Dec 23, 2014

Power, Power, Power

photo by enrico maria, via
Who knew engines, power transmission, and diesel could be so fun? Delve into the power side of engineering and technology. Check out:
Car Talk Radio personalities Click and Clack describe the car as a system so you can understand how it works and what's wrong.
Karakuri Japanese paper art form utilizes mechanisms to transform rotary motion into whimsical toys.
Thomas the Tank Engine Although much maligned on the show, the online resource does a good job of explaining how they work and compare to steam engines.

Dec 9, 2014

Book Review: Help Your Kids with Math/Science

The title is enticing: Help Your Kids With Math... and science. I couldn't help take a look.
image by Engineer's Playground

I love the graphics and how they start with the big picture and drill down. For example, the science book starts with three main branches of science: Biological, Chemical, and Physical. Earth and space are categorized in Physical. These big three are then color coded and big ideas with related pictures (I love pictures) follow.

The math one is similar, starting with the different "maths" as the British call them. Funny thing this term: It reminds us that there are different types of math. There's arithmetic (numbers and their operations), algebra, geometry / trigonometry, etc. They are distinctly different yet related, and some students are better at one type than another (peek at this video on Emma King, a physicist who can't add).

If your child is sees science as discrete, unrelated facts, then Help Your Kids With Science is a must. If your child understands operations but could use a quick reference on procedure (and maybe a bit of insight on how maths is used in other applications), then the Help Your Kids With Math would be a great reference.

If you need to reacquaint yourself with science and/or math and like infographics, this book will help you help your kids (just like the title promises). However, if you struggled with math and/or science, and you're more of a word person, this may frustrate you. Spatial skills usually help kids in science, and your own struggles may have come from an underdeveloped sense of spatial language. The graphics communicate a lot visually which could be missed if you aren't comfortable gleaning information from pictures.

However, if you can figure out how to use the graphics--and teach your kids how--that will be an invaluable skill itself in STEM in general.

If your child needs some systematic structure to organize thoughts or a thorough-yet-accessible reference resource, these are great. If you're an elementary/middle school teacher, this is a must-have reference. Put it on your Christmas list!

Vorderman, Carol; Lewis, Barry; Jeffrey, Andrew; Weeks, Marcus; McArdle, Sean. Help Your Kids With Math. NY: DK Publishing, 2014
Jackson, Tom; Goldsmith, Mike; Savard, Stewart; Elia, Allison. Help Your Kids With Science. NY: Doring Kindersley Limited, 2014

Engineer's Playground is routinely asked for advice on useful and accessible STEM resources. Contact us if you have questions,

Nov 25, 2014

STEM as an Art Medium

photo by Michal Zacharzewski,
There's a lot of hubbub about STEM turning into STEAM. There are many variations of this. See which one suits you, your school, and your children:
  • STEM with a little art. For example, make a spaghetti bridge that holds up a certain amount of weight -- now make it pretty. Want to do this with your children? Start with some truss designs (Pittsburgh's Bridge website is a great resource), some spaghetti (the cheaper, the better), and a hot glue gun (school glue works, but hot glue is better). Some champion bridges like the Hoverla 5 are things of beauty.
  • Art eye transforms technology. Art develops a new way of looking at the same old thing. Consider how MoMA Kickstarter's store reinvents modern technology in new ways.
  • Aesthetic goals more than function. Some people look at modern art and say, "I know the artist is trying to say something, but I can't for the life of me figure out what it is." Others say, "I know the artist said something to me, but I don't know how it was done." Art speaks to our soul, and STEM is a medium that some use with mastery, e.g. kinetic sculptures or Strandbeests.
  • Art tells story of STEM. Art can also be the communicator of the wonder and beauty of STEM. That's what the Atomic STEAM Photography Show wants to do in their competition.
  • STEM as a tool for art: Theater set design students can get a lot out of STEM knowledge for planning designs, creating special effects, and building strong and flexible sets. See how they did this at the University of Arizona.
  • Art making the abstract concrete. Creative teachers realize that students need to "see" abstract concepts or hard to see systems. After hearing research about a dance professor who worked with a biology professor to have students dramatize the inner workings of a cell, I used the same idea to help students understand binary adders and why RAM is faster to access than physical disks. Guess my little stint in high school drama helped out my STEM teaching.
~ until next time, Yvonne

Nov 11, 2014

STEM and History: Easy Connections

photo by mimica (mirna sentic),
Several schools ask how they can integrate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) with other content areas like history, English language arts, and even physical education.

Let's start with history: There are a lot of connections of STEM with history, particularly technology. So many countries gained the upper hand with new technological developments: because of advancements of material technologies (like those who mastered ceramics or metal working) or power technologies (like the steam or internal combustion engine). If you're new to STEM but comfortable with history, you can get some ideas for lessons from these resources.:

Inventing America Did you know that the Conestoga wagons, canals, and railroads inventions impacted American economics, social structure, and geography? You can read more about the engineering and technology that impacted American history in this history book.

Connections  A late 70's BBC television show that shows how different developments in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics are connected concepts that lead to key elements in our modern world. Includes snippets of dramatic reenactment and filming of classic inventions such as water clocks, steam engines, and Jacquard looms framed with plucky British storytelling. Great for history buffs and techies, alike.

Low Tech Solutions For those looking to learn from the past, check out this website on how things were done "in the old days" -- the really old days. Information is part of a larger agenda to encourage sustainability from what we used to know how to do.

As always, more resources can be found on the Pinterest (see: Start Seeing STEM board).

