To Code or Not to Code – Why neither is the answer to getting more girls interested in STEM fields

Countless research studies and initiatives have focused on our inability to attract female students to STEM fields. The percentages for women in Engineering has only budged by a few percentage points in the past few decades since I graduated with an Engineering degree. This summary from the National Girls Collaborative does a great job of laying out all of the statistics from K-12 through college and into the workforce. Their estimate of women making up 15% of the Engineering workforce is actually generous compared to some others that range from 11-15%.

When you consider that the challenges of the future will require highly innovative solutions, this lack of diversity is alarming. All innovation experts point out that diversity is a key factor in enhancing creativity. Katherine Phillips states that “… if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations.” (Scientific American)

Everyone is aware of the issue, but it often seems that few have followed any real process in defining the problem. We simply “try” solutions.  Clearly we cannot afford to give up the creative potential of half the world’s population. The real question is what makes girls lose interest in STEM or even fail to ever become interested in it. The codechallenge lies in increasing and maintaining that engagement. But is the best solution we have to teach coding? Is that the real technological challenge that we face moving forward? And are we being fair in putting resources into coding as the way to attract more girls to STEM?

Coding is definitely a powerful tool, but it is a tool. You use it to program and develop apps, but it does not identify what apps you need and what technology must be developed to better meet human needs. You don’t need coding for that higher level approach. You need vision, creativity, critical thinking, the ability to communicate and collaborate, and strong problem solving skills. You need to be able to engineer and you need to use many of the skills that young children have naturally. You need to make connections, think laterally, and consider systems impacts. Sequential, step-by-step thinking will not help students to envision the big picture that the world presents. Teaching coding and expecting technological innovation is like teaching spelling and expecting a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

And yet, many schools, districts, and states seem to think coding, particularly for girls, is the answer to preparing students for the future. It becomes their “STEM initiative”.  In reality, it prepares the factory workers of the future. Henry Ford said that, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Coding creates faster programmers, but it does little to create those who can imagine the technologies that will improve our lives. It does not take us to the next level or allow us to envision new ideas.

One of the more valid answers to the question of young women leaving STEM fields is that it does not engage them. The effort that it takes to move ahead as a minority in the field is not worth the final reward. And if that reward is more apps, it probably isn’t. But look at the progress women have made in fields like medicine and law. These are careers that allow them to interact with and help others. They are areas where problem solving is the norm and an understanding of the patient or client is critical. We need to convince girls and young women that engineers can help people and make the world a better worldplace. Confining our solution to the diversity issue in STEM to practices like coding limits the creativity and talent present in every young child to a world of steps and sequences. It will do little to bring more girls and creative thinkers into a world that is increasingly dependent on innovation. The solution we should all be prototyping should showcase the relevance of math and science in the engineering of a better future. If we embrace the true interconnectedness of STEM and stop supporting silos of learning or mastery of specific routine skills, the real innovators will show up in all of our classrooms.

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Engineering the Three Dimensions of STEM Professional Development

At ProjectEngin, we focus on supporting the inclusion of Engineering Design in K-12 education. Much of our initial exposure to teachers, schools, and districts is through requests for workshops. Many such requests involve the magic acronym “STEM”. As a result, our first challenge in structuring impactful workshops is to identify what a school or teacher really means by STEM.  Sometimes it is an adjective – “we want to be a STEM school”, “we have one STEM teacher”, “we do STEM projects”. Sometimes it is a noun, often referring to a phantom new subject or discipline, an additional class period, or a topic viewed as interchangeable with robotics, coding, or 3-D printing. “We do STEM for 20 minutes each week”, “we have STEM in science class”, “we are starting STEM with robotics” are phrases we have heard in various settings.

Most experts agree that STEM should not be treated as the “new science” or, in fact, as an academic discipline at all. It is a way of thinking, collaborating, innovating, and problem-solving that models real-world situations. The Department of Education STEM 2026 report does a good job making this distinction. Further discussion of the need for connections among the component STEM disciplines can be found in STEM Integration in K-12 Education, a report published by the National Academies Press.

