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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