~ until next time, Yvonne

Oct 28, 2014

Computing Skills

photo by Michal Zacharzewski, via
Because of the "screen time" issues, it's hard to advocate really young children using computers, but that doesn't mean they can't learn the logical algorithmic thinking methods required for computer programming. These can be as simple as giving numbers to sequences (e.g. "1. Eat dinner, then 2. We'll go to the playground") or showing cause-and-effect (e.g., If we press this button, the light will go on).

Things to consider if you are new to computers:
See more resources on Pinterest.

~ until next time, Yvonne

Oct 21, 2014

Boys and Girls in STEM

photo by sulaco229 (Robert), via

The natural question people have for me after I run a blog series on Girls in STEM is: what about the boys? It's always a good point. It's true that many STEM areas, particularly engineering and technology--Engineer's Playground's areas of specialty--are male-dominated. But studying why girls leave STEM also shows that some of the same issues keep many boys from pursuing STEM. 

Women are the canaries in the coal mine. -- Leonore Blum, Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist

Not all boys are good at math: Evidence shows is that many interventions made to encourage more women and girls into STEM also help men and boys who don't fit the stereotypes. It's a fallacy is that all boys are good at math. In reality, male performance is bi-modal--distributed at the very high levels and at the very low. Female performance, on the other hand, is more distributed in a bell curve. (Here's Scientific American's timeless overview of research on gender differences, "Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement".) 

Not all boys know how to use technology: So many engineering professors lament to me, "Kids these days don't know how to fix things." One machine shop instructor even showed me his "Glue Shelf"--all the glue that his (mostly male) students used to connect their metal parts together. After their parts failed to stay together, he confiscated the glue and informed them that screws, bolts, and nuts might work better.

Soft skills make a difference, but need to be taught: More social, collegial, communicative environments help retain women, but they also develop the soft skills needed for success in STEM. However, many STEM programs, particularly engineering, don't actually teach these in a technical setting. This is unfortunate, since most recruiters encourage young engineers to develop these soft skills for success (see Thomas Net's "5 Must-Have Soft Skills for Engineers' Career Success," or NES Global Talent's "Soft Skills"). Some studies show that salaries for those with good soft skills can be up to $5000/year higher than those without them (see ASME's "Public Speaking and the Type 'C' Personality").

So whether you are teaching boys or girls or both, consider new ways to teach STEM. Such interventions can encourage both girls and boys into STEM--and your students will thank you for the opportunity to see STEM differently.

~ until next time, Yvonne

Oct 7, 2014

Toys to build STEM skills

photo by Engineer's Playground
For young children, look for those more mechanical in nature rather than electronic or computer to build concrete experiences:
  • Q-Ba-MazeThese interconnecting blocks can build marble runs of surprising complexity. Start building the mazes yourself and let your child drop the marbles and watch (or predict) where they will come out. This helps encourage observation skills as early as 3-4 years old. By age 5 so, your children will be able to use that spatial and physics understanding to build their own mazes. This toy can also be good for an older child who may not have had many spatial experiences, as it doesn't have a childish feel.
  • GearationThis motorized gear set is sturdy enough to be handled by young children with supervision. Allow your child to turn the gears by hand so he or she can figure out how each gear works. Then you can turn on the motor. At around 3 years old, your child will be ready to mesh the gear teeth together and set up the gears so they turn each other. The refrigerator version is a great starter, and even older children and adults find this extremely engaging.
See more products good for engaging in STEM on the Engineer's Playground website.

~ until next time, Yvonne

Sep 30, 2014

Developmental Approach to Engineering: They're More Like Guidelines Than Rules

Image by Michal Zacharzewski, via
Engineering is new to a lot of teachers. When I was growing up, people thought I was going to drive a train when I said I was going to be an engineer. With little understanding of what engineering is, it's no wonder teachers are stymied on how to teach engineering to young children. 

True, kids don't yet know physics, chemistry, or calculus, but they're not necessary to start engineering. A lot of engineering happened before those fields were fully understood (or invented, in the case of calculus). Think of the Pyramids, Stonehenge, and the the Great Wall. Many famous "engineers" like Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci didn't have a formal education.

The key to their success was the process they used to create solutions to meet their needs. Persistence is one important habit that can be developed very early in life (babies, toddlers, preschool). Here's a post I wrote that may help:  Don Music -- Engineer?
  • Use authentic and meaningful engineering projects from the beginning to develop technical skills, motivate mathematical abilities, and contextualize scientific phenomena
  • Start with concrete methods of design (e.g. prototypes, reverse engineering, role-playing) and model how to move them to abstract ones of the profession (e.g. schematics, graphs, force analysis, computers)
  • Incorporate time for iteration; discourage "one and done" approaches
  • Remember engineering has its own set of required skills and concepts. Providing direct instruction on this can increase the number of students succeeded in open-ended engineering projects. These include the ability to design, optimize, work in teams, and think in terms of systems.
For those in K-12, it's best to think in terms of development rather than age or grade. If a college student has never taken something apart, starting him or her in a college-level engineering class is obviously inappropriate. The good thing is that the older child (or adult) can catch on quickly to essential foundations given the right experiences.

Christian D. Schunn's "How Kids Learn Engineering: The Cognitive Science Perspective,"gives some good background on this idea of developmental scaffolding of lessons. Regarding engineering, a field that many K-12 teachers are unfamiliar with, he also offers guidelines for incorporating engineering into the school curriculum. They make a lot of sense from my experience in teaching engineering to novices, no matter what their age.