STEM2026

As providers of professional development and curriculum design services, STEM means the following to the educators at ProjectEngin:

  • A learning culture that embraces active problem-solving, not passive transfer of facts
  • Collaboration across different disciplines versus isolation in academic silos
  • An opportunity to fail and then move forward versus a “one strike and you’re out” assessment mentality
  • An ability to present, challenge, and defend ideas versus “death by PowerPoint”
  • And, most importantly, a focus on process not product

In our professional experience as teachers and engineers, that sounds a lot like Engineering Design and it forms the practices that we follow in our work with teachers and students. We truly believe that the “E” is the key to connections, collaboration, creativity, a problem-solving mentality, and a true STEM learning environment.

In order to maximize the impact of any professional development opportunity we first 3d PDneed to address where a school is on the spectrum of STEM self-definition and actual implementation. We have been most successful when taking a 3 dimensional view focused on a concept of three concentric layers.

We always works from the outside in, starting with the overall school culture. Depending on where a school is on the “STEM Spectrum”, we work with all teachers and administrators to define a STEM vision, designed to support a unified, collaborative approach. We actually take attendees through a modified version of the Engineering Design Process to help them craft a vision that acknowledges the constraints they have, defines criteria for success, and creates a model for an initiative that is sustainable and realistic. STEM should never be about one teacher, one classroom, one project. If that approach is used, it becomes another “layered-on” experience not an intrinsic part of a commitment to truly educating young people.

A large part of our work focuses on the second layer. STEM does not live in places where desks are in rows, where students sit passively while teachers transmit information, where failure is not an option, or where creativity and collaboration are not valued. The work required to transform the learning space, figuratively and literally, most often falls to the classroom teacher. New curriculum, technology, and resources are doomed to be under-utilized and ineffective if new classroom norms, practices, environments, expectations, and pedagogies are not in place or, at least, developing. That requires that a teacher has a chance to learn through modeling and reflection. We help them transition and evolve by leveraging what they are comfortable with and engaging them in new ways of supporting learning. Most true STEM projects, particularly Engineering Design projects, are active, group-based, and multi-disciplinary. Implementing something on that level requires both teaching topics that are new and teaching them very differently. Failure to acknowledge both most often leads to an unsustainable approach. It is simply too much at once. Our workshops at this level model the classroom environment and practices that will support a STEM approach. Teachers leave equipped with a range of activities and resources that are designed to be easily implemented and that we have constructed to engage students while providing hands-on experience of related scientific concepts.

We always suggest that schools determine that these first two levels are present or developing before tackling the inclusion of more extensive design projects, or actually adopting a more “STEM” curriculum. In our experience, curriculum that is inserted without creating a supportive environment in and out of the individual classroom rarely lasts and it often fails to create a better learning opportunity. Our most intensive work involves collaborating with teachers who have tried some shorter Engineering Design activities in their classroom and are now eager to implement more comprehensive, longer-term Engineering Design projects. That is the innermost dimension of the three layers.  Again, we try to honor the fact that teachers are teaching new material in a new way. We work with them to develop projects that they are comfortable with or help them to adapt our projects to their classes and expertise. We know that it is key to have some level of success with the implementation of that first Engineering Design project. No one expects everything to go perfectly, but we always hope for, and usually achieve, a level of student engagement and enough evidence of better learning to support teacher enthusiasm and confidence.

Although we customize our approach by looking at the three dimensions of the STEM spectrum, we always have two key goals in mind. We always hope to create a better learning experience for students and to develop educators who are advocates and experts in their own professional communities. Both are part of our vision for engineering sustainable STEM programs.

