February 12, 2019 (in honor of Engineers Week), I’ll be the guest on a fun, informal webinar with the Makey Makey team! The Makey Makey is one of my favorite tools for physical computing. It’s versatile, easy to use, and you’ll never run out of ideas!
Engineers Week is near and dear to my heart. I have an electrical engineering degree and worked for a decade in aerospace. While I don’t work as an engineer these days, I still see the world through that lens, where challenges are just invitations to invent the future! The E in STEAM is often overlooked, or worse, misunderstood as something that only “some kids” can do. We will be talking about how STEAM can happen for ALL students in real classrooms, makerspaces, and libraries!
I hope to see old friends and new at FETC 2019 in Orlando, January 27-30, 2019. I’ll be talking STEM/STEAM, Creativity, Making and Makerspaces, PBL for Making, What’s New/What’s Next for STEAM, and more. Use my discount signup page to save an extra 10%!
Creativity is not just being artistic or having new ideas. As many schools are working to incorporate STEM and STEAM into the classroom, design and creativity are the key to real and relevant experiences in the classroom.
Adding more and different technology to the classroom toolkit invites students of different abilities and interests to experience STEAM subjects. This creates classroom conditions that invite technology understanding and creativity for all students, even those who think they “don’t like technology”.
In many cases, digital tools, electronics, and programming are seen as something only a few students (the “nerds”) want to try. Yet these are powerful learning opportunities that all students should engage in.
Design is a way to make thinking visible, connecting abstract pedagogy to the real experiences of children. The A in STEAM is not about decorating science projects or coloring math worksheets, but a way to add design and design’s cousin, aesthetics, into classroom projects.
Next Generation Science Standards provide new directions for engineering practices. Again, design is the key to this. Design is the process of engineering. It provides a framework to solve problems, using the science, math, and technology that students learn. These standards are not “business as usual” for schools. Looking at them as simply a rearrangement of existing curriculum ignores the revolutionary addition of engineering design to the expectations for science curriculum.
Formative assessment strategies that strengthen the project process in real time as students work through design and engineering projects.
Inclusivity that ensures that new technology and engineering experiences invite and support students who might not have the background or inclination to see themselves as engineers.
Equity in STEM areas for girls and other under-represented groups is not a matter of finding the young people who can do the work asked by the current curriculum, but to find new curricular areas and connections to the interesting and relevant STEM and STEAM opportunities found in the real world.
Everyone has a role to play
Leaders keep the vision alive in the face of multiple distractions. They allow new ideas to flourish and provide support for educators to work out the details, while still moving the ball forward.
Coaches help both the early adopters and the cautious “this too shall pass” reluctants to create a shared, achievable vision.
Teachers find ways to weave the old and new together in a coherent way for students. This means being a learner, leader, and a designer. There is no question that this in itself takes creativity. Teachers are asked to do more with less, and to make more time where there is none, all the time staying current with research and personalizing learning for every student. What could be more creative than that?
In the quest for STEAM, there will be tensions and questions. Can science be creative? Doesn’t math always have one right answer? Aren’t basic facts and rote memorization the ways that science has always been taught? Where will we find the time to do more in depth projects that give students creative opportunities? If students are doing more creative and personalized work, how will we assess it and meet learning objectives? Am I creative enough to make this work?
And yet, we know that students thrive when given the opportunity to do relevant, meaningful, and creative work. Together, we must push against paralyzing fear that there are too many variables and not enough time to figure it all out.
We have a ways to go
Creativity is often misunderstood as simply a personal attribute – you are a creative person or you aren’t. Yet the word is crucial as schools struggle to implement STEAM programs that are defined only as subjects – not as mindsets. The “A” in STEAM is incredibly important – it is the verb of the sentence, and at its heart is the creative process. It is understood that artists have a creative process, but less well understood that scientists, engineers, and mathematicians do as well.
When schools work to understand what STEAM really means, there are certainly parts that seem easier than others. All schools have math and science classes. Technology is taken care of as we increasingly adopt computers into classroom practices. Engineering is a small but growing option in many schools.
However, we have work still to do. Science and math classes need to adopt modern ways that real scientists and mathematicians work. You can’t just put a sign up that says “STEAM Academy.” Students want and respond to science classes that are real and relevant, where they can engage in making things that make the world a better place, and in doing so, learn about the underlying laws of the world around them.
Technology is not only about computers, but about the basic human desire to change the world. Engineering is not just a college major, but a way for even young children to design and build things that help them make sense of the world.
When all of this is taken into consideration, you cannot help but notice that creativity, meaning literally to make things, is a key component. Design is the process of engineering and technology is the tool. Creativity is the mindset.
Recasting STEAM this way also invites more students who are not the “usual suspects” into the fantastic world of STEAM.
I’m heading out for a string of presentations and workshops – hope to see old friends and new!
ICE 2018 – Feb 26 (Chicago) I’m part of an “All-Star” lineup of presenters who are participating in the Illinois Computing Educators conference. Instead of one keynote they are bringing back keynotes from previous years to do panels and featured presentations. It’s a bit embarrassing to call yourself an “All-Star” but that’s their term, not mine! Check out the whole list and join us!
