Friday, October 19, 2012

The Art of a Well-Rounded Education

Last week, I went to the local middle school to guest-teach a lesson on computer science to a group of 6th graders.  My particular brand of computational thinking education is very hands-on, relying on craft projects and games to illustrate key ideas. Imagine my surprise when the students flew through the lesson on algorithms, but got tripped up tying knots!

As the lesson came to an end, the teacher thanked me for coming and said in a hushed tone, "This was good for them. They need more practice using their hands.  Most of my students can't even cut out shapes with scissors these days."

Floored by that revelation, I decided to compare notes from other groups.  Sure enough, in short experiments, knot tying was a hurdle for kids grades K-8.  It's not just in my part of the world, either.  Back in March, a British survey claimed that school children are excelling in technology and lacking in common life skills.  Many believe that this is due to a decrease in time during the school day for subjects like art and music. This phenomenon has been studied and documented, defended and dismissed, but I continue to maintain that the rise of one specialty does not have to oust traditional talents.

My solution is simple and approachable.  Some call it Blended Learning, but really it's a common sense approach toward maintaining handicraft through education.  Just like I encourage my sons to "read the book" before they see a movie, I encourage students to experience concepts through real-life exercises before they play with technical simulations.  Tie knots.  Fold origami.  Play with Legos.  These things can teach you about anything from mathematics to programming to African savannas.  Best of all, it appeals to additional learning styles which aren't satisfied by purely audio or visual cues.

Amazing Paper Airplanes
This is not to say that the responsibility falls squarely on the schools.  The most promising approach is really to integrate these types of projects into fun activities at home and outside of school hours.  Encourage your children (or your friend's children) to make paper airplanes!  Use them to learn about aerodynamics.  That's fun at any age.

If you think that coming up with hands-on activities for your geography lesson, astronomy class, or book club is too difficult, hop on over to Pinterest.  Excellent teachers are pinning examples of hands-on curriculum all the time.  Don't see anything specific to your particular subject?  Send a tweet to me at @kiki_lee and I will personally help you find well-rounded activities for your kiddos.

As published in the Huffington Post on 10/19/2012

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What is STEM, Anyway?

Professionals who spend any time in academics or grant-writing may have noticed that 2012 has become the year of STEM.  More precisely, it has become the year of talking about STEM.  That buzzword has been flying around so aggressively that it is now common to the vocabulary of educators from kindergarten through graduate school.  With such excitement surrounding that acronym, it has begun to leak out into every day society, and people all over America are starting to ask, "What the heck is STEM, anyway?"

Technically speaking, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering & Math.  That definition doesn't even begin to do it justice.  Those of us who live STEM, have realized that the vision conjured up by those words are nowhere near indicative of the excitement those subjects invoke.  Unofficially, STEM is the declaration that we, as a population, need to bring creativity, passion and art to our academics. The STEM movement is a progression toward blended learning and teaching students how to integrate the scientific method into their everyday lives.  It's the passionate manifesto that computational thinking needs to begin right along side shapes and phonics. STEM is the realization that math is embedded into the beauty of a daisy and the functionality of the placement of its leaves. 

Even as the President's Council highlights the "need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade", congress is prepared to cut funding for science and technology in schools.  This is extremely surprising, considering that 93% of parents believe that STEM education should be a priority in the United States.  

With 51% of parents believing that our schools are failing to make STEM education a priority, a handful of organizations have taken it upon themselves to pick up the slack.  National entities like Change the Equation are developing resources to entice students and educators to look further into the amazing opportunities that STEM provides.  Individuals like Vi Hart are using YouTube to illustrate just how romantically hysterical the mathematical universe can be.  Role Model networks like FabFems are providing support for women and non-traditional individuals who are often dissuaded from the STEM disciplines when they are left wanting for professional exemplars. Local organizations like Thinkersmith, are taking programs directly to their neighborhood schools, to alleviate the cost and subject-fear which typically snip STEM lessons from the classroom.