If you're developing a STEM school, remember these engineering guidelines with respect to the science, technology, and mathematics as well. Consider dividing STEM activities into beginner, intermediate, advanced experiences--I know, that's the standard practice of good teachers. So the good news is that it holds true when teaching STEM! 

Some children come in with experiences that have developed required engineering skills and understandings. Others (usually from under-represented populations) need that experience in school.

~ until next time, Yvonne

Sep 16, 2014

The Drama That Is Engineering

image by jaylopez (Jay), via
With many states now requiring engineering ("the E in STEM"). many teachers are nervous. Though teachers I work with are adults, intelligent and well-educated, they are just novices with respect to Many wonder how they can teach this subject they never learned.

Ignorance can be an advantage, though.The "sage on the stage" method of teaching--where the teacher knows all the answers--can be a crutch to some, preventing them from owning their learning, and a joykill for others who want the thrill of experiencing the drama that engineering projects can be.

The new-to-engineering teacher can be a great "guide on the side," an approach that can allow students to discover and experience the full thriller nature engineering projects have to offer. A great engineering class hears the "Aws" of the failed prototypes, experiences the tensions of decision making under the pressure of constraints, and witnesses the shouts and jumps of a successful run. Just watch movies like October Sky or Apollo 13.

So, STEM teachers, next time you run your engineering project, think of yourself as the next Ron Howard, bent on eliciting the drama of engineering, with your students taking the starring roles.


~ until next time, Yvonne

Sep 9, 2014

Math + Social Justice = The Hunger Games

One of the things Engineer's Playground provides are free, relevant, and unique lesson ideas for teachers who try to integrate STEM with other content areas. It's not a complete lesson (with assessments, grouping strategies, etc) but it's a seed of a lesson for those who can nurture it. If you do use it, please let us know! We'd love to know.

A Seed of a Lesson: Weighing the Odds

The Gist: A great mini-project you can do with kids who like The Hunger Games relates to probability and the Reaping

The Investigation: How could Katniss and Gale have their name in the pool so many times? Is the system unfair to those who are poor?

The Introduction:
In Chapter 1, Katniss discusses Gale’s angry words to Madge. “The reaping system is unfair, with the poor getting the worst of it.” Is this true? What is the true effect of taking a tessera by a boy like Gale? In this activity, we will translate the rules described in the book into a model of that the first few years of Reaping would look like in a simplified district with 4 children: Gale, Katniss, Madge, and Peeta.

An Outline of Activities:
  • Translate the Reaping rules to a process (algorithm). Start first with concrete items like colored beads to visually represent a person's name. This helps students actually see how a person’s probability changes based on the number of tesserae taken in the year. 
  • Organize data concretely in charts: After seeing this in a model, students then use the rules to create a chart with the numbers. 
  • Visualize data patterns in graphs: To appreciate the numbers, they make different graphs (bar graph, stacked graph) to visualize what happens as the person ages.
  • Use of spreadsheets: It gets tedious to keep counting out beads or filling the chart by hand. After a few rounds, students should see that there is a pattern to the number of beads each year (formula development). Show that spreadsheets can help. And then use it to see what happens for more than just a few children in District 12.
What is practiced: 
  • Modeling: Start Simple, Add Complexity: Real systems are often complicated, but being able to simplify them and then add in complexities in a controlled way can give insight into the underlying rules of a system. When we deal with numbers, we forget that the numbers represent real things (or people) in a real world. However, numbers allow us to see the effect that certain rules or patterns have on individual people. 
  • Abstraction: Start Concrete, Find Patterns: Probability is often hard to grasp as a concept. A physical model, like a collection of marbles or gum balls help us see which items are “more likely” to happen. Graphs are another way to visualize not only one year, but across years, without having to buy more materials (as would be needed in a physical model). The ability to create a chart or graph from hand helps the student understand what the computer does with the program.

Possible Extension:
  • Use these methods in traditional problems such as coin flip, roll of a die, craps, the lottery.

Related Standards: Common Core Mathematics Standards

6.RP Understand ratio concepts and use ratio reasoning to solve problems 
1. Understand the concept of a ratio and use ratio language to describe a ratio relationship between two quantities.
3. Use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems

7.SP Investigate chance processes and develop, use, and evaluate probability models

Like this idea but need some tech help? Let us know. If enough people need it, we'll make an affordable guide.

Have another book you'd like to STEMify? Suggest it and we'll consider it for future posts.

Jul 28, 2014

The Technology Framework: Teaching the T in STEM in a Changing World

Photo by chilipadi, via
Moving engineering into the K-12 arena opened up ways of thinking about engineering in a very foundational way. As a major that requires calculus, physics, chemistry, and basic computing before starting engineering courses, engineers and educators have had to think about what the actual process of engineering is, absent of the calculations. They came up with The Engineering Design Process.

In a way, this parallels the use of The Scientific Method in K-12 science, shifting curriculum from fact-based, single-answer memorization and calculation to an inquiry-based method. The argument is that if we want innovative, creative problem solvers, we have to teach the process of venturing into the unknown rather than the drilling of what we currently believe to be true.

Technology may benefit from a similar “essentialization” of the discipline. It may also help solve some of the identity issues around the term, “Technology”: First, some think that it’s all about computers, or information technology (IT). Certainly, the computer world has usurped the word: “education technology” means the use of computers and other information technology products in the classroom. The International Society for Technologyin Education (ISTE) certainly assumes this. Personally, I don’t know how many “women in technology” events I have gone to and found myself surrounded by network, program, and database professionals—the only engineer in the bunch

When working with schools, I remind them that computers (as we know them today) were invented in the 1950’s. Technological development occurred for centuries before then. Once their definition of technology is expanded, they realize they have more work to do, but also more opportunities.

