Monday, November 24, 2014

An Experiment on STEM Equity - HuffPo Repost

Recently, at a meeting for the Oregon Girls Collaborative project, I decided to try something new. When giving my speech on equity, I decided to skip the charts and graphs, and give the audience a truly immersive experience.

Before my session, I had an assistant help me hand out flyers to everyone. She took one side of the room and I took the other, explaining to the guests that this sheet would provide them with valuable background for the activity that we were about to do, and they should read over it very carefully.

When I got to the front of the room, I reiterated that these sheets would be considered their "background" for the next activity, and they had exactly three minutes to look them over before we took a very important (and very public) quiz. 

"The results of this will determine the future of education." I said, gesturing with the grand hyperbole. "I want you all to try your hardest to answer quickly, and since it's so important, I'll even let you refer back to your sheet for each question."

The crowd looked a little wary, though I could tell that some were loving the challenge and were ready to go.

With a very earnest face, I began, "Which direction does electricity flow in a simple circuit?"

The group glanced over their papers, and in less than a second, nearly half of the group raised their hand, answering that it flowed from the negative terminal toward the positive terminal.

"Okay," I chided, "that was only about half of you. Let's see if we can all bring it this time." Posturing with my quiz sheet, I asked, "On what side of a AA battery is the cathode?"

Again, about half of the group was able to respond, "The positive side." Interestingly, it was roughly the same half.

"Good job, those of you who answered. To the rest of you, can you please take this more seriously? These scores affect more than just you right here and now. This is a very important quiz."

I could see the other half of the room shifting in their seats. Some had already blown the exercise off, others were visibly concerned that they weren't picking up what they needed the way that the other half of the room was.

"Now," I began, "What is it called when the positive and negative wires cross before they reach the intended meeting point?"

This time, no more than half the room raised their hand, but they provided the answer that I was looking for. "It's a short circuit."

Incredibly, the correct answer came from the same side of the room! I could see the students from the other side looking around self-consciously while the side of the room containing the "honor students" sat smugly in their seats. I wanted to chastise the poorly performing side further, but my nature wouldn't let the torture continue. I couldn't keep a straight face any longer. 

"Would you all please hold up your background resource?"Gasps and giggles filled the room as the two halves of the room realized that they were working from different backgrounds! It was enough to give you chills. The relief was palpable.

While one side had received a very helpful sheet on all things circuits, the other side of the room had been given a background on binary encoding. 

"Do you get what happened here? I was teaching my class as if you all came to me with the same background, when in reality, your backgrounds were very different. How do you think this relates to the way we approach teaching every day?"

In the half hour that followed, we talked about the idea that not all students learn in the same way, and that some children are given more resources outside of class to pull from. We talked about how the half of the class that was getting everything right were feeling very self-assured and comfortable, while the half that couldn't answer the questions were starting to get very real feelings of anxiety and inferiority... even though the entire audience was made up of very successful, very intelligent people.

"How do you think you would have felt about your abilities in STEM if that quiz was the last impression that I had left you with?" I asked the weak performers. They verified that they would not have felt very confident, and they would have viewed themselves as "less talented" than the other half of the room, even though they had background knowledge that was every bit as technical and difficult as the half that excelled. Their group just hadn't been given the opportunity to showcase their knowledge in the same way.
So, how does this exercise relate to equity in STEM? I've been thinking about this for a while, so I could draw a thousand comparisons, but here is my favorite: Students who excel in STEM subjects will often continue to excel in STEM subjects, leading others to believe that they themselves are not talented or even capable. Instead of assuming that the entire class has the foundation that it needs to succeed, provide all students with an area of extra resources where they can go to catch up on stuff that they may have missed. This could be links to YouTube videos or printouts that are sitting in the corner of the room. Put aside that old feeling that it's okay to allow something that students missed in the past to continue haunting them in the future. Most importantly, if you know that a troubled student shines in a certain area, give them an opportunity and a spotlight.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Engaging Girls in Your STEM Program - HuffPo Reblog

Even programs with the best intentions sometimes have difficulty attracting girls to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).
Here are some tips and tricks for balancing the gender gap for your event:
Digital Invites 
Have a female student help you make digital invitations that can be sent to friends. If a girl helps create them, they have a larger chance of appealing to her peers. By making the invites digital, her peer group can share them virally via email and text, being sure to cover the demographic that you're trying to attract.
Make it a Privilege
Students love to receive honors. If you're having a hard time drawing girls into your program, send out word to teachers. Ask the teachers for "nominations" of students that should be awarded entry into your program. You can take those nominations and balance your roster, based on the names that you've been given. Don't forget to save room to allow nominated students to bring a friend. Girls are more likely to stay involved if they have close friends by their side.
Create a Campaign
Perceptions of STEM begin to form waaaaaay before the invites for your program are printed. It can be a bit of a process to get girls to believe that your activity or event is "for them." See if you can hook up with a media teacher to get some volunteer time from two or three girls. Work with them to start a school-wide "Girls Can" campaign. Start creating posters, fliers, and digital images to plaster around their schools. Not only will this help with the reception of your program, it can help boost confidence altogether (just make sure that you don't put down boys, or indicate that girls are "better" than anyone else).
While these techniques are by no means guaranteed to bring in the girls, they will at very least spread awareness, and help to plant the idea into all students' minds that STEM is for girls, too!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Helping Computer Science Gain STEAM with Girls - HuffPo Reblog

