Stemming the STEM Gap, But Softly

Einstein says

There has been more than $750 million in recent years from tech companies to try to help schools bridge the long-acknowledged STEM skills gap. Much of that money was earmarked for what we would term IT. And though I much prefer STEAM (with an arts and digital humanities inclusion) to STEM, most people in any of those areas would probably agree that the gap hasn't narrowed and may have widened. 

Reports say that  33% of American workers are not proficient in the technology required to do their job, and only a tenth of workers believe they have mastered their workplace tech tools. 

new report claims that we are still a long way from being able to adapt technology to the classroom and that the link between having more technology and better learning is not a direct one.

It is not news to say that we  don't know exactly what skills students will need to know to succeed in their future. I have heard a half dozen presentations that discuss the idea that the jobs of the near future for high school and college graduates will require skills that only 20% of workers today might have.

All these reports and studies are focused on "hard skills." These skills, like coding, are more tangible and easier to measure than some of the "soft" skills that sometimes allow someone to get a job despite having a hard skills gap.

It is not that education has forgotten about problem solving and being able to learn new things as needed or being able to produce solutions to problems that were never covered in class or in the textbook. But in many cases, the refocusing on the hard skills gap may have widened the soft skills gap.

We frequently champion and applaud innovators and creativity, but we know that those things are difficult to measure and so sometimes more difficult to "sell." It may be that having those soft skills is exactly what is needed by new workers who are required to acquire new hard skills on the job.

Predicting the Future

Back to the Future day came and went yesterday and I saw no sign of Marty, Doc or Jennifer in 2015. Another disappointment to those of us who want to believ in time travel. And the Chicago Cubs will not win the World Series as the second film in that series predicted.

In the original 1985 film, Back to the Future, they only had to portray 1985 and the past. That's easy stuff for filmmakers. In the second film, they travel to the future of 2015 and that's a lot harder to do. Predicting the future, which often focuses on technology, is tough work. Still, many writers and filmmakers have tried and will continue to try..

When George Orwell wrote 1984, he flipped his own year of 1948 and probably wasn't too worried about when his predictions would come true because he was hoping his cautionary tale might help prevent it from ever coming to be.

When Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sequels 2010: Odyssey Two, 2061: Odyssey 3 and 3001: Odyssey Four, I think he was trying to be scientifically accurate in his predictions.  Later, director Stanley Kubrick would have to update 2001: A Space Odyssey's technology and interpret the visuals.

Since none of us will be around to post online about how well Clarke was at predicting 3001, he was free from criticism. In that novel, 1000 years after Frank Poole was sent out into frozen space by the supercomputer HAL in 2001, he is brought back to life. That future is full of  human minds that are connected to computers, space elevators and genetically-engineered dinosaur-like servants. Good old David Bowman and HAL are now one consciousness and those damn monoliths are still causing problems.

When the first film version of Orwell's novel was released in 1956, that horrible future probably still seemed quite possible. Thankfully, when the 1984 film version of 1984  was made, the Cold War had passed, but many of Orwell's predictions seem to have come true (NSA, privacy etc.). I think Clarke sets a good model for writers of the future: set the plot in a time after your own death, so no one can call you out for your predictions to your face.

Welcome to the Future of 2015


The day has finally arrived. October 21, 2015. No, it is not another Maya prediction. Today, we are finally at the point in time to which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels in Back to the Future Part II. The future of that Robert Zemeckis' 1989 sequel is the now of 2015. (2015 also marks the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future.)

Though I don't expect the time-space continuum to collapse today or to find Marty, Doc, and Jennifer visiting us, I do expect to see them in the media.

Watch the trailer for that film and refresh your memory. A number of news reports have covered what the film got right and wrong about this future that is our present - including its prediction of a Cubs World Series win.

I'm not too concerned that we don't have Marty's self-tying shoes yet (though Nike has a real-life experimental version). And the filmmakers did miss out on predicting the Internet and mobile phones (but so did most futurists). We have been anxiously waiting for flying cars for about a hundred years and people keep trying to make Marty's hoverboard. But the film series did predict things like computerized fueling stations (though not robotic yet) and non-military drones.

The predicting business is tough. In many cases things predicted in sci-fi came true, but it took a lot longer than expected.