Those of us in an “older” generation remember “votech” school, a great opportunity for those students who were more “creative-ables” than bookish calculators. The Brookings Institution’s The Hidden STEM Economy outlines the importance of these talents in our economy as well and the importance of STEM for a larger population of critical workers.

But, how to prepare a kindergartener or third grader for technology? Many industrial arts programs don’t start until 5th or 6th grade at the earliest. One of the leaders in technology education, the International Technology and Engineering Education Association (ITEEA) has attempted to bring a technology awareness down into the early grades by addressing “technological literacy.”

While this is good for an appreciation for the technology around us, the content areas start to feel fragmented. In “The Designed World” criteria of the ITEEA standards, Technology explodes into a second identity crisis: How to unite the various types of technology (e.g. medical, transportation, manufacturing, construction, energy and power technologies, in addition to agricultural and biotechnologies) into a more manageable ways to teach concepts, skills, and abilities?

What technology education needs is a framework to streamline and simplify disparate technologies, similar to what the Next GenerationScience Standards (NGSS) used. Since technicians are a bit more pragmatic than scientists or engineers, the framework should reflect this practical nature, a touchstone to make sure students know what they need to be able to be great technicians – to construction, maintain, repair, and later dispose of the technology.

When teaching, I like to use this framework, with four main areas:
  1. Materials: What materials are commonly used in this field? What properties do these have? What happens to these properties over time or in different expected conditions?
  2. Manufacturing: How are these materials manufactured into the technology of interest? What are the common tools and instruments to create, maintain, repair, and dispose of this technology? What are the standard ways of communicating manufacturing procedures?
  3. Energy and Power: How is this technology powered? What is the energy requirement? How is this power transmitted to the technology?
  4. Information (data) and Intelligence: What data is needed to operate this technology (by humans, machines, or computers)? What kinds of decisions must be made with it?
A really good education explores how these are done in the past and what new scientific discoveries and engineering practices might be important in the future.

Some technology fields concentrate on one area more than others. For example, computer technicians may need more in Area 4 whereas welders are more concerned with Areas 1, 2, and 3. As technologies change and mature, a framework can guide the incisions needed to reshape the education without overwhelming the student or throwing out quality aspects of the existing curriculum. For example, machinists should still learn the basics on material properties, skills on creating and reading a blueprint, and selection and determination of cutters and speeds, but their understanding of these areas can be enhanced with a bit more knowledge about the data and decisions a computer does in NC (numerical control) systems.

As a curriculum designer, a framework provides a good way to check that all bases are covered. For students, it provides a structure on which to hang their understanding.

A simple framework may be able to transform technical education into a way for creative-ables to enlighten and make sense of the world, rather than a series of facts and procedures to memorize and follow.

Related posts:

Jun 19, 2014

Technology and Engineering: The Working Class Part of STEM

My father told me once that the book, Atoms in the Family, changed his life. In case you don't know: This is the biography of Enrico Fermi, the physicist who split the atom in the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. My father said that the book made him realize he could be a physicist, not just an engineer. I found it curious that my father had such a hierarchy in his mind regarding STEM disciplines.

Nearly 40 years later, I noticed a similar perspective to engineering in my first and second generation students (mostly Vietnamese and Hmong women). They felt they couldn't get off their pre-med track to study engineering because their parents felt (as my father did) that engineering was too lowly for them. The idea that engineering is a lower status in the STEM world is not new. Authors from Margaret Mitchell to Samuel Florman talk about engineering's low prestige value.

Of course today, so many people tell me that engineering seems unattainable, challenging, and almost intellectually elite. What a shift! With a national interest in recruiting more students into STEM, particularly engineering, it's worth investigating the various views and realities of engineering and the education of engineers. This is especially valuable if we want to draw from our increasingly diverse population.

Let's actually start our story with technology. This area of the STEM acronym has historical ties to the trades: the blacksmiths, goldsmiths, carpenters. The trades are now crafts and the term, technology, relates to new technologies such as medical, power, information, and agricultural. What all these professionals share is an intimate knowledge of properties of their particular technology as well as mastery skills that give them the ability to manipulate, construct, repair, and/or maintain devices related to their technology.

With the new technologies, a need for engineers arose. They were responsible for creating new products and systems to leverage the advantages of those technologies. In fact, there was an explosion of engineering degrees during the Industrial Revolution, often matching one-to-one with the new technologies: petroleum engineering, electrical engineering, aeronautical engineering, etc.

After WWII, the technologies became complex enough to require more theoretical foundations. As the University of Michigan's Engineering for a Changing World report (for the Millennium Project) indicates, courses shifted from a more practical education, taught by experienced engineers, to more ones taught by applied scientists with superficial reference to "design, technical writing, and professional ethics." The pendulum swung from the blue-collar-like trades towards the more elite sciences.