Then I’m flying straight to Italy where Gary Stager and I will keynote a School Innovation conference in Modena and lead a workshop in Bologna on March 2 & 3. Then we hit the road (by train) for lectures at Universities in Padua, Vicenza, Venice, and Pistoia. Finally a roundtable at the U.S. Embassy in Rome with an innovation policy advocacy working group.
Oh, and in between I’m flying to Valencia, Spain to keynote a conference there! INTED 2018 will be March 5-7 and I’ll be keynoting on March 5.
Learning is an engagement of the mind that changes the mind.
One of the biggest issues I have with many descriptions of “making” in education is that it’s about students just being creative with tools or materials. I strongly disagree. Making is not just the simple act of you being the difference between raw materials and finished product, as in “I made dinner” or even “I made a robot.” I don’t think we always need to ascribe learning to the act of making — but the act of making allows the maker, and maybe an outsider (a teacher, perhaps) to have a window into the thinking of the maker.
So, do you always need a teacher for learning to happen? No. Some people are good at thinking about their own process and learning from that (“Wow, that butter made the sauce so much better.” “Next time, I’ll test the circuit before I solder.”) and some people are less likely to do that. But if I watch you cook, I will see certain things – how you organize your ingredients, how you react when you make a mistake, how you deal with uncertainty — and that is what teaching is about. A teacher who is a careful observer can see these kinds of signs, and then challenge the learner with harder recipes, a question to make them think, more interesting ingredients, or a few tips — all with an eye towards helping the other person learn and grow.
Technology like Arduinos and 3D printers have not become intertwined with the maker movement in education simply because they are new, but because they are some of the most interesting ingredients out there. Many of these “maker materials” rely on computational technology, which supports design in ways not possible otherwise. The command “Save As..” is possibly the most important design tool ever invented. Saving your design file or code means you can “do again” without “doing over,” supporting the iterative process and encouraging increasingly complex designs.
Complex technology, especially computational technology also allows educators to answer the question, “Isn’t this just arts and crafts?” And of course after defending arts and crafts – we can say that computational technology allows these same mindful habits to connect with the powerful ideas of the modern world that we hope children learn. Design and making are not just important for the A in STEAM, they are essential, but here’s a bigger idea, they are also essential for the T & E — and for them all to come together.
There is simply no technology without design; the definition of the word is literally “things in the designed world.” Making is a way to realize the “logo” part of the word – from the Greek word (logos) that means “word” but specifically words that express the order and reason of the universe. To Greek philosophers, a word was more than a sound or a mark, it was the embodiment of an idea — an idea made real. And yes, the Logo programming language owns this derivation as well.
The power of using computational technology in education is that the versatility and transparent complexity allows learners to make their ideas real, to make sense of the world, and to see their own capacity grow. This visible process also allows teachers to support and scaffold learners on their journey.
Learning by making happens only when the making changes the maker.
Seen the headlines? 3D printing is coming, faster cheaper, easier to manage… but is it better?
Anyone who is thinking about “making in education” has likely bought (or at least thought about) a 3D printer for their makerspace or classroom. In our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, fabrication is one of the three “game changer” technologies that have the most potential for schools. But as anyone who has tried 3D printing knows, it’s not a mature technology by any means, and takes work to integrate it into rich design experiences for young people. At this point in time, most classroom focused 3D printers are too slow and too glitchy to really serve a lot of students doing iterative design. There is no perfect software solution, and software is at the core of the design process. Of course, every day they get cheaper, more reliable, and these problems will decrease.
So the recent announcement by Mattel of a reboot of the 1960’s toy Thingmaker sounds too good to be true. After all, if Mattel believes this is reliable enough to sell at Toys R Us, it must solve all these issues, right?
Is this “the answer”? It depends what question you ask. Do you like toys? Do you need more plastic stuff? Then the answer is yes. Do you want kids to engage in designing, mathematical thinking, and problem solving? Then the answer is no.
And hey, if my kids were still little I would totally buy this. And play with it myself. It’s a reboot of literally my favorite toy when I was a kid. I still have some of the dragons somewhere.
But – take a close look at what you get.
It’s not going to be an open design in hardware or software. There will be pre-designed parts you can drag and drop to make creatures, robots, etc. Pick Arm A and Body B and in several hours you can print and assemble your own little monster, or other Mattel branded stuff. It’s not going to be “maker” in the sense of “if you can’t open it you don’t own it.” For those people who find that important, this is a mockery, for those who just want to reliably make plastic toys, it’s perfect.
Because from a stability and reliability standpoint, the whole “open” concept is deadly. What if you design something that can’t actually be printed in real life? A learning opportunity, you say? For Mattel, that’s a design that cannot be allowed. Locking down the design process into a drag and drop app makes it reliable. It’s not a BAD app, or a BAD corporate decision, it is what it is.
Once they sterilize the design side, and use proprietary software all the way from design to the hot end, then it’s just a hardware problem that remains. No worries about strange g-code or updates to open source code.
On the hardware side, Mattel is good at making cheap, reliable hardware. They will require their filament (you can see it in the photo above), so that helps them maintain consistency as well.