Helping Computer Science Gain STEAM With Girls

Posted: Updated: 
Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.
Ask any woman currently in computer science about her roots, and chances are you'll hear a story about having someone in her childhood who was also immersed in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM).  This phenomenon has led to a burst of mentorship programs targeted at increasing exposure to female professionals in STEM fields.  Over the last couple of years, wonderful programs have emerged with this goal, including FabFemsMentorNet, and EnCorps.
While it's become obvious that access to mentors increases a girl's chances of making it through college with a computer science degree, we need to do more to get girls interested in pursuing those degrees in the first place.
You see, the girls who grew up with built-in STEM mentors were provided with another (often overlooked) benefit.  They were exposed to the world of STEM at a much younger age than many of their friends, which means that they were more likely to be able to see themselves included within that lifestyle while they were forming their visions of what was possible for themselves as adults.
Girls who learn the basics of STEM at a very young age learn how to figure out solutions based on feedback.  They learn to persist through failure and tackle the unknown.  These are skills that can help put them at the head of the pack for the rest of their lives... no matter what they study.
In a time where only about 27 percent of college graduates are finding jobs related to their major, success becomes more about "learning to learn" than acquiring experience in any specific field.  Because of that, some subjects shine above others.  Computer Science is one of those.  To help ensure that girls consider choosing computer science even after academic autonomy sets in, it is essential that they receive exposure as early as possible.
So, the next time you're trying to decide on an extracurricular activity for your kindergartener, look up your local high-quality technology club and get them involved in something spectacular. Show them that you value computer science, and maybe they will begin to, too.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Education Can Be Recreation This Thanksgiving

Chances are, you're going to have a hard time trying to avoid technology this Thanksgiving... so why not surprise your family by embracing the robotic uprising this year, rather than trying to prevent it?
Computer Science Education Week is the second week of December, and Thanksgiving week will make a fantastic preview for the hundreds of lessons that have been tailored for the experience.
In general, there are two categories of computer science opportunities that are being made available to the public. First, an unprecedented number of free, self-guided online tutorials have been hand-crafted for those seeking a one hour computer science preview. Among those, you'll see new twists on old favorites, such as Codecademy, and exciting new experiences like Blockly. There are even options with catchy jingles, like the Javascript Road Trip. Any of these would be memorable moments to gather  your family around the computer for.
But what about the families that don't revel in the thought of staring at a computer screen for an afternoon of giving thanks?  There is an option for you, too!  Offered among the many one hour tutorials is a category dubbed "Unplugged."  These options are based on arts, crafts, and playtime. One of the most popular unplugged activities is easily played together with as few as two people, and as many as a school-full.  Utilizing only plastic cups and paper, My Robotic Friends was created to teach the important concepts behind computer science in the form of a cup stacking game. It's a fun and addictive experience that can be played with all ages at the same time.
If you feel like you've heard about Computer Science Education Week and An Hour of Code before, it's probably due to the passion and outspoken relentlessness of organizations such as, who are striving to make this CSEd Week the biggest one so far. As of this week, their determination has paid off, with over 3 million students pledging to participate in at least one hour of code between December 9th and December 15th, 2013.
What will you pledge to do once the turkey has been eaten?

Follow Kiki Prottsman on Twitter:
As seen in the Huffington Post on 11/26/2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

Looking Back

When I started Geek Groupies back in 2008, I had no idea where I would be just five short years later. Back then, I didn't have much faith in my ability to persevere through adversity.  Heck, even the name of the blog "Geek Groupies" indicates that I felt like more of an observer on the geek world than part of it myself.  Now, here I am, a computer science instructor at the University of Oregon, and the Executive Director of Thinkersmith, a non-profit that teaches computer science to people as a creative art form.
Looking back over my previous posts, it's amusing to see what little bumps and discoveries I had in the beginning.  It's also sad to see that the biggest lags in posts came during times when I was experiencing so much growth.  I wish I had taken the opportunity to document my personal journey, rather than neglecting to share information during my days of stress and deadlines.  I'd like to think that this will inspire me to write more now, but knowing how difficult eighty hour weeks have been, I find it hard to imagine that I'll put off bed for thirty more minutes to record a thought or two.  Even still, now that the seed has been planted, I believe I'll make an effort.

