Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Never Enough Time

For my History and Philosophy of Engineering Education class, we read a lot. It's also the last class of the week, and the one that is likely to be skimmed and not as deeply prepared for as the others. This is actually a really sad state of affairs; this is the most consistently interesting and insightful class this semester, where deep thoughts are not only encouraged but required. By the time I have to reflect on the reading for the week, I'm usually up late Wednesday night or trying to synthesize a reasonable response before my 10:30 AM class. Once or twice I've even been frantically trying to skim the last paper or two as class is starting in order to be able to talk about all of them. I hate that.

Available at Tower Books
We've been reading Philosophy of Education by Nel Noddings. If you're interested in philosophy and education this is a great introductory book. Every week I tell myself I will sit down either on the couch with a mug of tea or in the tub with a glass of wine and really enjoy the book. I want to read it slowly to savor the ideas, roll them around in my mind so I can fit them in with what I already know and believe, question my own understanding and beliefs, modify some, reject others, and build more of my personal philosophy of what education is, was, could be, and should be. I want to understand how the idea of what education means philosophically, politically, and socially has changed throughout the years, where the major themes originated, and what radical notions have been thrown out the window. I want to luxuriate in the glorious writing, my first real introduction to philosophy, something I'm learning that I love, rather than skimming the chapter in the hours before it's due. This is week four of making that promise.

I was skimming back through the book, trying to find what it was that Dewey said exactly about groups for a post I'm working on, when my eye caught a line that I'm shocked I hadn't picked up on before. In my essays for entrance to Purdue, to be eligible for certain types of aid I had to write a Teaching Statement. In that Statement, I wrote:

"The instructor’s job is to guide learning, not to lecture. If a student retains nothing, there has been no learning, so the teacher has not taught effectively"

John Dewey wrote similar things, with the idea that if learning has not happened, neither has teaching. Apparently, the teaching and learning I've been doing all my life has led me to a mostly Deweyan way of thinking about education. To me, you don't need to be a teacher to teach, and even if you're a teacher, you may not be teaching. This tends to be a learner-centered idea, the idea that it doesn't matter what the teacher is doing, what matters is what the student is gaining. I still wrestle with that idea, whether or not it's a personal truth. Sometimes, no matter your best try, no matter what teaching methods you use, you just cannot get through to your students, either because they aren't ready to hear what you have to say or they have no intrinsic motivation to learn what you're trying to teach. I think most teachers who are involved in those common "First Year Enrichment" seminar-type classes that introduce students to what they should be doing in college can agree. Many students don't realize how important a lot of the information they're getting is in those classes, for many who were like me, not because they're bad students, but because they were good students in high school and don't yet realize the leap from high school level work to college level work is much, much greater than they thought. Are those professors not teaching? Well, they're trying their best, but as a freshmen who was in the top 10% of her high school class without doing much work, I couldn't see the value in what they were presenting. That doesn't mean they weren't using the best methods they knew to try to transfer information - so were they teaching?

Going back to graduate school, especially in this History and Philosophy class, I'm being introduced to so many interesting ways of thinking and doing and introspective looks at engineering, things that fit in well with my life and personal goals and ideas. In the first few weeks of this class, we were introduced to the idea that engineers are trained to think and do in certain ways and see their reality from an engineering perspective. For myself and many engineers I know, that means seeing the world as problems to solve, algorithms to optimize, solutions to design, and everything has possibilities1. For introspective engineers like me, I noticed the differences and was interested in how I changed. Everyone in my group in that class is at a similar point cognitively; that's why we're pursuing Doctor of Philosophy degrees in this area. We all agree that having this information, understanding how engineers act and the idea of engineering epistemology (way of knowing/thinking) and ontology (way of perceiving reality and being), are useful and important to engineers, however as undergraduate students and for some of us, even at the Master's level, we may not have been open to these ideas. We'd love to have engineering students, maybe as a part of their final capstone project, be introduced to these ideas, but recognize that not everyone would be receptive or even cognitively capable of thinking and understanding in these ways. We'd like to teach these ideas, but again, would it be teaching if no one learns or grows as a result?