So is it a bad thing for schools to consider? No. Depends how much money you have for toys. Will kids like it? Of course. Will some enterprising hacker figure out how to hack into it? Highly likely.
But think of the parallels. Do kids like EZ Bake Ovens? of course. Can you make edible stuff? Yes. Do some people hack them to turn out gourmet meals? No doubt. So would you turn your culinary arts program (if you are lucky enough to have one) over to all EZ Bake Ovens?
Let’s also differentiate between parents getting these for kids, and schools buying them and pretending it’s a STEM initiative. Schools buying these should consider the whole picture of the design cycle, not just the plastic parts that spit out at the end.
Introduce the real world and change the conversation.
In a perfect world, all people would have equal opportunity to achieve their professional goals. But the reality is not perfect for women in the workforce.
In many science, technology, engineering and math fields, especially in engineering and programming, women are underrepresented: While they represent half of all college-educated workers in the U.S., they made up just 28 percent of science and engineering workers in 2010 — an increase from 21 percent in 1993, according to the National Science Board’s 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators report.
Trace back down the pipeline to STEM in K–12 and the facts don’t get any cheerier: Girls are called on less often by teachers, are seen as not understanding math (even when they get better grades and test scores than boys) and are overlooked for slots in STEM academies and special programs. They may stop seeing themselves as being good at science and math as they move into middle school, where students begin to develop the skills they need for STEM majors and careers.
Girls do have one interesting advantage — they are typically better at a wider range of things than are boys. Girls who get good grades in math and science tend to get good grades in other subjects too, while boys tend to get good grades in only one area. For boys, that focus may translate into a stronger push toward a career in STEM; if you have fewer choices, you concentrate on making them count.
So when we complain that there is a “leaky pipeline” in K–12 education for girls in STEM courses, we should acknowledge that it isn’t necessarily a matter of discrimination or systemic bias. Girls are choosing not to major in STEM subjects for the very sensible reason that they have more options.
But this “choice” is also influenced by the prospect of discrimination down the line.
‘Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you?’
In a study by Girl Scouts of the USA (“Generation STEM”), 57 percent of all girls say that “if they went into a STEM career, they’d have to work harder than a man just to be taken seriously.” And African-American and Hispanic girls are more aware of this than Caucasian girls. (Also from “Generation STEM”: “Half of African American girls (compared to 38 percent of Caucasian girls) agree with the statement: ‘Because I am female, I would NOT be treated equally by the men I studied/worked with if I pursued a career in STEM.’ ”)
Why would you choose to go into a field that doesn’t want you? Painting a false happy-talk picture of “you can be anything you want to be” is simply wishful thinking at best, and lying at worst. The leaky pipeline leads into a leaky bucket that any sane person might choose to avoid.
Of course, we want to fix this — not just give up. That first requires tackling how we talk, then integrating technology and engineering in the appropriate ways at the earliest grade levels possible.
Many schools have found success in helping more girls through STEM courses. We know what works: role models, mentors, encouragement and special opportunities. But schools can do more to make STEM courses more accessible for all students.
Introduce real-world topics, real research, real projects, real tools and tangible technology to STEM subjects. That attracts not only girls but any students who are uninterested in dry textbook science.
Change the Curriculum to Expand Experience
Girls say that science is interesting because it helps people and makes the world a better place. Feed that passion by giving students opportunities to do science that matters, not just study about science.
Finding ways to incorporate conductive paint and e-textiles into an electronics lesson is not pandering to girls but expanding the onboarding experience for STEM to more students across the board.
The facts about gender discrimination are depressing, but that isn’t a reason to hide them from young people. They deserve to know the truth (at the appropriate level). Because guess who can fix it? They can. Girls and boys are our only hope if we’re to change the landscape of opportunity, and we have to give them the facts and enlist them in the effort.
These problems won’t be fixed by pumping more water into a leaky bucket; they can only be solved when people clearly identify the issues and work together to solve them.
While changing deeply embedded culture and established curriculum may seem like an impossible challenge, it’s something that simply has to be done.
Here’s what you can do:
Be mindful of your own behavior and try to open learning invitations to all students. In particular, talk with young people about stereotypes and how to overcome them.
Address issues of discrimination in your own settings, quickly and fairly. What you do as the adult in the classroom, and in the hallway, gym, faculty lounge and office, matters.
Look for opportunities to bring stories of discrimination (at appropriate levels) to students to discuss. What do they think?
Offer experiences in STEM courses that build on student interests and culture. Find ways to use STEM to solve real problems that young people care about.
Don’t talk only to girls about these issues. It’s not a “girls’ problem.” Enlist boys and men in making changes. Use resources like “Ways to Increase Male Advocacy in Gender Diversity Efforts” from the National Council on Women & Information Technology and adapt for your own setting.
The New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) has just released a set of apps called Noticing Tools.
The suite of five apps gives educators and parents a new option for inspiring kids to want to learn math and science by using technology as a tool for creativity and collaborative exploration on topics ranging from ratios and proportion to fractions, physics, angular momentum, surface area and volume.