In Marty's Hill Valley hometown, the theaters are showing in October 2015 Jaws 19, in 3D, directed by Max Spielberg. Thankfully, the Jaws franchise was killed by the actual 3D third film. Max Spielberg (Steven's real-life son, born in 1985) has worked on a few films, but no directing. That gag seems a lot more like an insider director joke than a prediction. (After all, Steven Spielberg produced the film.) They are right though - Hollywood is in love with sequels and franchises in 2015.

We are actually scanning eyes and fingerprints for identification as they do in the film. It's on your iPhone but not ubiquitous in our homes. I still have a boring doorknob instead of the McFly family's scanner.

We have advanced more into being paperless than the film shows. The USA Today there is quite a thick stack of paper and the film likes using fax machine devices which probably are only used by government agencies these days. Marty's dad gets terminated from his job in a video call that is confirmed by a printout that looks like it was done on a dot-matrix printer using Print Shop.

Some observers have pointed to Google Glass and Microsoft Hololens as versions of the different high-tech eye-wear in the film with cameras, magnification, information and some bluetoothy way of connecting.

The film's 2015 is having a bit of a nostalgic love affair with the 1980s. That allows the set decorators to use their contemporary props, like a Macintosh computer and a dustbuster vacuum, as collectible items of the future. Marty visits a Cafe 80s where 1970s jeans, NY Yankees t-shirt and Chuck Taylor sneakers would not seem out of place. Future fashions in films always seem to be metallic, unisex and either very odd or more like uniforms - but those fashions never seem to emerge. I think you're safer predicting that the future will look more like today than going over to the other extreme.

The filmmakers had Marty using cash to buy things in 2015, and even with all our credits cards and merchants experimenting with alternate ways of paying, a $20 bill still works just fine.

Inventor Doc Brown says that he had some life-extension procedures - a full blood transfusion, hair repair and a new spleen and colon – and I have always suspected that rich people were doing those things already. Those procedures help Doc (Christopher Lloyd) look a bit younger in the 1990 Back to the Future Part III, which was already in the works when they shot Part II. For III, they took an easier path and went back in time again where we know what to expect. (Not that filmmakers don't often get the past wrong too.)

The movie missed our 2015 penchant for watching video on small screens. It does provide plenty of big flat-screens on walls with multiple channels displayed, and as advertising and even on window blinds. No Internet in the film but the McFly family does use a big screen AT&T-connected device for video calls that looks like our Facetime/Skype/Hangouts kind of video conversation. The screen also carries data about the caller (names of children, hobbies, food preferences) which have been part of the database facial recognition being built into devices these days.  

This post and related ones first appeared on Weekends in Paradelle


Kindergarten Engineers

microfilm plane

I was thinking about my earlier post about "learning engineers" after I came across a video storybook on called "David and Kayleen Design a Glider." Actually, the first thing I thought of was really the hundreds of balsa wood and paper gliders I had made as a kid.  From those pre-cut balsa wood airplanes that all my friends bought, built and broke, to the ones I ended up building from scratch using balsa, paper and scraps, I learned the basics of aerodynamics.

Eventually, through a middle school club, I learned to make beautiful rainbow-winged microfilm planes (like the one at top) with rubber band motors that could fly for several minutes in a gymnasium or the several airplane hangars our club visited. It was pretty nerdy at the time and I loved it.

Years later, as a middle school teacher, I had a devoted little club of kids building planes from paper that were part engineering and part origami.

Building these airplanes is a way to learn about aerospace engineering, but it was also a way to learn how to follow instructions, about precision and about learning from the mistakes you and your fellow engineers made.

That video storybook page says that it is a way for children to learn about "the design and structure of airplanes and gliders, and are encouraged to understand the innovation process."glider

I did some digging online about the lesson and the "hoop gliders" they were building. I know that design from a book I had when I was doing that club that contained plans for folding prize-winning paper airplane designs. The hoop glider doesn't look at all like what most people would envision as a glider - which makes it a good choice of a design to use to get kids thinking about why planes fly.

