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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Why Designing for Individuals is Problematic

Designing for individuals is a deeply rooted practice in our culture. When Keeping up with the Joneses is a major concern for customers, designers and advertisers exploit that. And while it’s certainly necessary for some products, it should no longer be the default.

Media theorist Douglass Rushkoff tells an interesting story about urban vs suburban design. When he was a kid growing up in the Bronx, folks in the neighborhood would gather on the street every Friday evening for a bbq and a block party. Each person would bring a dish or something for the grill. They’d bring music or games and it was a great time. But when his folks moved the family out to Long Island, no more block parties. Each house had a fenced-in yard equipped with its very own bbq cooker.

“Design for individuals” influences how we connect with one another. For example, I have a newish car with a real-time average MPG gauge on my dashboard. I track it and lighten my foot on the gas pedal to burn less fuel. It’s kind of fun, like a video game. But the driver behind me has no idea what I’m doing. They think I’m just driving slow and they are annoyed with me. But what if the design of my MPG gauge weren’t for my eyes only, but for the cars and drivers around me (displayed on my rear window or something). Then they’d be in the game too. The could use my gauge to burn less fuel in their cars. This public visualization of real-time behavior would help us work toward a common goal.

More consumer technology should be designed for community. More design should help people engage in, and get feedback on, collective positive impact. We have the technology. Let’s use it to its full potential.

 

Leverage Point: Root Causes

It’s easy to get distracted by the symptoms of a problem. It’s easy to trick ourselves into believing that if we address those symptoms, the underlying problem will go away. Why is that? Sometimes we just don’t see the underlying problem. And other times we do see it but the thought of addressing it scares or overwhelms us. So we whack-a-mole our way along never really addressing the root cause of a problem (Why are we at this carnival in the first place??). What a waste.

What if we felt empowered to address root causes? And what if our peers were interested in that too? The work would be harder, but more effective and more rewarding. Root causes of problems are powerful leverage points. Identify them, generate multiple ideas for how to address them, use criteria to choose the best idea, implement it and observe and learn from feedback. You’ll be glad you did.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

Donelle Meadows, Places to Intervene in a System

Perfect Your Pilot to Scale Your Impact

Too many organizations try to grow by subscribing to a “more is better” approach. Yes, the original intent of this approach is a good one–when you are starting out, you need to explore your options and figure out what you want to be when you grow up. But all too often we get stuck in this experimentation phase and “Do all the things!” becomes a de facto strategy. Why? Because making strategic decisions is hard and scary. What if you put all your eggs in one basket and you are wrong?? Better to decide not to decide and see how that goes.

However, you started this organization because you want to make an impact. You want to be the best in the world at what you do. But when you avoid focus, you dilute your impact. Your systems break down. And broken systems don’t scale.

Let’s take “John’s Bake Shop.” John has three locations in one city and struggles to keep up with overhead. He’s told himself that more is better and that in order to reach more customers he needs to give them more options. But what if John turned that narrative around? What if he decided to focus on one retail location and make it the best that it could possibly be on product, service, and operations? Then customers would come from miles around to visit his shop and buy his product. John would hardly be able to keep up with demand.

Yes, it’s true that “perfect” is a controversial word in innovation land. “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough,” they say. And they are right. They are right when it comes to launching. You have to launch an imperfect product in order to learn. But in order to scale, you do need some perfect. You need to have product, service, and operations that run like a well-oiled machine. Well-oiled machines scale. They travel far.

Teachers are the ultimate leverage points

I care deeply about who goes into technology as a profession and what they decide to do with it. Why do I care about that? Because technology is a powerful lever. It has an enormous impact on society and the world. When it’s in the hands of thoughtful people, it can scale amazing things. But in the hands of less thoughtful people, it scales mediocrity and distraction, and even worse, destruction. And since we need more truly amazing things and less mediocrity and distraction and destruction, we need to nurture thoughtful technologists who will design and launch amazing things.

How is it that some people go into tech and others decide not to? There are a few factors. Role models and cultural signals are huge influencers. Growing up, I didn’t have tech role models or see any signs from the people around me that tech was a path. So while I loved lego as a kid and I excelled at shop class and mechanical drawing in high school, I didn’t find my way to engineering. I didn’t know it was an option. I pursued art.

Ten years after art school, I discovered Industrial Design and finally found where I was supposed to be. A rich mix of art and design and engineering and systems. I was home.

But I didn’t become an industrial designer. Instead I put my energy into teaching, into trying to fix this problem I had in my youth. I wanted to help young people discover their inner techie earlier than I did. I still want to help them do that.

But I’m burnt out on teaching. Ten years of it and I’ve only reached a few students a year. Yes, I’ve helped set those students on a path to making and launching deep technology. But that’s not enough impact. It’s too small and it’s too slow. I need to level up or quit.

Recently I’ve been thinking that I want to quit teaching and try something new. Maybe even go back to being an artist. But the world keeps telling me that my teaching is my art. I need to lean into that. And I need to find a way to leverage it.

I think I’ll turn my focus from educating students to educating teachers. Teachers are the ultimate leverage points. If you can empower a teacher to teach technology in a thoughtful way, a way that inspires their students to become world changers and inventors, then you can reach, let’s say, 50 students over that teacher’s career — students who discover the path to designing and shipping meaningful technology. And if you can empower hundreds of teachers to teach technology in a thoughtful way, you can reach tens of thousands of students. And if you can teach a few of your peers to teach teachers, then you can reach millions of students. Leverage.

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.

Marketing Myopia

90% of new products fail. They fail because the team that designed the product paid more attention to their product and features and their own motivations than they did to their customers’ problems and worldview.

Take for instance that little voice-activated robot in my kitchen (Amazon Alexa). It’s crystal clear to me that the Alexa product team is much more focused on making shopping on Amazon easy for me than they are with my actual needs in the kitchen. It’s early days so I’m somewhat forgiving, but in the moment when I really need a reminder of how to make miso dressing, I get pissed off. Each time I have to put down my knife, wash and dry my hands, and walk over to my phone or laptop to get a recipe using my wet fingers, I just cringe. Alexa, why do you hate me?

 

Seasonality

It will be May 1st in two days. Where I live in the finger lakes region of New York State, this is the date that many seasonal businesses open: farmstands, ice cream shops, restaurants on the lake, the goat dairy up the road, and the little farmers market in my village. The state parks open up too.

Spring has been late to come this year in the way of blooms (there are hardly any yet). But now that I can stop at the farm stand and get some veg and eggs on the way home or sneak out before work for a bagel and coffee at that little deli on the lake, I’m happy.

My life here has a seasonality to it. In the winter I hunker down, I hibernate. I read a lot and usually make progress on an art project or two. But now that it’s spring, I’m shifting. I’m opening up, ready for spring and summer. I’ll be out a lot more, engaged with more people, and engaged more with nature.

I’m Ready for VR

I’m tired of orienting my computing toward a screen. I want to search the internet for recipes while I’m cooking and my voice-activated robot doesn’t accommodate that well. I want to write while I am taking a walk or in the shower–the best ideas come at those times. I want to watch a movie while stretching or lying flat on my back. I want to help my partner figure out how to do something online without having to look over his shoulder at his screen which is way too small for me to see clearly anyway. I’m ready.

 

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.