As a teacher-librarian in the Toronto District School Board, I have had the privilege of collaborating with teachers and their students on interesting projects involving coding and robotics. The best part of this experience is seeing the joy in students’ faces as they design and invent solutions to problems they want to solve. I am also a co-facilitator for one of ETFO’s annual symposiums, Breaking Barriers: Empowering and Engaging Girls in STEAM Learning.
In preparing to deliver Breaking Barriers, I delved into a variety of sources to see if I could find anything that could explain why, compared to 70 years ago, women are well-represented in many career fields but are still underrepresented in mathematical, computing and engineering careers. I will summarize my findings in a nutshell here.
The problems identified in the research are that gender gaps start young, are mostly attitudinal and increase with age. Girls enter Kindergarten with an ingrained cultural bias, experience STEM subjects as difficult and boring, and grow up with a dearth of female role models in STEM fields. On their web page dedicated to the STEM gap, the American Association of University Women presents a variety of compelling strategies for closing the STEM gap that are easily within reach of all educators, including promoting a growth mindset and disrupting bias. In their 2013 research paper, Problem Solving and Creativity and Design: What Influence Do They Have on Girls’ Interest in STEM Subject Areas? Robyn Cooper and Carol Heaverlo found that making STEM subjects hands-on, problem-based and connected to real-world issues are essential for generating and maintaining interest for all students. So, a good strategy for teachers who want to empower girls and engage them in science, technology, engineering and math learning would be to do what we can to disrupt bias, promote a growth mindset and make STEAM learning engaging for all.
Farah Alibay, a personal hero of mine, is hopeful about the future of women in her field. Montreal-born Alibay is an aerospace systems engineer working in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab who helped make Ingenuity, the robotic helicopter that was deployed on Mars in 2021.
In an interview with Women of Aeronautics and Astronautics (WOAA) Alibay talks about the importance of having BIPOC women as role models in engineering and the strength that diversity brings to problem-solving and innovating. She notes that she’s hopeful because of the revival of science communicators like WOAA and others who are sharing exciting new discoveries with the public. Alibay says this kind of exposure is important because it shows women and people from every ethnicity and background that they belong in science and engineering fields, too. “Sometimes I think you don’t even allow yourself to dream of those positions if you don’t see people that look like you,” says Alibay.
Another widely accessed source of information that has the power to shape opinions about who can do what is Wikipedia. Enter physicist Jessica Wade, who is on a mission to address the dearth of diverse representation of scientific accomplishment on Wikipedia by adding hundreds of biographies for female and diverse scientists to the site. Wade believes that for science to benefit the whole of society, it has to be accessible to the whole of society. “If you put content on [Wikipedia], people don’t only read it, it changes their perception about who does science and what they think science is,” she told The New York Times in 2019.
Wade and Alibay inspire me to take a close look at curriculum content, which influences our students’ perception of who does science and what they think science is more profoundly than Wikipedia does. I imagine Alibay might say that normalizing diversity in our curriculum content, the way Wade is doing with Wikipedia, would allow BIPOC students, and especially female students, to dream of seeing themselves in positions of science and engineering one day.
Invite Guests That Allow Students to See Themselves Represented in Various Images of Success
Two contexts for guest speakers that have worked well for me are Hour of Code and Hackergal coding club. Code.org has a list of software engineers who volunteer their time to do in-person or virtual classroom visits. Many of them represent diverse backgrounds and some of them are women. I invited two software engineers to visit Junior and Intermediate grades in the school library to celebrate Hour of Code. The engineers ran a few unplugged coding activities with students and talked about what it was like to do their jobs.
The culminating event of a Hackergal coding club involves participating in a hackathon adjudicated by an invited guest. The best adjudicators in the three years that I ran this event were girls from the local high school who were taking computer and technology courses and were involved in their school’s robotics club. The Grade 6 and 7 girls in my club really connected with them, more than they had with previous adult guests. These high school girls talked about their aspirations to pursue engineering after high school and inspired my Junior/ Intermediate students.
Fostering a Growth Mindset Through the Engineering and Design Process
I was excited by some of the changes in the new Science curriculum, particularly that using the engineering design process is now an expectation across all grades in science and that the new strand has a specific focus on “contributions that people with diverse lived experiences have made to science and technology.” Both of these changes are good news for our efforts to break barriers for girls in STEAM, since two things we can do as educators are disrupt bias with positive female role models and help make female students resilient to stereotype threat by fostering their growth mindset.
The engineering and design process fosters a growth mindset because when we use it, we’re teaching students to design, test and examine what went wrong and use that information to improve. Failure isn’t seen as an indictment of intelligence, just an expected step in the process. Inventors can go through this cycle three times or 100 times before they’re ready to share their invention. This is the necessary struggle Carol Dweck talks about in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Hard, but doable with effort.
In my opinion, the processes involved in block coding are very similar to the building and creating involved in the engineering and design process. Designing interactive media with block coding fosters a growth mindset because it gives kids the opportunity to fail in a low-stakes environment. When their code doesn’t work at first, students get experience and practice using failure as an opportunity to learn from mistakes and try out various problem-solving strategies, like asking a friend for help, looking at how someone else did it correctly or trying a new approach. Block coding in a program like Scratch offers students that hard-but-doable challenge that Dweck encourages us to provide for students – a struggle that they can enjoy.