My definition of teaching, that it is one part of the learning equation and without learning, there is no teaching, is rooted in my engineering mindset. I like the idea of outcomes-based education and applying engineering problem solving methods to teaching. What methods work best to increase learning for students? To know what your students have learned, you need to study the outcomes. I understand that the Outcomes-Based Education movement in 1990s has been highly criticized and rejected by many, and that outcomes-based instruction on a national level generally leads to standardized testing, however I still believe that if you are not measuring the effect you are having on students, you cannot be sure they are learning. As an engineer, it is not the effort you put in to the design or solution, the bottom line is whether the product meets specifications. Therefore, as a teacher, it does not matter how much time you spent preparing for class, how many hours you spend grading or lecturing, but whether the students have met the desired learning goals or not.

As an instructor, I believed my success or failure resided with how well my students performed in the various assessments I set for them. I believe that the assessment should fit the learning outcomes and that the assessment portion of outcomes-based learning is the most difficult to implement. As a personal philosophy, and for college-level educators, I believe that designing assessments to measure outcomes well to gauge teaching effectiveness should be required. At a national or state level, the percentage of students who manage to pass standardized tests is not an effective gauge of teaching. I believe we do need to be measuring the learning that happens. Fourth graders learn so much more than reading and math, or at least, they should; they should have learned how to socialize with their peers, how to work together, how to be polite in class, how to get their homework done, how to play at recess, how to be creative in art classes, how to tell a basic historical story, how to solve basic problems, simple spelling and writing, in many schools, how to use a computer, and a whole host of other things that are not on standardized tests. Just because a student in fourth grade tests at a second grade level does not mean they did not learn, it may mean that they came in at a first grade level, or that the majority of the learning they did was in the second language they're now taking classes in.

To sum up, I suppose I do agree with Dewey. I also very much enjoy thinking about things from a philosophical perspective and would like to learn more in this area. It's interesting to see how my thoughts and ideas change as I continue my education.

1 As an aside, while writing that sentence, I had a small epiphany about my life - I am the first college graduate and to be perfectly honest have had some really amazing opportunities and thus far in my life, I've been really, really successful. More successful than I'd thought I could be (this sometimes leads to Impostor Syndrome), and I think that my engineering mindset, "...everything has possibilities" is a major part of how I've gotten where I am. I'm always taking the interesting opportunity, working to better myself and/or my situation where I can, and in the overall scheme of things, not having a defeatist attitude because everything can be viewed as "...problems to solve, algorithms to optimize, solutions to design..." This reinforces my belief that engineering thinking, or at least some level of the engineering mindset of solving problems and optimizing what you've got should be taught to everyone, and taught early. For some time, my political views swung toward the 'bad' kind of libertarian. I came from a less-than-perfect situation and made something of it, why can't everyone? I've long since recognized that personal responsibility isn't the problem (or the solution), but many engineers I know are conservative/libertarian/Randian in political beliefs and I think I now have a better understanding of why, articulated in a way that makes sense to me. The engineering mindset does predispose one to thinking that everyone should be able to think in optimizations and solve their problems. Maybe all engineering programs should have an ethics/personal responsibility/sociology(?)/psychology(?)/I-have-no-idea-what-department class in understanding other mindsets and social factors, i.e., Why Everyone Else Isn't an Engineer, Doesn't Think Like You, and That Doesn't Mean You're Better Than They Are Class. It would be interesting to see where that would fit into a curriculum in the sense of when students are ready for it - end of second/beginning of third year when everything is difficult but they're still likely to remain an engineer? Final course, or seminar as part of a capstone, when they've almost got the degree and likely have been indoctrinated into engineering as a way of thinking and being? Not immediately, when they probably don't have the engineering sense of self (and often sense of superiority) yet. I think that may be full post for another day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gendered Engineering Toys Part II: Goldie Blox

Last time, I introduced the idea of gendered engineering toys and feminization of engineering toys. Legos are great toys; they introduce kids to the ideas of design and building, and the more advanced toys even have motors and sensors and the ability to program so you really are building your own robots and other devices. Legos, along with other building toys, are typically considered boy's toys today. This helps to contribute to the idea that designing, building, and constructing things using your imagination are all in the realm of "things boys do" rather than "things people do" or even better for girls, "things I can do."