 

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Maximizing the M in STEM

In many schools and classrooms, STEM is simply the new science. In many of our workshops and site visits, we deal with science teachers who seem to have become responsible for the STEM initiatives in their schools. At ProjectEngin, we remain committed to the idea that the E is the key to connecting many subjects. But we always try to include as many disciplines as possible in our curriculum materials. Here are a few ideas for developing some Engineering projects that lead from the other end of the acronym. They start with math and connect to science through Engineering Design projects and activities.

  1. Packaging Design – volume, geometry, 2D to 3D spatial awareness, artistic design, costing, environmental impacts, forces

Packaging is all around us and, in many cases, it has an enormous environmental and economic impact. We have projects for grades 4-12, ranging from 3 -10 classes in length. Most of them challenge students to design more environmentally friendly and cost efficient packaging.  In addition, they provide a platform to work on the spatial reasoning skills that have been found to be so critical in supporting success in math. Here are a few resources to get you started thinking about an M-based Engineering project.packagings

Impacts of some types of packaging

Plastic Packaging- from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

 

  1. Assembly Lines and Rate Studiesrates, planning, optimization, human factors, product design

We use assembly line projects for a variety of reasons, ranging from the study of rates in math classes to developing an understanding of protein synthesis in biology. Setting up a mini-assembly line requires thinking about production rates of various operations and consideration of possible bottlenecks. It also involves a lot of collaboration and communication.  Finding the optimum production plan with limited resources provides options for a range of graphing and data analysis activities. We also use this project for more social studies-oriented activities related to the Industrial Revolution and current issues involving manufacturing conditions throughout the world. We like to start our projects out with a fun video, like this classic: Lucy in the Chocolate Factory !

lucy

 

  1.    The Power of Graphs – data analysis, visualization, artistic design, wide range of        science and social studies issues

Numbers and images are universal ways of communicating.  This is a skill that has become increasingly relevant in the age of Big Data. Our projects focus on the idea of using the Engineering Design Process to create a mathematically-based platform for creating awareness of a topic or issue.

bubble_chart_of_crime_versus_poverty_in_50_states

Asking students to engineer an infographic or a bubble chart, reflective of the work of Hans Rosling, provides the basis for a great STEAM challenge. By selecting a topic related to science, such as health or climate issues, you can truly connect all of the letters in the acronym.

Embracing a STEM culture in your school offers amazing potential. But if you hope to realize its true value in creating a new learning experience, it needs to be more than the “new science”. You can start by maximizing the M. And remember, as we like to say, “E is the key” to content-rich, skills-based learning!

 

 

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What Does it Really Mean to be a STEM School?

At ProjectEngin, we deal with schools, teachers, and classrooms in various stages of defining themselves as “STEM” or sometimes “STEAM”. It can range from one teacher “doing STEM” for 20-30 minutes per week to an entire school claiming to be “certified in STEM”.  Somehow the acronym has created a noun that stands for yet another trend in education. In many schools, making popsicle stick bridges and gum-drop DNA is called STEM.  Others seem to feel that having a computer science or robotics course is the epitome of STEM. In reality, without connections, these things are simply tools, not unlike basic spelling and arithmetic. While many of these activities have value, they do not define a new vision for education.

So just what does it really mean to be a STEM school? Many of our workshops are designed to tackle that topic. We urge educators to begin with a vision and to value the process more than the product, just as we do when designing curriculum. In a sense, we help them to engineer what STEM means for their learning community.  Our work has convinced us that unless it begins with knowing who you teach, how they learn, and the real connections that matter to them, the label “STEM” is just that – a label for another trend.

In many of our workshops, we practice what we preach by urging educators to follow the Engineering Design Process to develop a new culture in their schools and classrooms. It begins with clearly understanding the challenge before you and by identifying the constraints you face and the goals or criteria that matter to you as a learning community. All schools face real limitations in terms of resources, time, and talent. Failing to acknowledge those constraints will result in failure to launch meaningful change. Our advice is to start with what you have and evolve, growing organically in order to value every resource and talent that is already in place. The next step is really the secret sauce to a strong “STEM” vision – determining the criteria that are important to your community. This is where a school creates a STEM identity and vision and this is what creates the value proposition that helps them to realize a unique educational experience. Finally, just as in Engineering, once a challenge is fully defined and delimited, you can begin to generate solutions, prototype, test, reflect, and modify to create a lasting product. This is an ongoing, evolutionary process that should be guided by your constraints, criteria, and vision.