Today, this swing results in three main complexities in the education of our future engineers:
  1. Theory without practicality: A student entering engineering in this post-war curriculum would be taught more theory than practice. For students without previous experience in practical design with the technology, their designs become more theoretical exercises without the teeth of experience: from either personal experience or from the experience of instructors. In our increasingly virtual world, we find that the kids with the math and science education to make it into college engineering often have little real-world experience. Often coming from more advantaged backgrounds, they play with flight simulators rather than radio-controlled planes, race on video games rather than soap boxes, and hire repair services rather than fix devices themselves. In a way, they are rich enough to have the education to handle the theory but are too rich to need to make and fix their own things. 
  2. Impostor syndrome: Some students come to engineering logically: They are strong in math and science but want to use it to do things rather than research. For them, the post-war theoretical curriculum comes easily. Their good grades result in good jobs, but because they lack experience with typical practices, design challenges, and the realities of the technology, work in "the real world" is difficult. Women often fall into this category, leaving engineering later because they feel like impostors: engineers on paper, but not "real engineers," unfamiliar with manufacturing methods or material technologies to build what they design on paper. 
  3. Unprepared for theory: For students coming in with hands-on experiences with the technology in question (through hobbies, jobs, or other circumstance), the theory can ground them so they can engineer completely new products. However, often, these "creative-ables" struggle with formal coursework, especially the higher levels of math required to become "engineering eligible." These students are often rich enough to have things but poor enough to not be able to pay someone to repair them or get the top-of-the-line technology. They share a common background with some of the best engineering minds in history: Thomas Edison, Rudolf Diesel, and Philo Farnsworth. Each benefited from non-traditional formats of learning and were able to complement their education with simultaneous job experience. Today, students from rural areas, immigrant communities, and lower economic groups often have this can-do spirit and hands-on experience, but they face challenges with traditional educational methods, language barriers, and financial burdens. This is the untapped potential of the country, very interested in STEM but not proficient in engineering prerequisites. According to Business Higher Education Forum's Increasing the Number of STEM Graduates report (2010), over 15% of 12th graders fall into this category.
Ironically, the best approach may be one that pays homage to the working class roots of Technology and Engineering professions. Education is the great equalizer. Labor unions recognized its influence on upward mobility and requested more land-grant institutions that would transform their hands-on technology skill set into an engineering profession. But now it's not just the working class who can benefit. Engineering is no longer just for the lower class or the upper class; we need all those with the potential and interest to be able to enter the field and contribute.

Consider a three-prong approach to teaching technology and engineering so as to cast our widest net:
  1. Provide technology experience early 
  2. Provide engineering opportunities for all  
  3. Provide simultaneous job-education opportunities, especially for those with financial needs
The following posts in this series will provide guidelines around teaching technology and engineering in K-12 with these goals in mind.

Want to learn more about incorporating Technology and Engineering into your STEM program? Contact us at or 612-321-8809 and let's chat!

May 12, 2014

#Girls in #STEM > Guideline #1: Create a fertile environment

(c) Engineer's Playground
Parents have the power of selecting a good learning environment that will encourage their girls in STEM. If you are a teacher or principal, you have the opportunity to create that fertile ground. Most of the key elements for good environments were identified in studies dating back to the 1980s to address feelings of isolation, identity, and inadequacy. They include:
  • Collaborative rather than competitive situations. Competitive situations often encourage isolation or put women at a disadvantage because they often develop their interest in things technical later in life and don't have as much hands-on time with the technology (see "Pipeline or personal preference: Women in engineering").
  • Learning centers for those who didn't have previous experiences that are associated with playful tinkering. These can formalize the tinkering process by developing skills like technical drawing, working with tools, and otherwise manipulating materials (see "Teaching girls to tinker").
  • Hands-on approaches and positive attitudes about the abilities and potential of girls in STEM (see "Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics").
  • Inquiry- and project-based learning that concentrate on process rather than fact regurgitation. This evens the playing field among those coming into school with different technical expertise by focusing success on cognitive skills, habits, and comfort in venturing into the unknown, a requirement of any successful STEM professional (see "How kids learn engineering: A cognitive science perspective").
All-girl schools boast of having this situation for their girl (e.g., Laurel School, Laura Jeffrey Academy, Harpeth Hall School). Some progressive co-ed programs like those at Arizona State University's College of Technology and Innovation consider this kind of environment just part of good teaching.
While these elements are ideal for learning STEM--both men and women benefit from these conditions--I have found they are sometimes implemented as items on a checklist, not synchronous parts of a system designed to bridge students from the controllable classroom to "the real world." Strategic transition is especially important since several reports show that the real world of STEM is more like the more traditional (discouraging and ineffective) learning environment than these ideal ones (see "Stemming the tide: Why women leave engineering"). Not addressing them will make females interested in STEM feel cheated with a "bait and switch" when they attend a college, graduate school, or job that sports a less than ideal environment.

Here are some practical design guidelines I found essential while preparing college students for the STEM profession and helping K-12 teachers design their courses:

1. Make grading about assessing, not weeding
Many times, professors, particularly those in engineering and physics, treat tests like a weeding exercise, putting the hardest possible problems they can think of on the test and seeing who can solve them. While this "separates the men from the boys" as a friend quipped, it doesn't help students evaluate their understanding of the subject: The really brilliant get the A, and everyone else falls somewhere below in a seemingly random manner. This is exacerbated when exam scores of 45% result in a B grade for the course (as happens in many college-level STEM courses), resulting in common plights linked to female attrition such as "anything under an A means I don't understand", "fear of failure," and "The Impostor Syndrome."

If tests are set up to evaluate level of learning, then the grades become more accurate evaluation tools for both the professor and the student. This is best done by having 70% of the test content cover what was actually covered in class and on homework. The remaining 20-30% then differentiates those who can generalize learned concepts to novel situations. Tests by physicist, Jim Peebles, were the best example of this type of testing I ever encountered. His tests evaluated what he had taught, with students walking out feeling they were able to show what they had learned, as well as identify what they struggled with. He also had a gift of making 10% of the points (usually one question) distinguish the "A" student from the "A+" one.

