Beyond Pink and Blue

In “Beyond Pink and Blue” on the blog site for The Nation magazine, author Dana Goldstein writes about children and gender norms. She quoted me for a part of the article about tinkering, and how that kind of hands on learning helps students grasp scientific concepts.

Sylvia Martinez, an expert on educational technology, has written about how all children need to reinforce math and science concepts through “tinkering”—interacting with the physical world, as opposed to just learning at their classroom desks. (For example: collecting water samples to test pH levels, or reinforcing math concepts by learning basic computer coding.) It doesn’t work, Martinez says, “to explain everything to kids without them having any basis in experience. I’m trying to expand the idea of ‘tinkering.’ It’s not just going down to the basement and playing with stuff. You can play with data, ideas, equations, programming.”

Parents can foster this type of experimentation at home, but schools should also do their part. The problem is that in an age of increased focus on standardized test scores in reading and math, many schools are canceling computing and science courses or cutting down lab time.

“We’ve created math and science in school as very abstract,” Martinez says. “We’ve taken away a lot of hands-on experiences from kids in favor of testing. We’ve reduced a lot of science to vocabulary, where kids are being given vocabulary tests about the ocean instead of going to the ocean or looking through a microscope at organisms. If we taught baseball the way we taught science, kids would never play until they graduated.”

I’m really glad she got the idea in there that tinkering goes beyond “stuff” and extends into playing with concepts too. I also am glad that the conversation is about “what’s good for kids”, not just “what’s good for girls.”

I’ll be exploring that topic a bit more in the coming months, it’s been on my mind a lot lately!



In Praise of Tinkering – Time magazine online

Time Magazine online : In Praise of Tinkering: How the decline in technical know-how is making us think less

Annie Murphy Paul has written an opinion piece about how tinkering is essential to learning – and I’m quoted! How cool is that?

“If we want more young people to choose a profession in one of the group of crucial fields known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — we ought to start cultivating these interests and skills early. But the way to do so may not be the kind of highly structured and directed instruction that we usually associate with these subjects. Instead, some educators have begun taking seriously an activity often dismissed as a waste of time: tinkering. Tinkering is the polar opposite of the test-driven, results-oriented approach of No Child Left Behind: it involves a loose process of trying things out, seeing what happens, reflecting and evaluating, and trying again. As Sylvia Martinez, a learning expert who spoke about the value of tinkering at a meeting of the National Council of Women in Information Technology earlier this year, puts it: “Tinkering is the way that real science happens, in all its messy glory.””

Paul, the author of OriginsHow the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives is at work on a book about the science of learning

Ten Lessons the Arts (and STEM) Teach

In researching my talk for the Arts & Education Symposium last week I ran across Ten Lessons the Arts Teach from the National Art Education Association. Since my talk was about the intersection of arts and STEM education, I thought it might be interesting to look at these lessons in that light. The ten lessons are in italics, my comments follow each one.

1. The arts teach children to make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum in which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts, it is judgment rather than rules that prevail.

It is not just in art that children need to make judgments about qualitative relationships. I know that many people think that math and science are all about “right answers” and cold logic. However, real problems (not textbook problems) are often messy and need to be solved with insight. Models of the real world aren’t perfect, but can be used to explain and predict the world in useful ways. Neat textbook problems give the false impression that judgment is not important, and in turn, teaches children that their own reasoning is not valid. The real world of science and math needs people who have learned to trust their judgment to solve problems that don’t have obvious solutions.

2. The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.

Again, math and science have traditionally been taught in a way that emphasizes one solution and one process. It’s not that simple.

3. The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

When children are allowed to think through math problems, they will come up with many different paths to a correct answer. The purpose of school should be to encourage children to develop these skills. Instead, we spend a lot of time telling children they are wrong, and then expecting them to just accept that and try again. Lessons that allow a child to rethink and revise give a child autonomy, and the ability to trust themselves to be problem solvers, even if their path to success is different than everyone else’s.

4. The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstance and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and a willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.

This is especially true in science – the history of science is full of serendipity and mistakes that turned out to be great advances. Being open to these unanticipated possibilities is what makes a great scientist. We do children a disservice by pretending that the “scientific method” is a step-by-step recipe that they just follow from beginning to end.

5. The arts make vivid the fact that neither words in their literal form nor numbers exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.

One of the problems with math and science education in this country is that we teach the end product first. The history of math and science is full of interesting problems that people have tackled over centuries. Often, people solved these problems with brute force methods, building buildings that collapse or launching voyages into unknown lands with little information. Some problems were solved with elegant solutions that seemed impossible to translate to the real world, yet centuries later these solutions became concrete. The world is full of crazy, weird, seemingly unexplainable things that push the boundaries of imagination yet some child living today will figure out the answer. Yet we teach as if all problems are solved and the steps are fixed. It’s as if we taught music theory but never allowed them to hear or play actual music.

6. The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtleties.

This is why I believe it’s so important for arts and STEM to be combined. The arts traffic in subtleties and sometimes there are subtleties in the world that can be manipulated to your advantage. I think that when learned together, students have a greater chance of making things that are beautiful and lasting for themselves and others.