Now that you know what STEM means, I invite you to learn more about the many exciting and inspiring methods that can be used to pique interest in these careers again. Help us banish the negative connotations surrounding these subjects. The fight is far from over, but the fact that you know what STEM means is a positive indicator that we are taking steps in the right direction.  

Find a STEM Organization in your area by searching the NGCP Program Directory.

First published on 10/5/12 in Huffington Post.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Going Gaga Over Gaga

Having been overweight my entire life  (sometimes slightly, sometimes morbidly) it's no surprise to me that fat is unacceptable.  What does come as a surprise, is how crazy acceptance of people can be.

Recently, Lady Gaga came out as having been anorexic/bulimic for the majority of her life.  For that, she's accumulating much support over the Twittersphere and throughout other forms of social media.  This comes after a large amount of criticism over her 25 pound weight gain.

It shocks me that a lady who has been adored for her Caution-Tape swimsuits, Kermit Coat, and  Meat Gown would suddenly fall out of favor after a couple of months of eating at her father's Italian restaurant.  It's as if the public is saying "You're great just the way you long as you're not fat."  What's more, their reaction to her bulimia bombshell seems to say "We support you in your food issues, as long as they threaten to kill you from being too skinny, rather than too fat."

None of this is news to me.  I've been in awe this way before.  This lesson goes back to my days in Second Life.  Back when I was a super-fat housewife, I used to spend a lot of time in that virtual world. It struck me that everyone was so accepting of all of the various avatars.  We had extremely popular admins who were furries, robots, aliens, monsters, zombies, and vampires.  We had huge parties surrounding pirates, emos, goths and Slime-heaps.  Amazingly, it didn't matter what you were in Second Life, you would be embraced...unless you were a fat woman.  That's right.  Obese male avatars were never questioned, but obese females were avoided, chastised and ridiculed.  If you add a couple of "pounds" to your female avatar's waist slider, suddenly you're interrogated with such gems as "Why don't you just make your middle a little smaller?" or "You know you can make yourself taller, right?" and "Why would you come to a virtual world and make yourself fat??"

I recognize that being overweight is unhealthy.  I know that striving for exercise and good eating habits are the best practice, but I don't think I'll ever get over the Zombie > Slime-Heap > Meat Dress > Overweight Woman hierarchy.

Monday, September 17, 2012

You Couldn't Pay Me to be This Awesome

Recently, as part of my appointment to FabFems, I was charged with writing my own bio.  Now, if you've never had to do this, you may not know what a traumatic experience it can be.  You see, the key to a good bio is making sure you hit on every good thing you have ever done, without mentioning any of the logical steps that brought that gloriousness to pass.

The terror in this, comes from knowing that you are supposed to be writing from a third-person point of view.  That means that you are crafting a beautiful story about yourself, as if you have no idea how many times you fell flat on your face before you learned enough to teach undergraduates.  You write as if you are someone who doesn't know that you spent your life-savings creating a non-profit that will ultimately never pay as much as a corporate position.  You wax poetic about your role in an event that is still months in the future without hinting that there is any uncertainty in its outcome.  Worst of all, you do this knowing that anyone else who has ever written a bio will be aware that they're reading a sugary illusion, which you wrote yourself!

Don't get me wrong, science has proven that I'm pretty darn cool.  Directly out of school with my master's in computer science, I have an appointment teaching web development to undergrads, I am the Executive Director of Thinkersmith, a non-profit that teaches computer science to elementary school students all over the area, and I'm working on two national campaigns to encourage equity in STEM fields (FabFems and Picture Me in Computing.) I've created a game which helps to develop computational thinking skills, I have begun planning/fundraising on the first ever Oregon STEM Festival and still manage to feed, clothe, and entertain my two little boys.