2. Separate evaluating cognitive understanding from motivational challenge
When making project grading about assessing, not weeding, the criteria for passing (C-) becomes measurable and objective (e.g. a bridge holds x pounds, or a motor runs at x rev/sec). The criteria for higher grades then relate to professional habits: learn more sophisticated methods or techniques, do self-study, make systems more robust, or think of the end-user.

Some teachers cringe at clearly defining "the minimum" to pass because some intelligent students do just that and then stop. But I remind them that those are cases of motivation, not understanding. Correcting an unmotivated student is very different from making sure a struggling student understands the required concepts. If your evaluation tool can't distinguish these two situations, it's not highly useful and hinders your ability to reach each student.

3. Use projects to motivate basic concepts and skills dictated by standards
Because of a talk I did for PBS's The Learning Course, folks think I'm anti-standards. That's not entirely true, but I also recognize that teachers and students have to meet the standards even if they may not be entirely reasonable in scope, implementation, or evaluation. Thus, when setting up a project, I have teachers start with the standards. By using them as the basics required, we can create a measurable criteria for pass-fail for projects and tests. An engaging and authentic project then puts the spice into normally dry instruction that "drills and kills" for standardized tests. In this way, skills are practiced, concepts are applied, and students have a chance to choose a project which they are passionate about so that they create their own STEM identity.

4. Have at least 3 different ways to teach competence
A key rule-of-thumb in crisis management is keeping Head-Hands-Heart in mind for all things you do: What do you need to think about (head), do (hands), and feel (heart) to deal with this crisis? When teaching STEM to students who have no previous experience with STEM, this means presenting the material in at least three ways which engage these three touchstones. For example, students do activities to experience phenomena (hands). This is followed by readings and lectures where big ideas make sense of the activities (head). Then students get the time to process concrete experiences in light of abstract concepts through self-tests, homework, and learning centers until they feel they know the concepts (heart).

5. Teach life strategies
Creating projects and courses with the above framework helps students see that becoming competent is a process that takes time, practice, and comfort with a state of fuzziness at times. However, as they progress to the next level (college, graduate school, "the real world"), they may not have the most ideal environments. They need to know how to contend with these situations as well.

Two key strategies my women (and a few men) appreciate relate to:
a. Challenges they will encounter in the real world
Teams are the greatest challenges many of them encounter. So I help them see that it's a matter of ABC: Figuring out if the difficulties come from Arses, Bullies, or Clueless wonders. Each is different and need to be handled appropriately. Other challenges we address are negotiation, presentations, questions and answers, and professional communication (through emails, on the phone, and in meetings).

b. How to revitalize self
Dedicated students often burn out if they don't learn to advocate for themselves to get interesting and rewarding work or to balance their work and life. Being hard workers, they sometimes feel guilty about doing something non-STEM related, but I remind them of a famous Olympic coach who told his trainees to have a hobby in addition to the sport. The reasoning was that there will be bad days in a sport, so the other interest gives you a chance to feel the day wasn't a total loss. This same philosophy is at the heart of work-life balance in STEM. We also talk about how to do 360 evaluations where students learn how to align their self-evaluation with their supervisors and to plan their professional development in terms of tangible goals and performances.

We don't have enough STEM talent to lose to poor environments. Evidence shows that the current STEM teaching environment is great at weeding out females. So maybe we should try a different mix of soil so we can grow the STEM in all of our children.

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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.

Mar 12, 2014

#Girls in #STEM > Guideline #2: What Is Taught Matters

photo by lusi (sanja gjenero), via
I'm often asked by technology and engineering teachers why they can't seem to get more girls into their classes. Or if they do enroll, why don't they stay? Good science and math teachers mull this over, too, though the problem is often less urgent since students are usually required to take their classes.

Often, success with girls has to do with what is taught and how it is taught. A few simple rules of thumb can help a dedicated teacher welcome and entice girls into the exciting world of STEM.

"Why do I care about this?" This question is your clue that the examples or projects are not relevant to your girl. Without a big picture, familiar examples, or goals they care about, girls usually won't engage and will feel this is "for someone else."

So, instead of just presenting hydraulic car lifts, talk about hairdresser's chair lifts. Instead of focusing only on industrial applications of pumps, consider also discussing lift pumps you find in the park or historical pumps like the rag or bucket pumps or the Archimedes screw. From there, they can see relevant applications like blood pressure bulbs or breast pumps (you may want them to come up with this instead of introducing it).

"I don't know what you are talking about." An English major colleague of mine finally confessed that half the time, she didn't know what we engineers were saying when we talked about "actuators, break out boxes, or male-female pins." And words that she did know ("sensors, loops, thread, and feedback") didn't seem to be used the ways she expected.

Often, the instructor of technology and engineering has a long history with those fields from a very young age. If you've handled tools, built circuits, or written programs for fun as a youngster, it may be hard to discern what is "instinctual" from what was learned from literally thousands of hours of experience. This leads to assumptions of skills and insight--if all of your girls seem "clueless" or when they ask questions, ask basic or irrelevant ones, then maybe you assumed something and need to do some teaching.

