspects that will not give insight into meeting future engineering challenges.

CONCERN: Without developing the ability to identify, describe and investigate functional aspects of problems, technologies, and designs, engineering challenges posed may seem either too large or intimidating to students without a natural instinct for engineering.

SUGGESTION: Use the engineering profession’s typical practices as guidelines to develop more specific objectives. This ensures that these practices are recognized, named, and taught so that all students can benefit from them in their design challenge. For example, Matter and Its Interactions engineering-related objectives can be made more specific and focused when considering how an engineer would use the concepts to solve problems: In kindergarten, instead of just classifying by use or natural/human-made, name the process of discovering material properties, compare those properties (e.g. stronger, harder, tougher, smoother), and determine how the properties were selected with a particular function in mind such as holding something heavy up, turning smoothly, spinning quickly or bending frequently. Other standards can be adjusted to develop key practices used in engineering such as consideration of "trade off" or use of data charts to make design decisions.

The ability to develop usable products requires more than scientific knowledge and the opportunity to create for many, especially those who are risk averse, grade conscious, or lack previous engineering-like experience. Failing to teach strategies to brainstorm or design will not widen the pool of potential engineers.

The official "final" standards are to be released this week. Let's hope that some consideration has been given to lay out these inclusive strategies. Otherwise, we may fail to provide the needed foundations to widen the net of potential STEM professional and end up with the same situation we have now. Wouldn't that be a shame?