In the previous year, I have been offered no less than ten jobs.  The majority of the time, my answer is "You can't afford me."  Don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm a pretentious elitist.  Quite the opposite.  No amount of money could entice me from what I am doing right now. In fact, the reason that my salary doesn't compare to that of my peers (male OR female, thank you very much) is that I'm following my heart.  I'm working positions that pay me a fraction of what my cohorts make because I'm blazing trails in an effort to make life better for the generations who will come after me.

Meanwhile, with no savings or love-life to speak of, the only things about me that are impressive are the items I list in my overly dramatized bio...and I'm perfectly okay with that.  For now ;)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Science: It's an Everybody Thing

Didja watch the video? Didja?

It honestly took an entire day for my opinion to form on this PA by the European Commission.  At first, I could feel my hackles rising as I thought of all the ways that this video went wrong.  The problem is that it becomes as much a statement on what "women should be" as it is on "what scientists are".

Things I love:
These women come in like they own the lab.  With confidence, they show that they can handle an equation.

Things I don't love:
The women are obviously supposed to look like models.  They represent a very narrow view on what a "girl" may look or act like.  With their stilettos and fashion glasses, the video makes it look like the only reason that they're interested in science is to create make-up.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that the current "scientist" at the microscope is obviously a male model, so at least they went for equality there.

This becomes a classic case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't".  When no one intervenes, the public gets upset because many women naturally steer themselves away from STEM. The public accuses the industry of not doing enough to encourage diversity.  But then, if someone does step up to intervene, they get hit with all sorts of flack.

The truth is, a fifty-three second second spot is far too short to incorporate all possible representations of women.  They're trying to get their message across to one particular group (probably middle school girls) so they took an archetype that statistically appeals to that target.

In the end, I'd much rather have seen a fashionista, a female athlete, a book-worm and an artist band together to take the lab over from the guys -- or better yet, to work *with* them -- because in reality, science isn't just a *girl* thing.  It's an *everybody* thing.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Facing Fears Head-On

I am brave. I'm a thrill seeker, a trail blazer and and adrenaline hound.  What I do for a living terrifies most individuals.  I take what other people fear and make it my bitch. I leap into the open abyss every day, armed with only two things: The hope that my training has prepared me for today, and the belief that luck will pull me out of whatever trouble I get myself into.

Image Courtesy of Lenovo Ad Campaign
That's right, I'm a computer science teacher!

Don't laugh.  It's completely true.  When I see the look of horror and dread that comes to people's faces when we talk about technology, it only reaffirms what I already know.  I'm a counter-cultural, extreme off-road educator.  I twiddle bits all day long, asking for nothing but the chance to do it again tomorrow.  I. Am. Fierce.

I see the desire in the eyes of young people everywhere.  They want to learn how to get to where I am. I see the frustration when they figure out that their parents can't help them. That's why I do what I do.  I created Thinkersmith to inspire...and most of all, to foster confidence in a generation raised by a parents who are full of technological doubt.

My name is Kiki and I am one of the FabFems.  Please join us today and share *your* story.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Making Room for Non-Trads

To properly prepare for today's blog article, you should probably first become familiar with the "brogramming" movement, the science cheerleaders, and my article on letting people be who they are.

With Mayim Bialik in D.C.
I was in Washington D.C. this weekend working the USA Science Festival with The National Girl's Collaborative Project and FabFems on behalf of my non-profit, Thinkersmith.  The experience was phenomenal. It was truly unparalleled by anything I had ever seen as far as introducing families to the fun and creativity behind science.  With over 100,000 visitors, the festival was buzzing with excitement.  Thousands of minds were absorbing positive messages about mathematics, engineering, biology, chemistry, and computer science. It was awe-inspiring.

Surrounded by such a variety of positive female role models, I thought I would take the opportunity to go spread the word about FabFems, the new site that matches girls in science with female mentors in their area.  The result was baffling. At first, I was pleasantly surprised by how many booths were being "manned" by women.  Next, I was disappointed to find that many of them described themselves as being "just in HR" or "volunteering with a friend", disavowing any relationship to science themselves.

