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.


7 Replies to “Tinkering and STEM – good for girls, good for all”

  1. Love this presentation, Sylvia. When these dots get connected, they reveal a refreshing picture of what engaged learning looks like–for girls, boys, kids, adults.
    Have fun at NCWIT!

  2. An idea whose time has come. As fewer and fewer kids are encouraged to tinker at home, or see anyone around them doing it, it’s more important that we create those opportunities. Do you have the opportunity to include “making” in your introduction to the importance of “making”? I’ve used LED throwies as a quick warmup to these conversations — gives us a concrete and shared experience to refer to when talking about how the experience of building things affects us. It can be done it 5 minutes.

    I do worry about a definition of technological literacy that emphasizes “responsible use of appropriate technology” as SETDA does, because it takes the focus away from responsible *creation* of appropriate technology. Casting us a consumers can widen the perceived gap between people who control the tech, and people who are controlled by it. I suspect that that gap is one of the reasons why so many people see technology as a force of nature that has a mind of its own, rather than a artifact of the imagination of the designer. There’s a big difference between asking “how can i use this product” and “what would this product looked like if it reflected my imagination instead of someone else’s?” Papert makes this distinction by talking about the need to shift away from settling for “literacy” and toward fostering “fluency.”

    Interestingly, engineering is the only one of the STEM disciplines that does not have a class named after it in a typical high school. Obviously, things that could be considered engineering happen in various classes, but students often don’t realize that that’s what it is. The invisibility of engineering is not helping our cause, especially given your points about how important tinkering can be in influencing young people’s perceptions of their abilities and possible careers. The American Society of Engineering Education published a short opinion piece about introducing “building stuff” class to elementary schools that you might find interesting.

    In case your audience isn’t familiar with them, a couple of great sources of kid-friendly “building stuff” projects are Instructables and Make Magazine. Good luck with your presentation — hope you’ll write again about the responses you get.

  3. I’m over the tired rhetoric of ‘girls need this, boys need that, African American children need…’ I often times wonder if the individuals/organizations pushing this rhetoric does so to inflate and exert their sense of self-importance.

    Like you said, what is right for girls is right for people of all backgrounds and ages. More personalization, more hands-on, less hijacking of the learning by adults, rich learning objects to explore and play with, increased opportunities to make stuff, increased opportunities to share with an audience, etc.

  4. Hi Sylvia,
    I am looking for an easy to share document with all of the STEM standards, to use as a resource, if you know of any!

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