Enter Goldie Blox. This is a new Kickstarter campaign designed by a Standford engineer to try to fill the gap for engineering-related media to help girls realize not only that some girls are and can be engineers, but maybe even they can be engineers too. I think this is a great area that really needs to be developed. Fostering the idea that engineering and related things like science and math are possible for them to do or better yet, interesting and fun, will help more students to be open to the idea that they can and even should take the advanced classes in science and math that many avoid in high school. Taking these classes allows students to be more academically prepared for a wider range of college majors, including engineering.

A lot of research went into this toy. There's a book plus a set of building supplies based on household items that, according to the designer, should be familiar to girls. The book explains why Goldie, the main character, is building what she is building and how she goes about it, allowing the reader to play along and make the same things that Goldie is making. The books are person-oriented, all of the things she is making are to help her friends, and girls tend to be more person-oriented1. Boys who are engineers are typically thing-oriented (most interested in the workings of the objects they are dealing with), while girls tend to rate highly on both person- and thing-orientation, wanting to help people by working with other engineers to create interesting things engineers get to design and build2. They also tend to have more communal goals, wanting to build interpersonal relationships as part of a successful or enjoyable career while helping people3. These books use these ideas to craft story that Goldie found a problem that can be solved using engineering to help her friends.

However. The common objects are sewing implements - spools and ribbon. Not all girls are interested in sewing or have had any experience with spools of thread and ribbons. These items are considered feminine things, and while boys might follow media with an interesting protagonist, especially because they'd get to also build things that work, in our culture there is a definite level of derision towards things that are considered strictly feminine. The ribbon and spools of thread, especially the fact that the ribbon is pink, will turn boys off. Yes, this product is made for girls, but the idea that engineering can be for everyone, rather than the idea that girly things can also be engineering, is more important. Back to that comic from last time:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

The creator says that she went beyond the "make it pink" idea. The basic concept is a great product; the underlying research and design appeals to a broad audience (including person-oriented boys!), however the product itself suffers from a great deal of "make it pink." The main problem is that in the US today, engineering is perceived as almost exclusively for boys. There is a difference between feminizing engineering and removing the stigma that it is masculine or unfeminine. "Making it pink" is trying to feminize something that really should not be gendered. Rather than trying to feminize the kinds of things that engineers do, we should be emphasizing the factors that appeal to a broader audience, such as interdisciplinary collaboration (work with people to solve problems) and aspects of helping and care (create prostheses or everyday items that improve peoples' lives) while showing diverse types of engineers like Goldie Blox and others.

There is an argument for making a feminine version of toys like this. Some little girls will go crazy for anything pink, so a pink product will appeal greatly to them. They'll get the engineering thinking and building practice, but are more likely to reach for this toy due to its girl appeal. Some parents or other gift-givers will only buy "girl" things for girls, and so the pink ribbon around spools of thread is going to appeal to them. For general school success, a feminized role model does seem to work for girls, however a stereotypically feminine role model succeeding at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) actually made middle school girls less interested in math in studies4. Nonexclusive toys would broaden the idea of who can do engineering, math, science, and technology, while feminizing this area may have negative consequences.

Dora the Explorer on Nick Jr.
I wish that it were portrayed more like Dora the Explorer originally was - sure it's a girl as the main character, but she's doing great things with her friends that both boys and girls can enjoy, while implicitly giving the idea that girls can do this kind of thing too because she is a girl and she's doing it. Protagonists in all media are typically male, and not just male, white too. As a Hispanic female, Dora reached out to a large audience and contributed to the idea that Hispanic girls can be strong, independent explorers. This idea is important for all, not just the Hispanic girls who see the "people like me" connection, but for everyone. Stereotypes are developed by media children consume as well as socialization they have. Seeing strong women and minority characters helps children develop the idea that women and minorities can be strong, independent equals and even superiors. In a world where the majority of the media focuses on white males, both white and male are the defaults, the ones who can attain power, whether or not we overtly recognize and agree with these ideas.

