Bridging the Gap between STEM and the Humanities

We have a lot of creative educators out there who are trying to create and teach curricula that bridges the gap between STEM and The Humanities. Why is this an important thing to do? Because the critical thinking skills that we learn in the humanities will help technologists of the future create and scale meaningful solutions to complex problems.

The barrier that these educators face in this important work is that they are still bound to a siloed evaluation system. This system limits their creativity and ultimately, their effectiveness in bridging this gap.

Why is evaluating integrative student work so challenging? Perhaps it’s because educators and administrators might have to evaluate students on something that they themselves don’t have expertise in: true interdisciplinary work.

But if we are to ask our students to do something new in order to build a better future, than we educators and evaluators need to be generous in figuring out the evaluation side of the equation. Maybe evaluation needs to be done collaboratively with stakeholders who have cognitive diversity, who together can discuss how they appreciate the ways in which their students are practicing interdisciplinarity as well as identify and troubleshoot the places in which their students struggle.

Change of this magnitude requires that the leaders and evaluators of it be vulnerable. They are trying to teach and evaluate students on something that they themselves aren’t an expert in. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s what’s required.

 

 

 

 

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Artists and Art Machines

note the Campbell’s soup can that this artist brought to the table. HT AW

I hosted a “tiny robot” build at an art opening last night. This was a first for me and I have to say, it was a good pairing – the art opening and the build. Artists are makers and so they participated fully and iterated with enthusiasm. I had a blast working with them.

Times like this I wish I had a voice-activated camera mounted to my head because the image above was the only picture I was able to snap. Right at the end of the night. Good picture though. Happy family!

There was another moment in the evening when a young mom with a baby on her hip saw our build and said to her friend, “Here, take this,” handing the baby over, “I want to make one of these.” And when she finished, she ran over to her friend and baby, held up her tiny robot and exclaimed, “Look what I made!”

Additionally, I had several artists chat with me about adding motors to their work. One had a motorized piece in the show – a first for her and it looked great. And another artist said to me proudly, “I just got my first Arduino in the mail today. I want to make my work more interactive.” Both of these artists were in their sixties, by the way. Lifelong learners!

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

If you are in the area, check out the Cayuga Arts Collective spring show. I had a chance to walk around the room before the doors opened. Beautiful work. Affordable, too.

Technology, Social Problem-Solving, and Gender

Last summer I helped write and teach an innovation curriculum for teens and young adults in Saudi Arabia. The teaching team knew going in that we would have to work with the teenage men and women separately–this is common practice in Riyadh. I like working with women in tech, so I was looking forward to this. But what surprised me by this separation was how I was able to observe and compare how the different genders responded to the same programming.

Our curriculum was ambitious. We had projects that emphasized play, exercises that emphasized problem identification and solution finding, and lessons with programmable electronics and digital fabrication. Our strategy as a teaching team was to teach these modules separately and then help students put it all together in their final projects.

What we observed was that the young men were enthusiastic about the electronics and DigiFab, but felt uncomfortable doing the problem identification exercises and were slow to warm up to the play and tinkering exercises. While the women were enthusiastic about all of the content, but that they really lit up when asked to identify problems and use creative methods to explore potential solutions. (The guys kept telling us that women take education much more seriously than men do).

These gender differences are much easier to see now that I’m back in the states. As a rule, the guys like robots and the women like solving complex social problems. There is overlap, of course, there is. But for me, what this difference confirms is that the need for diversity and inclusion in tech is more necessary than ever. If we don’t prioritize inclusion, we have social problem-solvers working in one silo and tech experts working in another. This separation is a barrier to innovation. There is value to be found when we create systems that combine and support diverse teams of innovators. Technology alone won’t save us. But technology combined with complex social problem-solving will.

 

READ MORE

Finding Creativity in Constraint by Ryan Jenkins

TekSpacy – A Makerspace for Women

 

Storyboards are Customer Centered

Early in the design process of your product, service, or system, you want to use tools that reflect what stage of the process you are in. At the start of your process, low fidelity tools like storyboards and paper-prototyping let you create and test out a bunch of ideas really quickly. This rapid iteration helps you figure out where your product needs to go.