Those who *were* scientists kept telling me "Oh, no, I'm not really in the sciences...I'm just a math teacher." or "I'm not actually a scientist, I'm a psychologist."  I even heard one lady say "I'm not a scientist, but I write books about science, is that okay?" After reassuring these women that they had a valid relation to STEM, I handed them my info and suggested that they sign up as mentors so that they might inspire a young girl to someday believe that her contribution to STEM is also valid.  

My normal attire
As I was walking back to the "Girl Zone" (sponsored by the NGCP) my focus was distracted by super-sparkly cleavage.  Confused, I continued to look; trying to make sense of this group of bosoms being flaunted to a convention center full of young children.

Before I go further, it feels important to mention that when it comes to STEM conventions, I usually have the most exposed chest in the room -- I have no problem wearing low collars, as long as it remains age-appropriate and doesn't get to the point of becoming a distraction.

Science Cheerleaders
These ladies, however, would have made J-Lo blush!  Clad in deeply cut v-necks, short shorts, and more make-up than the late Tammy Faye Bakker, the women had attracted a ring of fathers so big that it was difficult to see what experiments were being offered. A brief chat with the cheerleaders showed me that they were a group of female scientists who were playing these characters as a method of trying to excite and entice young girls to follow their career paths.

Judgements not yet formed, I thanked them for the chat and headed back to my booth. As it turns out, these ladies have been all-but rejected from the female scientific community in an effort not to replace one stereotype for another.

Example Brogrammer Meme
The same thing appears to be happening with the Brogrammer movement.  Brogrammers have caught a lot of flack lately for their unabashed flaunting of a testosterone-filled irreverence. Fortunately, these guys don't actually exist as a corporately encouraged entity as various videos and articles would suggest.  Instead, these mythical creatures were dreamed up as another example of meme, such as the Sir and the more recent Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. Any geek worth her (or his) salt would take a look at the evidence and detect the farce instantly.  The media blitz generated by the misunderstanding, however, was very real.

This spinning vortex of extremity went a long way toward exploding my mind over the weekend.  When asked about my opinion of these radical groups, I had to defer my answers.  On one hand, I am such a big fan of supporting non-traditional individuals in any field.  On the other, I'm appalled by the perpetuation of a woman being most prized as eye-candy.  (Another honesty side note: I most likely only feel that way because I don't fit into the eye-candy stereotype and I want to be prized, too.)

Finally, I came to peace with my answer.  If brogrammers existed as a group, I would hope that their derogatory attitudes wouldn't be accepted in any workplace anywhere.  The practices being heralded as brogramming basics would make for sloppy and unsuccessful coding practice, and their kind wouldn't last in a start-up world anyhow.  Attitude aside, I do LOVE the idea of programmers who stay active, stay social and buck the system. There's no reason to fall into a stereotype just because some group appears to outnumber you.

As far as the Science Cheerleaders go, I approve of the message, but not the outfits.  As long as the science is real (and not dumbed down) then the method doesn't really matter to me.  Why should I care whether the message comes from a cheerleader, an old man or a rat?  The reasoning is in the results.  If it works, it works!  I figured out that my initial shock came from the same place as if I had seen my child's kindergarten teacher dressed in a similar outfit.  It just doesn't feel like an appropriate costume for the age group that they're reaching out to.  In the end, I say to the cheerleaders:  "The message is good.  The outfits...not so much."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

What I Learned from TEDxPortland 2012

1.)  People are willing to put up with a building that's difficult to use as long as it looks beautiful.

2.)  Our rivers are burning because we have as much red tape for fixing our waterways as we do for damaging them.

3.)  When a woman is well educated, her entire family - her entire homeland - benefits.

4.)  Children like to play outside, but it rains a lot in Oregon and city planners don't seem to think covered play areas/skate parks are important.

5.)  The mayor of Portland is not as entertaining as an 11-year-old skater boy.