IMDb Listing
In a similar vein is the book, now movie, The Hunger Games. If you've read it, you'll know that the protagonist's gender isn't revealed until you're already hooked into the story, and for some that revelation is an unexpected shock. Again, it didn't start out by jumping up and down and shouting, "Here's something for GIRLS! Girl Power! We can do what boys do too!" Rather, it is a good product for consumption by both boys and girls and has the power to implicitly change the stereotypes and ideas that are commonly held. The Hunger Games challenged a lot of these cultural stereotypes: first, that the female main character could do what she did. Secondly, and more importantly, the idea that girls will read boys' stories but boys will not read girls' stories, still taught to elementary school teachers. Thirdly, the idea, still taught to budding screenwriters, that making money in Hollywood requires male-centric plots with male main characters, mostly male secondary characters, and females can be there as love interests or as scenery. How much media have you consumed recently that passes the Bechdel test? Women are 50% of the population, why is it that women's stories are almost always considered inferior for anything but sub-genres?

Toys and media that give the idea that engineering can be "for me" for women and underrepresented minorities is important. There isn't much of that so far. This is a great step in the right direction, but in my opinion goes too far and rather than promoting inclusive ideas about engineering, excludes groups who are not white females, and could, if it became popular enough, even serve to feminize, rather than broaden, the definition of engineering. Feminizing engineering would actually do more harm than good by turning boys off from engineering. Our culture is full of stereotypes and ideas about who can or should have careers like engineering. We need to break down these stereotypes and broaden the definition, not create more walls and stereotypes.

1 Graziano, W. G., et al. (2012). "Orientations and motivations: Are you a “people person,” a “thing person,” or both?" Motivation and Emotion: 1-13.
2 Woodcock, A., et al. (2012). "Person and Thing Orientations: Psychological Correlates and Predictive Utility." Social Psychological and Personality Science.
3 Diekman, A. B., et al. (2010). "Seeking congruity between goals and roles a new look at why women opt out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers." Psychological Science 21(8): 1051-1057.
4 Betz, D. E. and D. Sekaquaptewa (2012). "My fair physicist? Feminine math and science role models demotivate young girls." Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gendered Engineering Toys, Part I: Feminization

Engineering is typically a man's area. A white man's area, to be more specific. This is a stereotype seen time and time again, whether through surveys (asking who can be an engineer or what careers are for what people) and Draw an Engineer Tests (PDF), a simple exercise where you ask anyone, usually kids, to draw what they think of when they think about an engineer doing engineering work. While the gender gap is something that educators have been working on for many years in engineering, it still persists. In the US, under 15% of engineers and under 20% of engineering undergraduates are women, while women make up over half of the population as a whole and 55% of the undergraduate population (NSF 2012 S&E Indicators). A lot of this has to do with the perception that engineering is a career that is not "for me" based on the idea that engineering is for white men who are good in math and science and sit in a cubicle all day working on problems that probably aren't that relevant to most people. For example, Dilbert:

One common downfall in trying to increase the number of women in any STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subject is the idea that we should feminize it to draw in more girls, or as commonly stated, "Make it pink!"