Tools like soldering irons, multimeters, socket wrenches, and monkey wrenches may be unfamiliar terms or foreign instruments. Once identified, these assumptions can be mitigated through:
  • LEARNING CENTERS: Think of The Hunger Games preparation sessions go STEM. Have stations where students can pick which skills to learn or improve. For example, a day focused on fastening technologies can have a center on different glues; nails, staples, and rivets; bolts, screws, and wood joints; soldering and welding. But unlike The Hunger Games, encourage students to share tips, tricks, and skills with each other.
  • OBSERVATION: Underrepresented populations have learned how to hide gaps in knowledge. Look for the clues like circumspect questions that use terms awkwardly or sidelong glances at other students before they start working. Then...
  • BE VULNERABLE: Share your own past confusions (to show that everyone has to learn something sometime), followed by some kind of statement that you can't learn if you don't ask. My favorite expression is "If you didn't know it in the womb, you can ask the question." 
  • BREAK DOWN DESIGNS INTO PARTS: Scaffold concepts through activities that are themselves engaging. A hydraulic lift, for example, needs a few other experiences first to see its genius: First, closed systems and mechanical advantage are necessary concepts. You can introduce this by making a hydraulic press and telling a story about ancient times when people wanted to lift heavy objects. Since this system is limited by the amount of fluid in the system, you have motivated the need for a pump. Put check valves in their hands (I like to start with swing valves since their mechanism is big enough to see what's happening). Then have them figure out how to build a pump with them to fill air and water balloons. Now, your students have all the concepts needed to understand the hydraulic lift.
"Why do you keep starting from scratch?" My father asked me this when I showed him that I learned how to "complete the square" in algebra. I was surprised. He usually was happy when I did math, but instead he said, "Put in a, b, and c for the constants." I did so and completed the square again... and lo, there was the quadratic equation. "It's good that you know how to derive it, but once you have matches, you don' t have to keep rubbing sticks together." I couldn't believe it. My Chinese father was telling me to find a shortcut!

Studies show that manipulatives have really helped girls "catch up" with boys in math classes. However, girls tend to stay with these tried-and-true methods whereas the boys start "guessing" -- racing to see who can answer the question first. This competitive approach has its good and bad points, the good point being that those willing to leap from peak to peak rather than taking the long road often develop creative ways to approaching more complicated problems.

While I don't advocate competitive methods of randomly "racing" towards the answer, I do find that getting students comfortable with finding shortcuts helps develop higher levels of insight. Interestingly, finding ways for them to increase practice time help a lot:
  • COMPUTER PROGRAMS: These allow students to build confidence and speed on more private terms.
  • PLAYFUL BANTER: Think of playing catch but with math or logic. Interact with your girl by playfully presenting a questions of varying complexity, again and again. Play with harder, simpler, or similar questions to build confidence and nurture insight. Sometimes you make a mistake and "throw wide." My father did this once, and said, "Oops, that was harder than I thought. Try this one instead." It's easy to keep this playful when one-on-one. Be aware of group dynamics if you do it with more than one.
  • PUZZLES OR GAMES: Othello, Backgammon, Mastermind, Swish, or Set use the same skills but in different contexts: logic, prediction, spatial awareness, pattern finding. While playing, share your process for making your moves or help them develop ones based on the differences and similarities to previous situations.
Too many times, I have seen students, especially females, do familiar tasks first--designing, planning, analyzing, and even documenting. Unfamiliar territory is often pushed to later in the timeline.

This is exactly the opposite of what should be done. Logically, more time should be allotted for learning, experimenting, and thinking. But diving into the unknown is scary--How do you start? What if you get stuck? Remind students that if they don't know what to do, they need more time to make mistakes--and mistakes are how you learn (see Guideline #3: Handling Failure). Having less time won't make that insight come faster.

Ways you can help your girls be braver about venturing into the abyss of the unknown:
  • HAVE ACTIVITIES MAKE PROTOTYPES: By having your learning activities create essential prototypes for the final project, you force them to start designing in a more guided situation (see Item 2 above about Breaking Designs Into Parts).
  • REQUIRE A PROPOSAL: A simple proposal has sketches of the initial design, a timeline with key milestones, and a basic risk analysis. Requiring it formalizes planning (what boys stereotypically forget to do) and gives a platform for voicing concerns so you can get insight into their thoughts, feelings, and confidence. The key point to make is that the proposal is about revealing, not hiding or faking. 
  • BE A PART OF THE TEAM: Create an environment of collaboration: both among the students and with you and the students. Position yourself as someone who is on their side, wanting them to become successful. The proposal is the first place where you can share your experience, but remind them that you can't help if they keep you in the dark.
  • ACKNOWLEDGE THE CHALLENGE OF MAKING IT WORK: Girls tend to underplay their successes. Remind them that an engineering project is required every time constraints are changed: Think about cars. They exist, but if suddenly you say it has to run without gasoline, you have a whole new engineering project.  Don't let them mix up "simple" with "trivial". If they bought a kit and followed the directions exactly, that's largely trivial (in the engineering world), but if they had to modify that design for their own needs, that's not trivial. Recognizing that their ability to make a new design work gives them the confidence for future ventures into the unknown.
  • HAVE THEM DEMONSTRATE, NOT DESCRIBE: "Show me what you have done," is what I usually ask students when they check in. Too many times, students are too inexperienced to realize all the tasks that need to be done. They often run out of time because they don't build soon enough. I tell them, "Use verbs not adjectives" For example, they should say "It spins, pumps, or lights up" not "It's fine" or "We're good". This keeps check-ins in the real, concrete world where engineering needs to be.
  • TEACH PROCESSES TO MITIGATE RISK: Engineers use processes like reverse engineering or troubleshooting to manage risk. Taking apart existing products can give insight into new designs; being able to troubleshoot circuits or code can give students confidence to trying new things. But these can seem risky to the novice. For example, what if you break something while taking it apart? What if a part is lost? I usually teach cautious students how to use Tupperware or baggies to organize parts as they take them apart so they can know the disassemble order. Once they feel comfortable with the process, they can do what they needed to do: observe how the parts work together, learn how they fit together, or figure out why the product isn't working anymore.
If you're a Project Lead the Way or other engineering and technology teacher, I hope this gives you a broader perspective for welcoming girls into your world!