6.)  We are all cubists and if we can see everything from every perspective at once, we'll end up with something extraordinary.

7.)  People love unexpected happiness.

8.)  The World Wide Web isn't flat.  When you take away 404 pages and allow people to fill in the cracks, what you get is Wiki-magic.

9.)  Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words and a thousand pictures can be better than a video.

10.)  I'm not the only one who struggles with being vulnerable.  Unfortunately, vulnerability seems to be the dividing quality between secure and insecure people.

11.)  We're killing good and bad microbes indiscriminately, which is making us sick.

12.)  Many places on Earth still don't teach their girls/women to read or swim.  This can be lethal for an entire gender.

13.)  A group of trombones is called a chorus.

14.)  You have to continue to respect fear or you'll break yourself.

15.)  No matter how clueless you are, you can achieve your dreams long as you have talent and Thomas Jefferson. 

16.)  It's not always necessary to think outside the box.  Sometimes, you can just change size or contents of the box to solve a problem.

17.)  It can be helpful to embrace a sucky situation as your own.

18.)  TEDxPortland knows how to put on a conference!

"Yay" Us...Not "Booo" Them

I was inspired to this topic today by seeing Elizabeth Lesser's video presentation at TEDxPortland. I've posted about sportsmanship before, though never on one of my own blogs. I'm talking about the habit of tearing down "the other" side so that your group seems to have more importance.

My seven-year-old is a huge sports fan. He's also a huge smack-talker, so I hear a lot of "Boooooo, Rockets!" and "You stink, Lions!" and even "Your team plays like poop."

 Now, I understand his's the same passion that I have for anti-racism and pro-femininism mentalities. I do not, however, understand the need to villainize those who feel differently. Making another group evil does not, by default, make your group good. If someone asks "Why is Bud Light a great beer?" it would be weak to hear the answer "Because Miller Light is crap." That's like saying that your selection is at the top of your list because all of the other choices are at the bottom. A best of the worst scenario. Wouldn't it be more impressive to be at the top because you deserve to be there?

I think a big part of this issue stems from people believing that everyone else should be just like them. (I like cheese, you should too.  I believe in God, you should too. I sort my books alphabetically, you should too.)  Well, I don't. And my life is working out just fine. There would be so much less hate in this world if you could let me be me, and you be you.

In conclusion, if you want to say "Anarchists are the Best" go ahead. But if you want to post on your wall that "Democrats are a bunch of tree-hugging communists", I'm probably going to mute you.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Can Computers Help Us Understand the Human Brain?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

What a wondrous and powerful thing the human brain is.  It's the control center for our entire body, telling us how to feel both physically and emotionally.  Merely thinking of a new love can cause physical reactions like shivers, palpitations or the sensation of butterflies in your stomach.

We used to think our brains were like gigantic computers, with a billion neurons that acted as processors, giving humans computing power that could barely be rivaled by a dozen super-computers.  Nowadays, it appears that each neuron resembles it's own super-computer, fueled by thousands of synapses that handle the heavy work.

* These are not my actual views on the soul
...but those are for me to know and you to hypothesize about.
So, when I heard that a scientist in Europe is attempting to duplicate the human brain by combining all of the current research models into one gigantic machine that rivals the data collection of the human genome project, my reaction was: "WHAT THE FRIG?!?!?!!"  Hasn't this person ever seen The Terminator? Eagle Eye? Doesn't he fear the day that computers take over the world?

That moment of panic quickly subsided as I reminded myself that computers are still without consciousness.  As we all know, a conscious soul is only bestowed upon humans in the midnight hour by tiny little fairies wielding twinkling wands*.  Therefore, let the supercomputer war begin.  Go ahead, Markram, IBM, and UNSW. Do your worst.  Make computers that can map the function of every single cell in the human body.  Make them as small as a fingernail, or able to calculate prime numbers to infinity; but don't come whining to me when you ask them to model the nervous system and they instead decide to turn all of the words ATMs into slot machines.