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
Lego, a building toy that can be considered an engineering toy, tried that tactic recently with their Lego Friends, a lineup with differently-shaped main characters, colors considered feminine (pink and purple), themes that are supposed to appeal more to girls (cars, cafes, and beauty parlors), along with accessories and houses that were mostly prefabricated rather than an assortment of blocks to build:

This created a major internet frenzy. Bloggers and people on internet forums everywhere decried this new form of Legos, and for good reason: in the 1980s, Lego (among other companies) had no problem advertising its product as excellent for boys and for girls, no gender differences necessary:

While I give them credit for trying to expand their lineup with storylines and products that appeal more strongly to girls, I don't see why they changed the basics of their product so greatly. Legos have always been building blocks, and even the playsets that are made for specific themes are mostly composed of the typical Lego blocks, in colors that match the theme with specific minifigures (MiniFigs) and some specialized blocks to help make the set really come alive. Contrast the Harry Potter Knight Bus with the Friends Stephanie's Cool Convertible Car Set:

They're both for the same age range (Knight Bus rated for 7 - 12, Convertible rated for 6 - 12), but one is explicitly gendered while my sister (the Harry Potter fan) owns the other one. The Knight Bus is made of common sizes of purple Legos, with mostly common transparent pieces and common wheels; if you decide you are no longer a Harry Potter fan, you can easily use these pieces to enhance your other Lego collection to build almost anything. The description even states, "Rebuilds into a London bus or regular bus," so without any other Lego sets, you can still build and re-build this themed set into something else entirely, and even more things if you use your imagination. The only real Harry Potter specific pieces are the MiniFigs of Harry (with his wand), the conductors, and Hedwig, the owl. Even those can be re-purposed; Lego MiniFigs are generally a separate pair of legs, a torso, two arms, a head, and a hairpiece or hat, all of which can be interchanged between just about any other MiniFig, or even attached to other Legos. The legs can typically attach to other bricks either standing or sitting, giving a plethora of possible combinations and adventures.

Conversely, the convertible can never be anything else. Sure, there are a few blocks that will integrate with other sets, but most of these pieces are custom-molded for this purpose and this purpose alone, and can really only integrate with sets like the Knight Bus if you decide your Bus is in need of a wash with the car wash supplies that come with the Convertible. You can still interchange the legs, torso, head, and hair of the mini-dolls, and even interchange the hair with the MiniFigs, but you can't attach the mini-doll with other blocks as easily and the hands, while still able to hold things, don't rotate, so are limited in how they can be used to hold things (comparison). Focus groups with girls found that they had a desire for more realistic dolls, and while I can't complain about the figure changes too much (they are cute figures and I can see how they could be more appealing), I do wish they retained at least the ability to swivel their hands or be more interchangeable with the other version. I personally like the torsos and heads but would switch out the legs for more usability, if they were compatible.

I played with Legos. I loved my Legos. I also had a Visible Horse, a multitude of puzzles, and a chemistry set. I loved experimenting and building. While I typically liked to stay within the rules and make the things according to the instructions, I constantly took things apart to re-make them into something else. With the Mega Bloks Cactus Town set, I would rearrange the order of the buildings and was sad that there were so many pieces with specific stickers and places they had to be. While I think that trying to open new lines of toys that had more appeal to girls was not a bad move on their part, Lego went for feminization to the exclusion of even traditional Lego ideals - these are not building block sets so much as playsets manufactured by Lego. Even the Duplo sets have more construction than many of the Friends sets, and these are made for children 1.5 - 5 years old! I would be annoyed to move from the Disney Duplos Cinderella Castle to the Friends Olivia's House and be less able to build and customize.

One thing I must give Lego credit for - many people are afraid to buy toys (or anything really) for kids (or anyone really) that isn't specifically for that child's gender (or other category of interest). They offer a "Girls" category for shopping on their website, and it isn't full of pink Legos or the Friends sets, it's got a wide range of sets and accessories that would be more likely to be chosen by girls, but are in no way marketed to or for girls specifically. This is the kind of marketing that should be done. You want to buy something for that special girl in your life? Here's some things she might like out of our entire range. Of course, there isn't a "Boys" section, it is still considered the default.

I wonder why we seem to be moving to a more gendered society, at least when it comes to children's toys and clothing. Young kids mostly play the same and are mostly shaped the same, why were we able to appreciate this in the '80s and now, in 2012, when you'd think we'd moved more towards equality, we're making even more stereotypically gendered toys?

Next time: Goldie Blox