7. The arts teach students to think through and within a material. All art forms employ some means through which images become real.

The arts focus on the use of materials should be incorporated into STEM learning as well. “Doing” is learning, and the materials we allow students to work with allows them to go further into making learning real. This is why I believe in using computers for all subjects. The computer is the most important “material” of so much of what makes up the world today. It’s a “protean device” that can be used in every subject area to give students the ability to make or do almost anything.

8. The arts help children learn to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.

I know some people don’t believe this, but for many people who love math or science, making things work is a poetic experience. Programming is as close to making a work of art as anything else in the world. Combining the arts with STEM means that children can express themselves in even more variations.

9. The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

Experiencing the profound joy of creating something that has never existed before is not only found in the arts. And I think that when you allow children to experience this feeling, we do them and the world a great favor.

10. The arts’ position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.

The arts’ position in school is slowly being eroded by an emphasis on what’s being called math and reading. However, much of this is simply out of context skills in numbers and letters. True numeracy, scientific thinking, and support for esthetics are all being eroded in a push for “achievement” (code word for higher test scores.) We are communicating that adults value “accountability” over all – that all we see in children is a balance sheet where money goes in and future economic success comes out. The arts are not the only thing we are losing in this accountability madness.

Let’s put the A in STEM – STEAM is a good thing!


Infographic: Why Students Choose STEM


From – Why Students Choose STEM

Note that games, toys, books, and clubs are a huge reason student pick STEM majors and ultimately careers.

Could this be because typical US STEM curriculum doesn’t do a good job at inspiring excitement and passion about science, technology, engineering and math? That student interest and aptitude is there, but we just have to stop boring them to death with vocabulary lists and memorizing equations? Hmm… I wonder…


PS – Stretching the graphic like this makes some of the areas overlap, but at least it’s somewhat readable. But be sure to take a look at the original and the PDF report for lots more information.

STEM education – good news, bad news

Hurray! There are good jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) related fields! STEM: Good Jobs Now and For the Future (US Department of Commerce)

Good news! We know how to interest kids in STEM! Engaging Students’ Interest, Not Just Offering Advanced Classes, Best Promotes Interest in STEM Careers It’s about high interest, engaging classes starting in early years. It’s not just about offering more AP and advanced classes in high school.

Bad news! We are cutting science in early grades Elementary Teachers Getting Less Time for Science. And we are not connecting with students’ actual interests in science nor are we teaching it in the way students say works best for them (hands-on) The disconnect in science education.



Tinkering and “real work”

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.


Tinkering and STEM – good for girls, good for all

I’m excited to be an invited panelist at the National Council of Women in IT (NCWIT) Summit on Women and IT: practices and ideas to revolutionize computing next week in New York City. The topic is Tinkering: How Might ‘Making Stuff’ Influence Girls’ Interest in STEM and Computing?… and I’m the “K-12” voice on the panel.

We were each asked to do an introductory 5 minutes to establish our point of view about these issues. I started with a slide deck I use about tinkering and technology literacy and managed to cut it down to about 20 minutes when I thought – why not share this version on Slideshare! So here it is.

School only honors one type of design and problem-solving methodology, the traditional analytical step-by-step model. It ignores other problem-solving styles that are more non-linear, more collaborative, more artistic, etc. These styles are seen as “messy” or “soft” with the implication that they are not reliable. However, who do we lose when we ignore, or worse, denigrate alternative styles of problem-solving. I think one answer may be “girls” but honestly, it’s broader than that. We lose all kinds of people who are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. And these are exactly the people I want solving the problems we face in the 21st century.

Teaching a tinkering model of problem-solving is good for girls because it’s good for everyone.


Teaching Girls to Tinker

Education Week: Teaching Girls to Tinker.

Yet, even as girls open new gender gaps by outpacing their male peers in most subjects, men still receive roughly 77 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering and 85 percent of those in computer science. Why aren’t girls choosing to enter these critical fields of the future?

There are several familiar explanations: Girls lack sufficient female role models in computer science and engineering; girls prefer sciences that are clearly connected to helping others; girls are turned off by the “isolated geek” stereotype that dominates their view of computer science and engineering.

Here’s another explanation: Girls don’t tinker.

Be sure to read the rest of the article…Teaching Girls to Tinker

My Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency session at Educon 2.2 went very well. I’m waiting to hear if the recording glitches were solved or if it’s lost to eternity! (Don’t bother clicking on the Elluminate link on the session page, it just says the session is over.) I have heard, though, that they are working on putting up the links.

It was a great conversation. So many people participated and shared some really great ideas and stories. I will post some resources from the conversation soon.


DARPA Promotes High-Tech Education

Citing studies that show a marked decline in the number of students pursuing education in math, science and engineering, the Pentagon’s Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is requesting proposals for “innovative new ideas to encourage students to major in CS-STEM and pursue careers as engineers and scientists.”

DARPA was the agency that funded the research that created what we now know as the Internet. It’s great that they are again looking to fund this kind of educational goals.

What kinds of projects do you think they should fund? Please comment!

via DARPA Promotes High-Tech Education.