By Yvonne Ng, January guest blogger
As an engineer and computer science professor at a liberal arts institution — and a women’s institution to boot — it was heartening to learn that the White House is focusing much-needed resources and energy to bear on a challenge with which I have been grappling for years.
In early December, the Obama administration designated increasing the number of students earning undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by one million over the next decade as a Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) goal.
Based on recommendations made by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report, “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” these CAP goals specify women and under-represented minorities of particular interest as they represent an untapped pool of college graduates.
This can only help and support Minnesota students seeking higher education and attracting them to STEM fields, which Minnesota’s workforce urgently needs.
When I first started teaching computer science at St. Catherine University, I taught, as most professors do, the way I was taught: lectures, example programs/problems and standard homework questions. As my initial overfull classes dwindled by half by the end of my second year, it was clear that something needed to change or I would put myself out of a job. Luckily, students shared with me their brutal feedback — GET REAL!
Lessons revolving around inputs, outputs, variables, conditionals and iteratives were interesting and the way they could make the machine do tricks was nifty, but how, they asked, did it relate to computers in the real world?
Drawing on my time in industry, I realized they needed projects that would engage them creatively. Motivating projects combined with good curriculum design results in students who don’t whine, “Why are we doing this?” but instead demand, “When are you going to teach us this?” “Are you sure that gives us enough time to get our project to work?” Students become collaborators in their learning.
And you know, that’s how it is in the real world — you learn what you need to do to make your project a success. And it’s not just personal pride that motivates: It’s the sense of doing what’s needed for the company and its workers; your success means something real. A former boss reminded me of this every time our computer-automated system broke down: every minute down was food out of customers’ mouths — their bread and butter depended on our systems working reliably and accurately.
The young women in my classes thrive on this. While nobody starves, it’s important that their projects involve something that they care about — something they want to work. When they say, “Gosh, this will be SO COOL,” then I know I have them. They will push themselves to master the concepts, make the connections and put in the grunt programming time needed to code their masterpiece.
This kind of project-based learning and careful curriculum design has been critical to the success of “Engineering for Everyone” courses I teach at St. Kate’s. The secret to success again is real projects that allow students to see the applications of the theory in something they have a vested interest. They get their hands dirty; they spend long hours “in the shop” (or at the kitchen table); and they test-redesign-test again to get the device to work.
It’s not surprising that reality is important for females. The majority has not had these experiences as children so they need to have the time to play in reality. As adults, they learn more from this play in a shorter period of time, so a college course with planful “hands on” components can jumpstart a “disadvantaged” student.
It’s not just women who statistically lack these experiences with STEM reality: students from lower economic backgrounds often lack these experiences, and interestingly, we now find those from upper class backgrounds are equally lacking.
The former don’t have enough money to own “things” like bicycles to have a context for mechanical concepts like gears or crankshafts. The latter have so much money that they don’t fix things, so how things work is just as big a mystery.
I once heard that insanity was doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. It’s time to stop the insanity of teaching STEM topics the same way and expecting women and other under-represented students to flock to them. The decades long track record of this method of teaching shows it is successful at NOT encouraging them into STEM.
As the president’s PCAST report recommends, we need “a diversification of teaching methods” that are “more effective in reaching all students.”
So let’s replace the insanity with a good dose of reality. After all, if the students are excited about doing real STEM projects, then won’t they love their STEM jobs?