Since Windows 95 effectively made the internet a household staple in developed nations, it has been increasingly clear that STEM literacy is no longer an optional skill. Ubiquitous to practically every industry, computing, critical thinking, collective problem solving, and digital literacy are essential skills that either empower or impair potential success. As the need for STEM literacy has grown at exponential rates over the past two decades, alarming gaps in STEM industries have surfaced (and even widened). In particular, racial and gender gaps in STEM fields (especially in positions of leadership) continue to plague executives across nearly every sector.
While the two gaps do not exist in isolation, the recently published report, Girls, STEM and Careers: Decoding Girls' Futures in an Age of Social Media by Ruling Our eXperiences, Inc. (ROX) reveals that much work is left to be done to eliminate the gender gap in STEM. Among other trends, the report shines a damning light on one of the primary factors contributing to the perpetual gender gap in STEM. Simply put, by high school, female students demonstrate significantly less confidence in their ability to succeed in STEM. In spite of the fact that female students are increasingly indicating a strong interest in STEM fields, they often face myriad external factors that contribute to a lack of perceived ability to thrive in their dream jobs.
Despite cultural awareness of the need to show women as successful leaders in STEM roles, the gaps continue to surface. From Mattel's Barbie Careers Game Developer Doll to Goldie Blocks, an entire cottage industry has evolved to target young female students in hopes of empowering girls to see themselves in traditionally male dominated roles. Media conglomerates are taking note and are finally (occasionally) beginning to cast women in roles that value their intellectual contributions over their sex appeal.
While much work remains to level the playing field in STEM in the national arena, a wave of momentum is growing. National organizations are working diligently to target female students in middle grades (where we see a systemic decline of female self-efficacy in STEM) through a wide-range of strategic initiatives aimed at giving students role models, access to safe learning environments, and opportunities to marry interests with aptitude in order to experience early success in STEM. Fighting traditional gender roles is no small task, but a glimpse into local communities sheds light on pockets of success that could hold the key to rewriting this narrative that has plagued our country for generations.
In Elizabeth Forward, PA, school leaders have created girls only digital fabrication classes that have given female students an opportunity to thrive in a advanced manufacturing digital fabrication lab (FabLab) while demonstrating a propensity to thrive as problem solvers when given access to advanced technology and the time and space to engage in authentic problem solving. The district also has a partnership with Real World Scholars through which teams of female students thrive as entrepreneurs. In Chattanooga, TN we are seeing similar momentum building. In this year's Teacherpreneur cohort, teachers from three diverse schools (an urban elementary school, a suburban middle high school, and a high performing magnet platform school) are working together to expand a girls coding club that could break the world record for number of female students coding this spring!
However, the strategies cannot be limited to providing isolated activities that segregate by gender. After all, post-secondary success for female students will happen in a vacuum. They will have to compete with their male counterparts--often being forced to overcome gender biases held by executives. This is where I'm most excited with the early success we are seeing through the Volkswagen eLabs. Once deemed the playground of the privileged, an innovative partnership between Volkswagen Group of America, the State of Tennessee, Hamilton County Schools, and the Public Education Foundation has resulted in nearly 12,000 students from grades 6-12 having extensive experiences through digital fabrication. While the program is still in its infancy and thus impossible to support quantitative impact reports (yet), anecdotal evidence suggests that female students are not only engaging in the labs, they are thriving. In a traditionally underperforming urban middle school, a team of female 6th graders realized what was possible and developed a custom apparel business that generated more than $5,000 in revenue in the first six months on the market. The business is developed and run entirely by this team of female entrepreneurs--design, web management, business management, marketing, product development...these young ladies do it all. In other labs across the district, female students are emerging as master 3D designers and burgeoning coders!
The theory is simple, give students--all students--opportunities to engage in innovative learning environments that seamlessly blend access to digital fabrication technologies, expert teachers, and authentic problems, and the results take care of themselves. At STEM School Chattanooga, this surfaces by empowering students to thrive as autonomous problem identifiers and problem solvers--or as most people put it...as entrepreneurs. Because of the model of the school, students enter their senior year with a unique skill set that empowers them to tackle practically any problem and share their results in a Shark Tank style pitch event. At a recent event, two young ladies shared a riding pad they created for competitive horse riding. Neither student considered themselves "stemy," but by their senior year, they realized STEM was more of a mindset than an acronym. As equestrian competitors, they were familiar with the field and knew that one particular riding pad was the gold standard. After engaging in some market research, they began prototyping and developing an alternative pad in their school's FabLab. Their final product and pitch were amazing, but the most important part was their increased confidence to succeed in STEM.