One of the things I found online was written by Tom Jenkins [@tomjenkinsstem], a middle school science and STEM teacher in Ohio. He wrote Kindergarteners Are Born Engineers about a lesson he did using the video and hoop gliders with a kindergarten class.

hoop gliderHe started them talking abou how planes fly, and asking what engineers do and, as you might expect with kids that age, the discussion went in many places. I totally get that part of it involved Thomas the Tank Engine, as many kids think of a railroad engineer first. Eventually one student says that engineers "build things” and that gets him into his true mission.

They select materials and then test and measure the flights of  the gliders of their own creation. One student suggests using aluminum foil for the hoops because it is lighter, and another suggests instead strips of manila folder “because it’s less floppy.”

Sounds like a fun and good lesson. But what is most interesting to me about the lesson is what Jenkins fears and discovers.

He was afraid that the class of little ones would test the gliders, see many of them "fail" and then end up crying. He has seen that happen with older middle-schoolers.

As expected, most of the planes crashed quickly. But "not one student cried or was disheartened at all. In fact, they all ran back to their workstations and started discussing a new plan. They had failed and that was okay. They had learned a lesson and were going to continue to improve their designs until they were successful."

That is huge.

PogoAnd then Jenkins realized that the problem is himself - or as Pogo said it years ago, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Jenkins: "These kindergärtners get it. They understand that learning is a collaborative process. Oftentimes you have to discuss the problem in order to find the best solution. Failure is also an option, and as long as you learn from your mistakes, it can be a positive experience. They had lived the engineering design process their entire lives."

He concludes that although he usually spends the first few weeks of a school year the engineering design process (and in his situation, to older kids), they already knew it and he was probably breaking them.

Kids entering school may be more likely to not fear collaboration, experimentation, guessing at a solution and even failing than the older ones who have been "taught" by assignments, correct answrs and grade to be more hesitant.

Failure is still often discouraged as a learning experience - intentionally or not - rather than seeing the gift of failure as a learning tool. We need to remember that children have "an innate ability to learn through the iterative process" and are closer to being engineers and scientists than we give them credit. Not only STEM but STEAM (with that important art and creativity segment) and DIY and maker brought into the K-16 classroom is powerful.

Pogo Earth Day 1971 poster, licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia


Where Have All the Wikis Gone? The Devolution of Web 2.0

2.0Back in 2005, I started getting into using wikis. Tim Kellers and I made one to teach about the use of wikis - particularly the use of open source wiki software. It is what some call a metawiki.

Wikis are part of the Web 2.0 movement. when we started to think about the Internet as a place where we could build and contribute our own content rather than just read and consume.

In 2005, we were mixing wikis in with the somewhat sexier 2.0 tools like podcasting, blogging, and the photo and video sharing sites that were popping up. Then came social media and everything changed again.

The first wiki was created in 1995 by Oregon programmer Ward Cunningham. he named it after the "Wiki-Wiki," or "quick" shuttle buses at the Honolulu Airport. They were meant to be web sites on which anyone could post material without knowing programming languages or HTML. The most famous wiki is still the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. We often referred to wikis as "collaborative web sites."

That metwiki that Tim and I made in 2005 still exists at If it looks like Wikipedia, that is because we used the same software - Mediawiki - that was used to build Wikipedia.

But ten years later, I don't see teachers, students or the general public wanting to build wikis. They use wikis. They use Wikipedia all the time. But it almost seems like this powerful Web 2.0 tool has gone 1.0.  People are using, but not building wikis. What happened?

By extension, it seems that blogs and "build-your-own" website services are also less popular than they were ten years ago.The preference, especially with the students I teach, is to post your photos on Facebook or Instagram and post your thoughts in some of the same social media networks in a giant mix with friends rather than create a unique place of your own.

I admit that neither Tim nor I work on that wiki or do any wiki training these days. We keep the Serendipity35 blog we also started that year humming, but wikis don't seem to appeal.

Are we moving back, devolving in our creative participation and giving in to what the business side of the Net is willing to give us?


Where Are the Learning Engineers?

Do we need learning engineers? Most people would answer that they didn't even know there was such a job. Currently, I don't think anyone does have that job (though I could imagine it being on someone's business card anyway.)

