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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