Last week I was invited to be a panelist at the National Council of Women in IT Best Practices summit. It was a great experience and I learned a lot! My session was about getting girls interested in STEM subjects and programming through “making stuff” and tinkering.
The session was really interesting and we had some great questions about how tinkering can fit into the school day, especially with so much focus on test results and career and college readiness. It seems that to many people, tinkering conotes a messiness and unprofessionalism that doesn’t apply to “real” jobs in scientific fields.
I believe just the opposite is true – tinkering is exactly how real science is done.
I like to think I have a unique perspective on this. After graduating with an electrical engineering degree I went to work at an aerospace company and ended up on a research project to create the GPS satellite navigation system. It was fun, exciting work and we were building something that was literally theoretically impossible. The hardware was too slow, the software didn’t exist, the math was only a theory, and existing navigation systems weren’t build to handle the precision we needed. The military pilots we worked with didn’t trust it either, creating interesting team dynamics. There were many days where we just sat around and talked through the problems, went to try to them out in the lab, and watched our great ideas go up in smoke. Then we did it again.
It was the essence of tinkering. We tinkered with ideas, methods, with hardware and software, always collaborating, always trying new things. There was no “right answer”, no “scientific method”, and sometimes the answers came from the unlikeliest sources or even mistakes. There were flashes of insight, fighting and battle lines drawn, crazy midnight revelations, and occasional 6 hour lunches at the local pool hall/bar.
I’m not suggesting that any of that is a good model for K-12 STEM education – but perhaps we should avoid squeezing all serendipity out of STEM subjects in a quest to teach students about a “real world” that exists only in the feeble imaginations of textbook authors. Tinkering is the way that real science happens in all its messy glory.