My learning journey

People ask me often how I got involved with education. In part, my interest in learning stems from thinking about my own learning journey, and taking lessons from that path.

In school I did pretty well in every subject. Getting good grades was just expected. I was a solid B+ student in all subjects from kindergarten on. When I took Algebra 1 in ninth grade, though, that changed unexpectedly. Suddenly I knew everything the teacher was going to say before he said it. I always had time to do all the extra credit problems when we were only supposed to choose one. The teacher finally told me to cut it out. I spent every day on the phone with friends talking them through the homework problems. It bothered me somewhat that none of my friends were getting it, but I didn’t think much of it. It was just what I did – like my best friend who could magically draw perfect horses.

I was a good, complaint kid. When you are good at school type stuff and do what you are told, they say you are smart. But, for me at least, I never felt smart or special, it was normal to just get up every morning, go to school, and do whatever they said to do.

In high school I had the same math teacher for two years in a row and one day he called me up as the bell was ringing and said, “There’s not much that’s challenging you, is there?” He gave me a brochure for a summer program at a university for gifted math students. I was shocked that he thought that about me. I’d never thought of myself as being particularly good at math, it was just easy. It honestly never dawned on me that my friends not understanding meant something about me.

I keep this in mind when I work with kids – they are massively clueless about themselves and massively egocentric all at the same time. They do not realize that what they perceive about the world may actually be a reflection of their own talents. They have to be explicitly told what it is about them that is special. This does not mean blanket feel-good statements, that’s a waste of time. When you announce “You’re special!” to a room full of people, it’s obviously not true. That’s true at any age.

It takes a lot of adults talking with children, not at children, to help them realize that their own talents are unique and valuable.

It’s amazing that my parents let me go to that summer math program. I had never been away from my parents, didn’t participate in any after-school activities except music lessons, and had never gone to camp. This was going to be six weeks at a dorm on a college campus 100 miles from home. It was BIG.

That summer I met some amazing people from all over the US. The program was funded by the NSF and we took three college level math courses over the six weeks: Geometry, Number Theory, and Computer Science. We built geometry from the ground up, explored weird puzzle-like theories, and I got my first exposure to computers using punch cards and FORTRAN. And we stayed up late and ate ice cream for dinner and did the usual sorts of things 16 year olds do when away from their parents.

I discovered an amazing thing—I belonged. At my high school it was quite apparent that I didn’t belong. But that summer, I was just one of many like me. Even better, I was right in the middle of the pack. I wasn’t the smartest, but I wasn’t the slowest either. I wasn’t the geekiest or the coolest. It felt comfortable in a way that high school never had. I had talents that other people envied like being able to debug the FORTRAN programs. I needed other people because the Geometry was painful for me. The rule for Geometry class was that all of us had to prove ALL the theories. In Computer Science, we didn’t move on until everyone’s program worked. We weren’t supposed to copy each other’s work, but we could help each other and talk about it. There was no competition, no grades, and no tests. It was the perfect learning environment.

When I came home and it was time to apply to colleges, I didn’t know what major I would choose. I guessed that math would probably be a good major since I was good at it, so I might as well. It was a lucky chance that my parents asked my uncle to talk to me about my decision. Unlike my parents, he’d been to college, so he would know.

He asked me what I liked about math, and I said solving the problems. He asked, real problems or theories and proofs. Real problems, I said. Aha, he said, you should be an engineer. And as ridiculously simple as that sounds, that’s exactly what I did.

I keep in mind even today when I work with students and teachers is how seemingly insignificant comments and events can change a child’s life forever — if it’s specific and part of a real conversation.

In the years since I’ve been an electrical engineer in aerospace, a programmer, a student again, a designer and developer of video games and educational software, a manager, head of a non-profit, a mom, and more. But through it all I know that engineering (meaning solving real problems) is the lens through which I view the world and the way I approach the world. And I thank all the inexplicable events and people who helped me along this path.

Girls & STEM: Making It Happen – resources

Resources for Girls and STEM presentations

Girls & STEM: Making it Happen Tuesday, June 30, 4:00–5:00 pm Sylvia Martinez PCC Ballroom B


Other ISTE events

Citations and other resources mentioned in this presentation


Invent To Learn

MakeHers: Engaging Girls and Women in Technology through Making, Creating, and Inventing (Intel infographic)

Power, Access, Status: The Discourse of Race, Gender, and Class in the Maker Movement

Leah Buechley – Gender, Making, and the Maker Movement (video from FabLearn 2013)


National Girls Collaborative Project (links to many others)

National Council of Women and Informational Technology

American Association of University Women

Unesco International Bureau of Education (IBE)  – Multiple resources such as: Strengthening STEM curricula for girls in Africa, Asia and the Pacific10 Facts about Girls and Women in STEM in Asia

WISE (UK) – campaign to promote women in science, technology, and engineering

My posts about gender issues, stereotype threat, and other topics mentioned in this session