Wikipedia defines engineering as "the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design, build, and maintain structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes. It may encompass using insights to conceive, model and scale an appropriate solution to a problem or objective. The discipline of engineering is extremely broad, and encompasses a range of more specialized fields of engineering, each with a more specific emphasis on particular areas of technology and types of application.'

From that I could imagine many teachers, instructional designers and trainers feeling like they might be "learning engineers."

I have read a few articles that suggest that we consider using the title.

One of those articles is by Bror Saxberg who is chief learning officer at Kaplan Inc. On his blog, he wrote:

The creative educator or instructional designer can and should draw inspiration for tough challenges from everywhere and anywhere, if there isn't evidence already available to guide him or her. Unlike many challenges faced by an artist or author, however, instructional designers and educators also need to be grounded in how the real world actually works. (Even artists have to battle with the chemistry and material properties of the media they choose, it should be noted – you might want glass to be strong enough to support something in a certain way, but you may have to alter your artistic vision to match the reality.) Simply imagining how learning might work is not enough to build solutions that are effective for learners at scale – whether we like it or not, whether we get it right or not, how learning works in the world is going to affect the outcomes at scale.

A few years back, I heard the term "design thinking" used frequently in education circles. The graduate program I teach in at NJIT is still called Professional and Technical Communications, but "design" has become part of many of the courses.

That is enough of a trend that you can hear others asking if  design thinking is the new liberal arts. One example is the "" at Stanford University (formally, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design)  which considers itself a training ground for problem-solving for graduate students. Rather than stress the typical design path of making products, they look at  design thinking as a way "to equip our students with a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field."

Perhaps, "learning engineer" is more of a way of rethinking how teachers and academics design instruction. Maybe it is another way to look at engineering.

A few years ago, Bill Jerome wrote about the engineering side and said: "Imagine a more “traditional” engineer hired to design a bridge.  They don’t revisit first principles to design a new bridge.  They don’t investigate gravity, nor do they ignore the lessons learned from previous bridge-building efforts (both the successes and the failures).  They know about many designs and how they apply to the current bridge they’ve been asked to design.  They are drawing upon understandings of many disciplines in order to design the new bridge and, if needed, can identify where the current knowledge  doesn’t account for the problem at hand and know what particular deeper expertise is needed.  They can then inquire about this new problem and incorporate a solution."

I think that there is a place for design thinking in engineering and also an engineering approach to designing instruction.

Design thinking as an approach to problem solving is often described using some basic principles:

Show Don’t Tell

Focus on Human Values

Craft Clarity

Embrace Experimentation

Be Mindful of Process

Bias Toward Action

Radical Collaboration

Those could be viewed as five modes that fit easily into engineering and education: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

Saxberg gives the example of needing someone to design a new biotech brewing facility. Do you want a chemist or a chemical engineer? He says the engineer - someone who "deeply understands modern chemistry... but is also conversant with health regulations, safety regulations, costs of building, and thinks in an integrated way about designing things for scale."

Do we have "learning engineers" now that understand the research about learning, test it, and apply it to help more students learn more effectively? Are they teaching or are they doing research? Do all teachers need to be learning engineers?

I somewhat fear that if the title becomes used that it will end up leaning heavily towards educational technology. That's something I see happening to many "teaching and learning" and "teaching excellence" center at colleges.

Technology can help. I have spent the past fifteen years working with that. But there is no guarantee that instructors using technology will somehow be better instructors. We know a lot about how people learn, but most of that isn't being used by those who teach.

When I started at NJIT in 2000, I was hesitant about telling seasoned instructors "how to teach" (pedagogy). But I was pleasantly surprised by two things. First, the people who came to me or to our workshops were open to learning not only about new technology but about pedagogy. I was also surprised by how many of them were willing to say that no one had ever taught them "how to teach" and that they were always a little unsure about running only on intuition and their personal experiences with learning. "I try to teach like the good teachers I had and avoid being like the bad ones," was a sentiment I heard fairly frequently.

Having come from teaching in a secondary school where everyone had a split educational background of subject matter expertise and educational pedagogy with continuing professional development in the latter, it took some transitioning for me to settle into the higher education setting.

Being that NJIT is very much an engineering (and design) institution, the idea of learning engineers might have been a good approach to take with that faculty.

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