When establishing the criteria that are important to you, resist the tendency to view STEM as a new label that defines something that your school does. Educating young people for the future needs to be defined by “how” not “what”; by skills not by content. Your STEM vision should be about more than uniting 3 or 4 disciplines. It should define the culture of learning at your school. And it needs to be Sustainable, Transdisciplinary, Experiential, and Meaningful if you hope to create lasting and impactful change. Saying that you are going to connect projects to Science and Math, defining Engineering as making things, and seeing Technology as coding and robotics does no more than create yet another discipline, often housed in the confines of the Science department.

Sustainable STEM means that you are going to avoid the trends in order to support a new way of doing things versus just embracing new things. Adding courses and units in coding, computer science, and robotics has value for some students and for certain time frames but they are just new courses and topics. A sustainable STEM vision is based on the value of process over product, skills over specific content. Those of us who were students in the second half of the 20th century can remember spending hours learning how to key punch cards in Fortran IV or program in Basic. Replacing that with the programming skills of the 21st century will not create a sustainable STEM culture in your school.

Transdisciplinary STEM literally and figuratively breaks down the walls, not just encouraging thinking outside of the box, but getting rid of the box. Schools become increasingly siloed places as students move through grade levels. STEM should never be one more of those silos. And it should never be limited to a few disciplines. No big challenge or “wicked” problem is ever solved by examining one aspect or employing one point of view; students need to be taught to think in terms of systems and big, connected pictures. And that needs to be modeled by teachers who are willing to cross classrooms, walls, and halls.

Experiential STEM needs to focus on learning by doing and on the idea that time for reflection, revision, and communication is critical to the process. In our work, we embrace the Engineering Design Process as a framework for meeting challenges by applying and discovering knowledge to craft solutions. We would never expect baseball players to learn how to hit by just reading a book, yet we seem to think that is how formal education should work.  And we don’t necessarily learn well just by doing; we learn when we reflect on what we have done and the effects we have seen due to our actions. Time for analyzing failures, reflecting on impacts, and modifying actions is how we use mistakes to “fail forward”. True experiential learning makes connections backwards and forwards, by applying what has been taught and optimizing understanding through reflecting on the process.

Meaningful STEM should always answer the question “What do I need to learn this? What am I ever going to do with this?” The world is full of challenges, large and small, that will increasingly demand solutions and innovation. Facts are often not valuable in isolation, but they can create countless impacts when applied. We live primarily in a world that we have created in a little over 100 years. Information multiplies at a rate that no one can keep up with, but we insist on transmitting many of the same facts taught in schools decades ago. Learning what to do with that knowledge is the only way to move forward. Innovation rests on engagement and imagination. Replace the popsicle bridge with infrastructure challenges. Connect coding and gum drop DNA to each other and to the amazing lessons we can learn about assembly operations by observing nature. What students do for 6 to 8 hours every day must be meaningful!

Henry Mintzberg, a world-renown business management and strategy expert has been quoted as saying “When the world is predictable you need smart people. When the world is unpredictable you need adaptable people.” The future of the world is in our classrooms today – we owe them a framework for learning and a way of problem-solving, not another label.

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Easy Entry, Sky High, and a Mile Wide

What makes a great Engineering Design project? What creates the magic promised by project-based learning? The range and variety of possible projects is overwhelming. At ProjectEngin we focus on three key principles when developing projects for teachers to use.  In our experience working with teachers and students in grades K-12, the best learning happens when there are few barriers to entry, no limits on possibilities, and a chance to make things uniquely your own. It all leads to student-driven learning and increased engagement.