Fun Projects That Redefine the Simple Circuit
When projects are fun and grow out of students’ own interests, in my experience, students are more motivated to persist through challenges. I have found over the years that inviting students to invent things using coding and robotics has been motivating and fun for them. These projects make STEAM learning hands-on, problem-based and connected to the real world. Some of the best of these collaborations have involved introducing students to a fun tool for invention: Makey Makeys.
A Makey Makey is an integrated circuit board that plugs into any computer or Chromebook and turns any electricity-conducting object connected to it into a pressable keyboard key. Like a banana, for example. Or a gummy worm. Kids and adults alike are surprised to discover that things like Jell- O or bananas or Play-Doh or even people are conductive and can be used to replace a key on a keyboard. To get a better sense of what a Makey Makey is and how it works, I recommend visiting makeymakey.com. The site also has a helpful section with great ideas for classroom use and getting-started guides for educators. As a school investment, a class set of Makey Makeys is a fraction of the cost of robotics kits that schools typically purchase.
Participants at workshops often tell me that they appreciate the attention-riveting aspect of a fruit-salad or candy computer, but ask what else is there beyond the nifty gimmick? I usually explain that once students are comfortable using Makey Makey with Scratch, they’re ready to start using it as a tool for creating things; they have consistently surprised and delighted us with their unique inventions.
A few years ago, a colleague and I presented students with an accessibility invention challenge. We took them on a walk around the school to see if they could identify any accessibility challenges or anything that was missing that someone might need to help them in school. The students’ task was to design a device that would help someone meet that need.
One particularly noteworthy project that came out of this challenge was made by a pair of Grade 6 students who were inspired to create a life-saving device after hearing a story about a hockey player who died of a heart attack when he was alone in a change room and unable to call for help. The pair of students wanted to invent a piece of wearable tech that a person could use to instantly phone 911 if they were having a heart attack. They designed a sleeve that the wearer could push down to connect with a bracelet, a simple action that can be performed under duress. This action completes a circuit that turns on a light and triggers a sound to play in Scratch. According to the students’ reasoning, the light bulb in their prototype turns on if there is a heart attack, and if the light turns on the shirt will send a message to the wearer’s phone and call 911. The students accomplished this by sewing conductive thread into a sleeve they made from felt. The bracelet was made out of aluminum foil. Alligator clips were attached to the sleeve, bracelet, mini lightbulb and connected to the Makey Makey, which was connected to their computer. It all sounds very sophisticated but actually it’s elegantly simple. The code is merely “when down arrow pressed, play sound.” It’s a brilliant idea that had many stops and starts, but the students – both hockey players themselves – were so eager to create their invention, and that eagerness carried them through the rough stretches.
Another great invention that came out of the accessibility invention challenge used a Makey Makey to control a robotic arm the students made with a LEGO WeDo set. They were inspired to create this device to help someone who had limited use of their arms. The robotic arm used two motors – one for grasping and the other for moving up or down, and a distance sensor that triggered the grasping motion when an object came within five centimetres of the sensors. The Makey Makey was connected to a button that could be placed in a position requiring minimal action from the user to operate the robotic arm.
In a subsequent year, the music teacher and I collaborated to help a Grade 7 class create touch-sensitive musical paintings. The students made their own musical tracks in Garage Band and uploaded them as sound files to Scratch. Then, using conductive paint, they made pictures that illustrated the mood of the music they recorded. Finally, they connected Makey Makeys to their paintings so that a viewer of their art could touch various points in the image to hear the musical track that went along with it.
In each of these examples, the students designed and created something that grew out of their own interest and produced a unique project that engaged multiple, crosscurricular expectations, rather than something “cookie cutter.” This is what deep learning with technology looks like.
We have the resources and the ability to make STEAM learning accessible to everyone. Engineering design projects don’t have to be high tech. The key is that they are hands-on and develop from students’ own interests. What is not negotiable however, is that throughout our lessons, examples, projects and activities, students get to see diverse representations of success in all fields. In this way we can bolster our students against stereotype threat and help girls, in particular, forge confident new pathways in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
Tina Surdivall is a member of Elementary Teachers of Toronto.
Inspiring Female Role Models
Below is a list of resources I have used that celebrate the accomplishments of women in STEM fields. They can be used as starting points for looking at “contributions to science and technology from people with diverse lived experiences and from various communities,” which aligns to the STEM Skills and Connections strand in the Science curriculum.
Nevertheless Podcast Series
This set of eight posters was made to accompany the Nevertheless Podcast’s 2018 STEM Role Models series on Medium. The posters are available for download in eight different languages.
See It - Be It - STEM It
Browse this site to find short articles on over 300 contemporary Canadian women charting new territory in their fields and paving the way for girls with STEM aspirations. A calendar featuring the accomplishments of 12 women is available for download each year.
Here you will find 80 posters featuring the accomplishments of various individuals. The site also has educational resources including design challenges, discussion prompts and a lesson plan for building a timeline for historic contributions made by marginalized groups.