When students are given opportunities to solve personally relevant problems by leveraging access to real tools and teacher experts, they inevitably develop confidence and self-efficacy that empowers them to succeed in the post-secondary pathway of their choosing.
While it is always easy to highlight individual stories of success, systemic improvements are much more difficult to attain (and prove). As the ROX report points out, we still have work to do to eliminate the gender gap in STEM, but the convergence of national initiatives and local proponents pushing for more opportunities to effectively engage females in STEM may create such a groundswell of momentum that success becomes inevitable!
At a recent tech showcase in Southeast Tennessee, I had a fascinating conversation with the User Experience Analytics Manager from a major retail conglomerate. He was demoing their latest software development. His company owns several malls in the US and they recently added free high-speed WiFi to each location. This was a strategic investment that extended far beyond the publicized interest in attracting customers back to brick-and-mortar retail. The WiFi installment gives customers free connectivity to the internet, but it also returns invaluable information to the mall owners. The moment a customer connects to the free WiFi, the mall immediately has access to portions of the user's digital footprint and their activity while shopping. The software allows the mall to create a heat map for each location that shows and analyzes customer traffic, average time spent in front of and in each store, time spent in the mall, number of stores visited, etc. He assured me (and I believe him) that they don't get any private or identifiable data, but they can see portions of each user's browsing data. More importantly, their analytics engine gets this information. Leveraging the same advanced analytics algorithms that large online companies like Amazon use to send you targeted adds (those adds where you Google "blue sweater" and then see a bunch of adds from Amazon on social media, showcasing a variety of blue sweaters), the mall is now able to sell analyzed, user-specific data to the retailers who lease space in their mall.
As a self-identified "tech head" and a Director of Innovative Learning, I am constantly bombarded with opportunities to try and leverage emergent technologies to improve or enhance student experiences in the classroom. While I absolutely love and embrace this challenge, I am often concerned when I hear some of the rhetoric around technology integration in education. Let me clearly state up front that in the modern era, I believe it is irresponsible to fail to develop innovative solutions to ensure every student has access and opportunity to experience digital technologies in the classroom. If adults fail to provide equitable and expansive access to the types of tools that will be seamlessly and ubiquitously integrated in the workforce, then we fail to adequately prepare our students to thrive as adults
We're celebrating Start Up Week this week in Chattanooga. The energy is palpable and the air is ripe with a sense of expectancy and possibility. Entrepreneurs live in a fast-moving world of what-if possibilities, solution pitches, product/service development, scaling, funding, funding some more, analysis, marketing, a bit more funding, leveraging human capital..... They live in a world that tries to provide scalable, sustainable solutions to opportunities as quickly as they can be found. While I have a long-standing personal philosophy of arguing against the call for education to be ran like "any other business," I am increasingly convinced that the ed world has much to glean from the entrepreneurial community.
In December 2015, I read Pastor Mark Batterson's latest book, If. The book was written to inspire Christians to live life void of "if only" regrets by pursuing "what if" possibilities. While it is written in a spiritual context, the transfer to education was unavoidable for me. Over the past 18 months, I have informally interviewed more than 1,000 educators from across the United States. Without fail, all of them eventually point to testing as a substantial issue in public education. Those interested in reducing racial, socioeconomic, and gender gaps will point to the inevitable and well documented biases woven into high-stakes tests.
There is a wave of momentum behind computer science (CS) education that is sweeping across the country. From Code.org's Hour of Code, to hacker-sessions, to digital making, computer science is clearly here to stay. As members of the CS community continue to develop creative strategies for convincing others that CS really is a fundamental skill that all students need to be familiar with, a number of intriguing discussions are surfacing that present unique challenges in the already bumpy landscape of American education. With an undergraduate degree in computer science, I am unquestionably biased to the importance of CS--I thought it was important enough 16 years ago that I chose to major in it. However, perhaps more importantly, as a father of 7 and 4 year old daughters, I am increasingly interested in the potential of CS in K-12 education and in efforts to curb the alarming data regarding the gender, racial, and SES gaps in computer science. When framed through the lens of a parent, the conversation gets really tricky really fast. I want to discuss some observations I have had as both a dad, and as a computer science educator.