Easy Entry – All of our projects have a decidedly low-tech entry point. Asking teachers and students to learn differently, investigate new ideas, and focus on skills is already a significant challenge. Layering on technology creates too high of a wall and, at times, too much expense. We use simple materials and initial challenges that create easy identification with the end-user. We use basic craft materials to help students tap into their inner engineer. Our projects focus on process and creativity. Expensive “stuff”, complex algorithms, and steep learning curves are decidedly absent from our projects and curriculum. Beginning engineers don’t need 3-D printers to create prosthetic hands; they can learn more about how to design a functioning hand by using simple materials like balsa wood, wire, straws, elastic bands, string, and hooks. Easy entry creates early empowerment!

Sky High – Always leave room for modification and optimization. Engineering is essentially limitless; everything can be engineered better. Initial development and testing should always be followed by time to modify and improve designs. That is a key difference between a science lab activity and an engineering project. There is no one, right answer. The sky is the limit. Students should always have the opportunity to reach as far as possible and to recognize that we can all always do better.  Encourage students to look for both incremental and moonshot improvements. Continuous improvement is contagious. Sky high means no limits!

A Mile Wide – Never discourage customization. One of the ideas we stress is that students should have the ability to pick the end-user for their product or process. Good design is based on empathy and addressing someone’s needs. Student choice leads to student engagement. And it showcases the amazing talent in your classroom. Going wide lets everyone start from the same place and reach very different end products. Give students room to follow their own path and to explore those creative edges. Going a mile wide goes beyond thinking outside the box – it knocks down the walls!

floor-ceiling

We always encourage teachers to think of the design space as being framed by constraints and criteria. It is just as important to think of the learning space as having low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls. When students are comfortable beginning new projects, willing to reach high goals, and engaged in exploring their own path … magic happens!

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5 Easy Ways to include Engineering in Your Classroom

At ProjectEngin, we focus on some core skills when encouraging teachers to think of Engineering Design as a powerful pedagogical tool. Before jumping into a full blown Engineering Design project, we help teachers to think about changing their classroom culture from passive to active, from individuals to collaborative groups, from routine to innovative, and from perfect to failure. Here are some ideas to try in your classroom in order to disrupt practices that have been in place for decades. We are convinced that once you see how your students respond, you will make the leap to engineering a whole new kind of learning experience.

  1. Focus on creativity and innovation. Give pairs of students cards with two very different items on them. Challenge them to design something (s) by combining both. Think telephone plus computer equals smart phone. A combination that seemed impossible and unwieldy less than 40 years ago is commonplace today. Think big, think crazy, innovate, and invent.
    old_computer_2old-phone
  2. Focus on failure as a learning experience. Have groups of 2 or 3 students build towers out of newspaper and a limited amount of Scotch tape. Load them with books or other objects and film the failure. Did they tip, twist, or crumple? Based on what you saw happening, could you improve your building?
  3. skillsDevelop empathy. Have students learn what it means to function differently. Have them hold one hand behind their backs and complete simple tasks or close their eyes and cross part of the room. What simple technologies (tools or ideas) can help to make things easier for someone who functions differently? The best engineering starts with understanding the needs of your end-user.
  4. Find their inner engineer. Give students a selection of appropriate objects (photos or images work well) and ask them to engineer a solution based on limitations (constraints) and criteria (goals). For example make a tasty (criteria) lunch out of the ingredients in a refrigerator (constraints). Or put together an outfit for school or some other specific event. You are limited by the clothes you have (constraints) and your sense of style (criteria). Can students think of other situations in which they “engineer” solutions?classroom
  5. Focus on improvement of current products or processes. Give students chart paper or white boards and ask team to re-design the classroom for students in 2030. You will learn a lot about how they view learning and what makes them comfortable. You may even get some ideas of what you can do now. Explain that everything can be engineered better. What stops us?
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The Top 5 Reasons to Include Engineering in Your School

At ProjectEngin we firmly believe that Engineering is the “secret sauce” in your STEM/STEAM program. And we spend a lot of time working with teachers and schools to convince them that it can plan a role in classes from K-12. Read on to find out what some of our clients find to be the most compelling reasons to include more Engineering in the curriculum.