Stereotype Threat – Why it matters

Inclusive Makerspaces (article for EdSurge)

What a Girl Wants: Self-direction, technology, and gender

Self-esteem and me (a girl) becoming an engineer


Securing Australia’s Future STEM: Country Comparisons – Australian Council of Learned Academies

Generation STEM:  What girls say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – Girl Scouts of the USA (2012) (Girls 14-17)

Effective STEM Programs for Adolescent Girls: Three Approaches and Many Lessons Learned

Women’s underrepresentation in science: Sociocultural and biological considerations. (2009)

Gresham, Gina. “A study of mathematics anxiety in pre-service teachers.” Early Childhood Education Journal 35.2 (2007): 181-188.

Beilock, Sian L., et al. “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.5 (2010): 1860-1863.

Teachers’ Spatial Anxiety Relates to 1st- and 2nd-Graders’ Spatial Learning


National Center for Educational Statistics

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


Are programmers born that way?

A comment I hear every once in a while goes something like this: “Why teach programming to everyone? There is a “programmer type” and not all kids are “that way”. It’s just a waste of everyone’s time!”

I don’t agree. I believe programming is a liberal art – a way to express yourself and make sense of the world.

I recognize the stereotype. I was that kid. Driven, intense, socially awkward, and able to tune out the outside world. I also believe that many programmers today do fit that “nerd” profile because the artificial nature of computer science in school creates a pathway that is amenable to this personality type.

The more I learn about learning, the more I realize that school often “coaches out” people who think differently and have different problem-solving styles. People who might have become amazing programmers if there wasn’t only “one way” allowed. There have been many studies about teaching programming and many point to ways to teach it that are very different than we use now. More inclusive, but untraditional ways.

We desperately need a wider variety of people to become programmers, makers, engineers and scientists. I firmly believe that allowing young people the chance to follow these paths, no matter who they are or what they natural styles are will create a stronger, more vibrant citizenry who understand science and can make good decisions about their lives.

What I’m saying is that the fact that programmers tend to be a certain personality type is a symptom of the way we currently teach – not that they naturally make better programmers.

A leadership blueprint for the modern, connected world

Scott McLeod of the Dangerously Irrelevant blog has been asking for posts on leadership for seven years now on what he calls “Leadership Day”. This is a great emerging resource with so many interesting perspectives – almost 500 blog posts! I’ve participated in some years, with my own range of perspectives (see below).

In the past few years my focus has shifted from student leadership to the new affordances of the Maker Movement in K-12  classrooms. Since writing Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, my perspective has changed, but in many ways, also reinforced what I already knew about the power of student agency and ownership of their own learning.

The Maker Movement is a global learning revolution that offers a way to look at leadership in a new way that is relevant for both schools and communities.

For example, in this video architects in Amsterdam talk about the process of designing a 3D printer big enough to build a house, building that printer, and then starting to print the house. When you watch this video, there is an interesting part where they decide to put the KamerMaker (roombuilder) out on the front lawn of their office so that the community can come and see what’s going on and offer their perspectives.

KamerMaker from 3D Print Canal House on Vimeo.

Leadership in the Maker Movement doesn’t mean “I do, you repeat” – it means that together we are better. It may seem messy and inefficient to some people, but I think it’s a leadership model for the modern, connected world we live in.

Here are my previous Leadership Day posts:

  • 2007 – Leaders of the Future where I focused on developing the leader in every learner.
  • 2008 – Just Do It where I urged administrators to stop waiting for the district reorg or the next version of Windows or that bandwidth you were promised 3 years ago and get moving. Listen to kids, don’t listen the teachers who can’t seem to manage an email account, damn the torpedos and full steam ahead.
  • 2009 – Every day is leadership day in which I wrote about the connection between “agency” (meaning true choice) and leadership. Leadership is only meaningful when people have an actual choice to follow or not follow. Leadership is inextricably bound to free will, in the same way democracy is. In schools, this must happen every day, at every level of participation.
  • 2010 – What Leadership Looks Like talks about the challenge we face when trying to describe leadership when it’s so dependent on context and personal style. How can we say “what works” if this is so variable?

I invite you to read the other posts made on the subject of Leadership Day and perhaps write your own. What does leadership look like to you?


Precision is precious

This article 3D PRINTING AND LEGOS: PERFECT TOGETHER is a great example of an engineering principle that says that you should only be precise where precision is necessary. Unnecessary precision is a waste of time, money, and resources. The article shows a prototype of a pair of goggles, where precision is needed for the areas holding the lenses. So they used a combination of the Legos (cheap, easy to work with, and abundant – but not easily modified) and 3D printed pieces (takes longer to make each one, but you can tweak them until you get it right.)

So yes, 3D printing and LEGOs may indeed be perfect together, but the real story is that any time you are designing something, you want to pay the most attention to the parts that matter most.