A quick note about the present. Thinkersmith has taken off, almost faster than I can keep up.  I have team members now, and some of those team members even manage other team members!  We still do camps, classes, and workshops locally, but we have also developed a curriculum that others can use anywhere in the world (some of those lessons have even been translated into other languages by government agencies!)

Our curriculum was so well received that Thinkersmith was asked to join in the task of developing a K-8 computer science curriculum intended to be distributed worldwide by 2014 at no cost to schools! Of course we said yes.  The better part of my Sept/Oct/Nov was dedicated to this feat, and we're starting to see the finished result of months of trial and toil.

There's so much more to share, but I'm going to have to do it bit by bit.  If you're interested in what goes in to starting an international phenomenon, stay tuned!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Debating Higher Ed in Computer Science

Cartoon Girl by PippySqueaks

It's a constant battle. I hear people say it over and over again.

"In order to be a great programmer, you need a Bachelor of Arts degree."

The argument is that computer science is a discipline.  It's not a vocation.  One must study for years, learn all of the picayune details, develop mastery...


First, let me address the concept of a well rounded education.  I'm a fan.  Understanding a little about a lot of things is the key to understanding a lot about any one thing.  The premise that you must have a B.A. degree to achieve that is B.S..

To be clear, I think that the arts should be involved in every aspect of teaching from Kindergarten right on up through a Post-Post-Uber-Doc.  Learning to transform highbrow ideas into paintings, music, and poems forces you to process them and digest them, not just regurgitate them at testing time.  Plus, there's the added bonus that Americans have a somewhat inherent belief that there is no "wrong" in art.  Art is individual.  It's a process.  And as such, exploring scary things by way of an art project can take some of the fear of failure away.

That alone is not enough to accumulate a $40,000 debt in the name of your "future".

Over the course of my education, I have accumulated a debt greater than the annual GNP of some countries. I, however, still see it as a great value, because I learned a lot about myself, the world, and the way that networking gets things done.  I am 100% certain that without my college experience (independent of my college "education") my life would not be anywhere near as cool as it is today.

To sum it up:  For me, higher ed was vital. Being well-rounded is important, but college won't do that for everyone. Computer science is tough, but it can be made much easier (easy enough, in fact, for a toddler).  And for heaven's sake, you don't need to spend $20,000/year to get a job as a Software Engineer.

Start here free.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Do Your Colleagues Think You are "Tech Dumb"?

Do Your Colleagues Think You Are 'Tech Dumb'?

Posted: 02/05/2013 3:24 pm

There are several digital faux pas that grate on the nerves of people who are comfortable with 21st century computer skills. In fact, you may not even know that your coworkers perceive you as a digital idiot, because common courtesy prevents them from calling you out on your naiveté. If you're interested in protecting your reputation as an innovator, keep reading.

It's very common to look at a popular stream on a social networking site and see at least one entry where the commenter has posted in either all or inappropriately-mixed caps. Many times this is unintentional. If you have accidentally typed an entire post or email using the wrong capitalization convention (which typically should be sentence case) don't just shrug your shoulders and click send! The rest of the world sees that as a big, bold sign of ignorance. Take a moment to run your text through a case changer before you post.
If, on the other hand, you have created your message in all caps on purpose for the emphasis of yelling, you should most-likely delete the post altogether and try again when your medication kicks in. After all, trolls are the epitome of Internet stupidity.

2)  One Finger Typing
Nothing says "noob" faster than having someone in your office while you peck out an email with your pointer finger. Invest in your reputation by spending an hour on a keyboarding tutorial such as TypingWeb, then promise yourself you will practice proper typing from that point forward -- not even letting yourself resort to Hunt & Peck for rapid emails.

3)  Sending MS Word Documents When Formatting Matters
An increasing percentage of the population is putting trust into Apple, Google Docs, or OpenOffice. Gone are the days that you can assume that your audience will be using the same word processor as you do. If the format of your document matters, create a PDF. You don't have to use expensive software to transform your document, you can use a simple online converter, such as easyPDFcloud.

4)  Sending PDFs When Collaborating
PDFs are wonderful when you don't know what technology is being used on the other side of the email pipeline, but when you're working with a group to edit a document, they just aren't flexible enough. Google Docs is an extremely powerful tool for people who need to work together to get a document out the door... and it's free!

5)  Ignoring Hot Keys
Most operating systems provide a list of hot keys (or keyboard shortcuts) which allow you to easily do common tasks, without the overhead of moving your cursor to the menu bar. Microsoft and Apple both provide detailed lists of the shortcuts for their software. It's worth taking fifteen minutes to learn a few of these so that you can easily find a word, select-all, or copy and paste without losing your place.

Read this list over again and if any of these items apply to you, spend some time making these issues obsolete.  A little knowledge goes a long way!