  1. We live in an “engineered” world. Basically, if something doesn’t grow on trees, begin life as an embryo or seed, or evolve over millenia – it is  engineered. The young people in our classrooms are and will be citizens of a highly designed world. As educators, we are all committed to preparing our students to be knowledgeable, involved citizens of the future. Basic literacy about the products and processes of the designed world need to be a part of every young person’s education. The ease of access to information has freed educators from simple transmission of information. Including the process of design lets you introduce the skills that underlie the creation and the evolution of the built environment.gardens.jpg
  2. Engineering is a way to bring that “real world” into your classroom. There are big challenges facing us now and in the future. Many of those challenges will require engineered solutions and the development of technologies that we can barely imagine. Teaching the same material the same way it was taught 50 years ago is a disservice to the young people we have such an opportunity to impact. Teaching facts in isolation is not realistic. Energy solutions impact climate and resources. Technologies designed to provide clean water for all can have high energy costs and create the need for new agricultural technologies. Many of the decisions that need to be in health care technologies have significant ethical impacts. One can’t consider any one of the UN Global Goals as being totally unrelated to any of the others.sdg Nothing in the modern world exists in an isolated, siloed environment. Except for our classrooms. Engineers have to be systems thinkers, weighing all inputs and outcomes. They have to optimize, finding the solutions with more positive impacts than negative consequences. They need to understand the economic, political, and cultural factors surrounding a problem. And they need to know their end-user. That is the real world. Very few of the learning challenges in most classrooms encourage such holistic thinking. All of our Engineering projects are based on  “real world” challenges that require synergetic, systems-based solutions.IMG_2290
  3. We are all natural engineers. Many of the teachers we work with are initially “terrified” of teaching  Engineering. They share a common public misconception that all engineers are socially inept math and science geeks. As a result, teachers do not feel that they are qualified to even discuss Engineering, let alone actively include it in their curriculum. Engineers solve problems by designing helpful products and processes. You actually engineer every day. You engineer your chosen outfit by thinking about what you need to do and how you want to look (criteria). You then look in your closet to see what you have (constraints) and follow a process to create a preliminary “look”. Depending on your age level and social life (think teenage girl), you modify and optimize your outfit. You had a problem, defined your design space, considered the possible solutions, prototyped the best option and solved the problem as best as you could. That is the Engineering Design Process. We are all engineers on a daily basis. So why isn’t that a part of what we teach?
  4. Engineering is the “secret sauce” that you need to really have STEM curriculum. We view Engineering as the linking verb in STEM or STEAM. Engineers use Science and Math to design and build Technolgies to solve problems and to meet human needs. A good Engineering project brings project-based learning into your curriculum with a platform that enables you to clearly connect math and science concepts. Well-designed Engineering curriculum creates a “need to know” for students, leading them to develop a better understanding of concepts in order to apply them to achieve the desired results. In post-interviews, we have actually had a significant number of students express surprise that any of the science knowledge they had been taught “actually made something work”.  More proof that we need to stop teaching concepts in isolation.IMG_0201 (1) (2)
  5. Engineering is fun and creative. Try it! We can almost promise that your students will want more. A well-planned Engineering activity or project has room for all learners, not just the ones who can find the right answer on a test. One of the main reasons that ProjectEngin began was the number of students who reported that their senior year Engineering course was the first time they had fun in science since the primary grades. How can we hope to attract creative and innovative thinkers to STEM fields when we teach science in a rote, fact-focused manner? Learning should be messy, not linear. Constructing a cognitive model is creative and it is a process. It should always be about the questions, challenges, and possibilities,  not just the answers.

 

 

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