Storyboards are especially helpful because they help you create stories about your customers’ problems and their journey to solve them through a series of tasks. Storyboards help you empathize with your customer and they help your team get on the same page about the problems you are solving and for whom. Storyboards also help keep you from drilling down too quickly on features and product details that may seem cool to your team but may not be relevant to your customers.

Want to learn more about storyboards? Check out this fantastic video from HCI prof, Scott Klemmer.

Creating a team that trusts each other

It’s not that hard to do once you decide to do it

STEP 1. Know Yourself, Especially Your Fears. Know what triggers you. Know what scares you. See how that influences the decisions that you make, the things that you say to other people without thinking, the control that you insist on keeping.

STEP 2. Be Vulnerable. Be transparent about your fears. Not all of the time. But when they get in the driver’s seat and mess things up, it’s ok to say to your peers, “Hey. This could have been smoother. I was driven by X. Next time I might try Y.” Be honest with your team in a way that invites them to be honest with you and with each other.

STEP 3. To Change Habits, Use the Pause Button. Recognize patterns of behavior that show other people that you don’t trust them. Then commit to changing those patterns. You don’t have to know what the new pattern will be right away. You just have to teach yourself to press the pause button. Instead of reacting when you are triggered, press pause. Give yourself time to think about the best way forward. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, you will eff it up sometimes. You’re human. The important part is that you recommit and that you keep trying.

STEP 4. See and Hear the People Around You. Know what their priorities are. Know what fears they have. Don’t assume that you know them or can read them without really talking to them. And don’t assume that you know them through gossip. (Btw — don’t engage in gossip. Shut that sh*t down)

To get to know people’s priorities and fears, you might ask, “What’s on your mind?” and follow that with, “And What Else?” These questions* help people dig deep and they help people feel seen and heard.

STEP 5. Value Your Team’s Diversity. Acknowledge Tension. You have a diverse team because you value multiple points of view. But the cost of that diversity is that it sometimes creates tension. Don’t avoid the tension. Don’t pretend it doesn’t happen. Lean into it. It may very well be a sign that your team is about to make a breakthrough or solve an important problem.

STEP 6. Don’t Rush to Solutions. Each problem has multiple solutions. Before you make a decision, articulate the problem you are trying to solve, and if you have a solution in mind, share it along with the rationale behind it. From there your team has the information they need to offer you alternative solutions. Spending a little time in this process creates buy-in, gains trust, helps people be seen, makes them feel included. It seems like a lot of work, but taking the time to build trust is worth it. A trusting team works better than a team that is distracted by fear.

STEP 7. Give Feedback. As a rule, criticism in private, praise in public. When you give criticism, be sure to share your rationale and your high-level thinking. This will make the criticism less personal and more inclusive. As for giving praise, be sure that it’s more than, ”Great job!” Let people know that you see their process and that process is something you value. “I like how you did X. I can tell you really thought about Y,” is useful and meaningful feedback.

A trusting team is free to redirect the energy that they used to spend on protecting themselves to helping make your organization great. Because they believe in it. Because they have buy-in. Because they feel seen and heard and trusted.

Your Team is a System

Your team is a system made up of people. People with a range of worldviews, experiences, motivations, and skills. If you want things to go well with your team, you need a kind of double vision. You need to see the system as a whole as well as the smaller relationships and individuals within.

There are a few things you can do to help this system be the best it can be.

BE CLEAR ABOUT THE GOAL. RESTATE IT OFTEN

Leaders tend to internalize the goal and assume that everyone on the team has done this as well. But team members can get distracted from what the goal is. This distraction leads to messy decision-making. It’s your job as a leader to be consistent in reminding your team of the goal. If you are designing a charter school, for example, it’s easy to get caught up in all of the features this new school might have and if your team members forget the goal, the criteria for the decision-making about these features can go off course. So remind them of the goal. The goal in the school example might be to serve students in a way that their current school isn’t doing. The goal might be to help these students be good people in the world. Remind your team of that. Once a month sounds about right. It will help guide your team’s decision- making.

ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR TEAM MEMBERS. VALUE THEIR WORLDVIEWS

You’ve brought together a diverse team, not by accident, but because you value the creativity that a diverse group is capable of. But along with creativity and diversity comes tension. Embrace it. When things get hard, remind your team why that’s a good thing. Sure, it would have been easy to bring a homogenous group of people together to work toward a goal. But the results would not have the depth that your diverse team’s results will have. Remind yourself and your team that there’s a cost associated with that depth. It’s that you have to put energy into navigating tension when it arises. Help your team see it this way, too. Tension is something to lean into, not something to avoid.

GIVE FEEDBACK. THE QUALITY OF THAT FEEDBACK MATTERS

Even though your team is a system, you need to see each person in it in order for it to operate well. Your team members do not want to feel like pawns in a chess game. They want to be seen as individuals with unique points of view that contribute to the richness of the team. They need feedback from you on a regular basis, not just in a yearly review. If it’s criticism, make it a private conversation. But if it’s praise, make it public. And make it meaningful. “I like your work” isn’t meaningful feedback. An art student gets an F for the day if they give that kind of feedback during a critique. It’s empty. You need to say why you like someone’s work in order to show them that you really see them. If you struggle to get to why you like someone’s work, zoom in on their process: Did they work hard? Were they persistent or creative? Did they show grit and tenacity? If so, call attention to that. Giving people feedback not only on their work but on the process that they used to do that work, isn’t only meaningful, it’s useful. It teaches them that they can face any challenge, that good results aren’t a result of some kind of innate talent or kiss from the muse. Good results are the outcome of hard work and persistence.

IDENTIFY BOTTLENECKS. ADDRESS THEM

Sometimes the system gets jammed up. Empower your team to identify and address bottlenecks when they happen. And rather than throw rocks at the bottleneck, which is often a person, slow the system down to the speed of it. Get everyone in the system moving at the same pace. Then once you do, harness your team’s creativity to figure out how to increase the capacity of the bottleneck. This can often mean taking responsibilities off of a person’s plate. If the system runs better now, then you’ve succeeded. But if you’ve created a bottleneck somewhere else, address that as well. Fine tuning a system isn’t a one and done deal. It’s an ongoing process. And if you are a systems thinker, you might even enjoy it. Iteration is a beautiful thing.

Aligning Different Points-of-View to Make Positive Change

The complex problems that we face are complex because they require buy-in from multiple stakeholders. Take STEM Education. There is a lot of experimentation in this area. But if true reform is to scale, there needs to be buy-in from multiple stakeholders: students, parents, teachers, school administrators, policymakers, and sometimes even business owners. Each stakeholder in this list has their own motivation and worldview when they are addressing reform. So how do we navigate this kind of complexity? I have a few ideas.

The first thing we want to do is acknowledge the different points of view sitting at the table. So often we gloss over this and pretend it’s not going to present problems. But of course, it does. Any good listener at a committee meeting can hear the motivations behind what each person is saying out loud. And any good listener can see that when these motivations aren’t aligned, those mismatches manifest in clouded decision making. So it’s beneficial to acknowledge diversity.

The second thing we want to do is acknowledge people’s emotions. Our points-of-view aren’t only rational. Our points-of-view are tied deeply to our identity and hold space in our hearts. Emotion in decision making isn’t a bad thing. Unless we ignore it. If we ignore the influence of emotion, then that too manifests in confused decision making. So acknowledge emotion.

Once we have acknowledged the perspectives and emotions in the room, we are ready to frame the issue in a generous way, in a way that accommodates and encourages the diverse perspectives in the room. In an interview with UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff, he asks us to reframe how we talk about taxes. If we frame tax issues as “tax relief” then the outcome of using this language is that people think taxes are bad and a form of punishment. But if we talk and think about taxes as our dues, as what we pay to enjoy the things that we enjoy in this country: highways, schools, bridges, etc, then we might see paying taxes as an act of patriotism. Yes, they are still hard to pay. But that’s what we do in order to live a good life. We make sacrifices. This is a generous way to think about taxes.