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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.

Feb 2, 2014

#Girls in #STEM > Guideline #3: Handling Failure

Photo by Gabriella Fabbri, via
"I'm not smart, I just work hard." This is what so many women told me when I interviewed them for She's an Engineer? Princeton Alumnae Reflect when I interviewed them in the late 80's. This mantra persisted ten years later when I taught at a women's college at the turn of the millineum. It fits with AAUW's findings in Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics regarding female's belief about their intelligence. Somehow, girls in particular grow up believing that they are only smart if it comes easily to them. That it has to be in them already. This is the first exit point for many girls, as I saw first hand when a student explained that she stopped coming to class when we went into material she didn't already know.

The more successful girls believe that they are hiding their inadequacy by working hard. I saw this attitude from the honors students in the Women in Science class. I counter this self-limiting statement with the observation that they are smart enough to work hard. I cite the movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In true Chinese form, the movie portrays a woman who may have had mediocre skills to start, but who worked hard and held herself to a higher standard (Yu Shu Lien, played by Michelle Yeoh). Her admirable character is paired with a girl with raw talent who defiantly refuses to work towards a higher level. She believes she is already good enough to live the fantasies she dreams about (Jen, played by Zhang ZiYi). With two women in these opposite roles, the movie removes the stereotypical gendered aspect of these attitudes, and all the students admitted to admiring the older woman more than the younger -- after all, the actions of the latter cause the death and unhappiness of so many in the film. So, then, I point out, working hard is an important part of success, right?

AAUW's report also indicated that women self-assess themselves lower in technical areas than their male counterparts do. I'm not surprised here, either, as studies show that women engineers often dropped out with higher grades (A's and B's) than their male counterparts despite both indicating that they didn't feel they were doing well enough.

One of the most important things to point out to your girls is that struggle and even failure is part of the formula for success. Consider Violet in A Series of Unfortunate Events, Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, Mulan in Mulan, and Anne in Anne of Green Gables. In fact, none of these would have been interesting stories without the struggles each character encountered. Uneventful girls come from uneventful lives. 

I don't deny that struggle and failure are hard to deal with. That's why purpose helps: Bringing home a trophy fish is less important when you are feeding a village. When helping a larger cause, every little bit counts. That's probably why successful STEM programs give a context to the STEM learning (Guideline #5: STEM and...): Working towards something larger than one's self also breeds resilience. Many women I know may hesitate to stand up for themselves, but they will move mountains for a friend or a child. Movies are ripe with such strong (sometimes labeled stubborn) women: Gladys in Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Mother Maria in Lilies of the Field, Hermionie Granger in Harry Potter, and Katniss in Hunger Games.

Help your girl see struggles in STEM in the right context, and you will give her a perspective that will serve her for her whole life.

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

Jan 18, 2014

#Girls in #STEM >> Guideline #4: STEM Success Will Look Different in Girls

Photo by sanja gjenero, via
If you imagine the kid totally into STEM, you may think of a child surrounded by disassembled objects, or one creating mixtures with a chemistry set which occasionally explode, or one working problem sets with vigor. But how many of those images are stereotypical of boys?

October Sky, one of my favorite movies, showcases boys obsessed with rockets. In the book, this passion is even more explicit, with them learning how to draft, machine, and weld from technicians and begging the school to teach calculus so they can figure out how high their rockets go using time measurements. All were motivated through their love of rockets to move into post-secondary education, and Henry Hickam, the author, went on to become an engineer at NASA.

Girls interested in STEM also have a great time with others. STEM usually needs to be associated with a positive social interaction. This was a key element found in the study, More than ability: Gender and personal relationships influence science and technology involvement. While boys will power through the tough times (read: challenging courses, poor teaching, impossible deadlines) once given a goal that they want, girls usually need to have positive social experiences to stick it through. Sports, theater, and dance are all challenging activities that girls succeed in, but only when the thrill of doing it with others is the capstone. From this, it's obvious why STEM, taught in isolated, competitive, and/or boot-camp-like environments succeeds in discouraging females.

What does the movie with girls into STEM look like? From the women I know in STEM, it may have a girl hanging out with her father, working on the car, making shelves, or looking at stars (like Ellie in Contact). It may be a girl with her mother, cooking and substituting ingredients for those they don't have; figuring out the most efficient system for sending out holiday cards; or sewing and selecting the right material, modifying patterns, using tools such as needles, shears, and machines to stitch and alter like Laura does in These Happy Golden Years. It may be a group banding together to use their STEM expertise make a great event happen like a theater set production team, a math-competition team, or a detective team (like Charlie's Angels -- the spirit spoke to me as a young girl though now as an adult, the settings may have been questionable; the remake may give a clearer sense of girl power).

So don't box your girl into the categories of quiet nerds or boisterous brogrammers; today's STEM girls are new kids in town, and they will be like nothing you have seen before.

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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.