In the previous post, I made a case for making more informed purchasing decisions with educational money...especially when it comes to purchasing EdTech. The following is a list of some common EdTech products that are purchased by schools and school systems contrasted with lower-cost alternatives that deliver similar, if not identical solutions.
Interactive White Boards
Tech Solution ($2,000 to $6,000)
Use an interactive white board to allow students and teachers to interact with digital artifacts and display handwriting/highlighting on a single, integrated device. These are often used to display slideshows, enhance digital illustrations, and engage students in interactive games. Popular brands include SmartTech SMART Boards and Promethean Active Boards. While other solutions are available, the costs and benefits are similar. They deliver a great experience in the classroom and have become a staple in many schools.
Low Cost Alternative ($185 to $750)
Option 1: Use an Apple iPad (mini under $259) paired with Apple TV ($149) and a standard projector (as low as $300 -- but often already available in the classroom). You can achieve similar levels of interactivity with a variety of apps (like Doceri) plus you gain the added benefit of not requiring instructors or students to only interact from the fixed position at the front of the room.
Option 2: Use a Chromebook (as low as $149) paired with Chromecast ($35) and a standard projector in a similar fashion as described above (this does eliminate the option for handwriting unless you have a higher priced Chromebook).
Throughout college, I worked as a sales associate at a popular big-box electronics store. The company had a unique compensation model for the industry. They paid a higher than normal hourly wage but they did not give commission in any form; no bonuses, no percentage of accessories, no SPIFF for adding on an installation service or warranty...nothing. They simply expected their employees to be highly educated on the products and services they were selling, and they expected us to share that information in a non-threatening, non-pushy way with customers. It made for a great working and shopping environment. The job was fun and the lack of pressure to sell add-ons (they didn't even track individual sales in any way) was a welcomed change from other retail positions I had held previously.
After my 4th year in the classroom as a science teacher, I switched from a very small, private Christian school, to a large traditional public school. Not only did I drastically change educational environments, I also switched from science to math — the subject area I was officially qualified to teach. In the transitional summer, it was explained that I had to attend a week-long PD session in order to teach Algebra. In my prior school, we did not have the resources to deliver PD, so this would be my first PD experience. I was actually pretty excited because it had been almost a decade since my last math course and I was eager to brush up on my math and hone my skills so that I could be a highly effective teacher.
I was recently reflecting on my time as a science teacher at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, TN. It was my first “real job.” It was my first position in a career field that I loved. I was teaching groups of teenagers about science, but I knew I was also teaching them about life. It was a chance to open their eyes. It was enthralling to watch a boy grow into a man. It was unbelievably fulfilling to prompt a teenage girl with questions until she realized her real potential. It was exciting to learn new material and to experiment with instructional strategies, classroom management techniques, and assessment ideas I had only previously read about.
Cleveland Rotary Club
Innovating Education Through Community Partners
NEA Foundation The Promise of Public Ed
Leveraging Teacher Leadership to Increase STEM Education
US Senate Briefing
The Need for a National Organizing Body of Digital Fabrication
NACCE California Symposium
Scaling Innovation through Partnerships
Volkswagen eLab Ribbon Cutting
Why Digital Fabrication can't be an Option
NSTA STEM Leadership
Developing, Incubating, and Implementing Public/Private Partnerships that Matter
Chattanooga Fab Institute
Revolutionizing Learning through Digital Fabrication
HCDE Future Ready Institute Launch
Developing PBL Units with Business Partners
STEM Fellows Celebration
Community Partnerships for Teacher Leadership
Scaling Innovation in Schools
Remake Learning Days
Dig Fab in the Community
Public/Private Partnerships Panel
Digital Fabrication in the Modern Classroom
Redesign for Student Success (San Diego)
Scaling Innovation through Digital Fabrication
GE Leadership Summit
Leveraging Innovative Technologies for Learning
Texas Open Innovation
Emerging Innovations in Education
FFT Leading & Learning
Connecting Global Ed
reMake Education Summit
National Governor's Asc.
Coding with Governors
US Dept of Education
Round Table with Secretary John King
K-12 Pathways for CS
K-12 Education Panel
Reducing the Racial Gap in Computing
Boston Museum of Science
Teaching with Toys
US Dept of Education
MSP CS Proposition