Once we have framed the issue we are working on in a generous way, the group of stakeholders with multiple perspectives are free to generate a bounty of potential solutions to explore. Why do we want to generate a number of potential solutions and not just one or two? Because each time we increase the number of potential solutions, we increase the chances of finding the right one or the right combination of a handful of solutions. If we revisit STEM Education as an example, a diverse group is likely to come up with curriculum ideas that are all over the map. This can feel terrifying for the teachers in the room because they know that they are on the line to implement the ideas that are decided on. To help those teachers relax, we can assure them that this is just brainstorm and that analytical decision-making will be coming in the next step.

However, the decision-making shouldn’t be framed as,”Which choices are right and which are wrong?” We should strive beyond either/or thinking to integrate the best ideas. Roger Martin, the former Dean of Rotman School of Management wrote a book about how the best leaders get alignment from multiple stakeholders. The book is called The Opposable Mind and in it, he claims that when great leaders are faced with choices that seem to be in opposition of each other, those leaders use integrative thinking to find a third way. With our STEM Education example, STEM Educators might proclaim that coding is the most important thing for a student to learn. While a parent might declare that teamwork is the most important thing that students can learn. And then a local business owner who has agreed to take on some students for a summer internship might believe that product management is the most important skill for students to learn. Integrative Thinking allows us to see that those three learning objectives don’t have to be in opposition. They can be integrated. A talented educator can craft lessons in which students learn to code while working in a team using a proven product management process.

Aligning these different points-of-view by acknowledging diversity, framing the problem in a generous way, brainstorming on multiple paths forward, and using integrative thinking to find the best solution is how we bring folks together to solve complex problems and make positive change.

Let’s do this.

note: This post was originally shared on Medium as a response to a prompt in Seth Godin’s altMBA program

Is Technical Education Enough?

There’s a lot of energy in this country put into creating and providing technical education for underserved students towards the end of increasing the chances that these students will find careers in STEM. I care deeply about how this is handled and sit on boards of multiple organizations that address this issue for a range of students from pre k-12 programs to workforce development initiatives for adults who want to move into technical careers.

We need more diversity in the technology industry for at least two reasons:

  1. Technology Scales Really Well. This is important because when a technology is aimed to scale good things, it scales good things. And when it’s aimed to scale bad things, it scales bad things.
  2. More Diversity = Better Solutions. We need a diverse set of brain power with multiple perspectives to understand complex problems we face today and then invent, implement, and scale appropriate solutions.

But there are a few gaps between technical education and the diverse and inclusive workplace that we imagine. A technical education might be enough to increase diversity – that’s a measurable number like, “How many of our new hires identity as female?” But it won’t be enough to foster inclusion which is less measurable. Inclusion is the creation and ongoing improvement of systems and environments that help diverse talent succeed.

So a good technology education will get someone’s foot in the door. But that won’t be enough to help them succeed in an environment where they may be the “first, only, different” person at the firm. There are a few ways to address this and there isn’t complete agreement on the best path. However, I’ll list some ideas here on some non-technical content that a technical education might include:

  • History of technology, industry, and economics to paint the big picture of how technology and industry became homogenous in the first place
  • Role Models and success stories. It’s important to show students examples of innovators that look like they look like. Include guest speakers or news stories that highlight diverse talent. When making images for public consumption, chose images carefully
  • Communication Skills. Being able to speak and write clearly is key. Bonus points for visual communication like sketching and diagramming
  • Employee training on how to navigate work situations in which it’s hard to be seen, heard, or taken seriously because you don’t fit the status quo image of an engineer or programmer
  • Manager training for industry managers who don’t yet have experience managing and supporting diverse talent

Technical Education isn’t enough. If the 21st century is going to be better and more equitable than the 2oth, we need to integrate history and social skills into the mix.