OnCUE

Author - Kate Salmon

Connecting Women and STEM

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photo by Kate Salmon

I saw Ayah Bdeir speak at SXSWedu in March, and I’m still not over it. Her insights and contributions to the future of STEM as the founder and CEO of LittleBits cannot be understated.  A critical component of the maker movement, LittleBits are used in classrooms and living rooms around the world to introduce kids to electrical engineering and design concepts. We adults at Learnography have been getting in on the fun too, and we have gained so much from the inquiry-based learning process.

littlebitsquoteThe angel of LittleBits is in the details, though. As Ayah explained in her keynote session, each facet was designed to be gender neutral and intuitive to all learning styles. The bits are colour coded according to their function (power, wiring, etc.) and the core colours are blue, pink, green, and orange. The inclusion of pink has gone a long way toward making girls feel like LittleBits was made for them.

“Getting girls involved in STEM is one of the hidden missions of LittleBits,” said Ayah. As a woman who grew up feeling out of place in the world of engineering, she appreciates the need to break down the assumption that the STEM fields are somehow inherently masculine. To do that, she says, we need to actively encourage women to enter the space.

I can only imagine what it was like for Ayah to study at MIT, or in the Computer Engineering program at the American University of Beirut. I went to a Canadian university known for engineering, and the faculty was always engaged in initiatives to get more women enrolled. The prevailing notion was that these male-dominated environments are not welcoming to women, and if you’ve ever hung out in an IT department I think you’ll understand this perspective. The disparity in gender representation can lead to an ‘us vs. them’ attitude, and the self-perpetuating perception that the disparity is somehow based on gender aptitude. But while creating accepting spaces is an important piece of the puzzle, getting girls involved in STEM needs to start at a much younger age. Girls need to grow up in a world where STEM options are on the table, where their career prospects are not associated with their gender. If they are given only gender normative social toys like dolls, and deprived of logic toys like Legos, are we really surprised that they grow up to get liberal arts degrees and become communications professionals? (ahem)

photo by Kate Salmon

photo by Kate Salmon

LittleBits and tools like them, address the problem  universities are facing at its root. With the bold choice of pink as one of the colours, Ayah is inviting girls to the table, telling teachers and parents that this is a tool for all genders. And empowering boys to play with pink toys is just as important as empowering girls to learn STEM.

The LittleBits kit comes with activities and instructions to create everything from a flashlight to a three-wheeler, but you can also go wild with the parts and invent entirely new electronics. The myriad of innovative ideas generated by LittleBits users are highlighted on the LittleBits website. My favourite project is a hamster monitor invented by an 11th grade girl for her science fair. I bet she did very well in the science fair, and that she has a bright future in animal research or systems design or something else altogether.

By encouraging young women to solve their own problems in their own ways, says Ayah, “we are preparing them for careers that haven’t been invented yet.” I am grateful and thankful we have someone like her out there innovating with us in mind.

Editor’s note: CUE leaders facilitated a Lesson Design Maker’s Faire meetup at SXSWedu this year and is proud to have SXSWedu as a Media Partner. Watch for continued collaborations in 2016-2017!


KateKate Salmon (@CSCKate) is a Communications Specialist and general word nerd from Toronto, Ontario. With a BA in Rhetoric and Professional Writing from the University of Waterloo, she continues her learning journey at Learnography, a non-profit education consulting organization. Learnography’s team of former educators are dedicated to creating transformative learning experiences, inspiring her to take on new challenges every day

 

The Other Side of Digital Nativeness

digital natives: funny design with laptop, feeding bottle and pa

I had a ton of interesting conversations at ISTE about the uniqueness of today’s students. As the first generation raised in the digital age, they say students are interacting with technology in ways that most teachers do not understand or appreciate. The term ‘digital native’ has been coined* to refer to children who, due to privileges granted by their geographical location and socioeconomic status, are able to use technology on a daily basis throughout their upbringing. The ramifications of these online interactions are still undetermined, leaving educators and researchers bickering endlessly about whether digital natives are fundamentally different than previous generations of students.

As a result of this debate, perspectives on technology use in schools are myriad and often opposing. I thought at a technology conference I’d be talking to the converted, but found that this was not always the case. Many people brought up opinions that technology has rewired our children’s brains, causing them to be unfocused and easily distracted. Many others talked about issues of cyberbullying and harmful messaging in the digital spaces of their schools. One woman spoke about the gaming addiction she has witnessed ruining lives. All of these people agreed that technology has its place in school, but its excessive use has proven harmful to students’ offline existence.

As a digital citizen (albeit an immigrant) myself, I was dismayed to hear so many technology specialists speak so harshly of the tools I love, and I turned to the George Couroses and the Jason Markeys of the conference for some uplifting pro-tech perspectives. Couros did not disappoint – he has proven to be engaging and inspiring whenever he speaks, and I know he has converted many school administrators to a pro-tech stance. But even Markey, a progressive and passionate tech supporter, mentioned that his school had to block twitter on its local network because it consumed students’ school days. This got me thinking that perhaps I need to take a hard look at my stance on tech in schools.

Debate illustration conceptThe perspectives of so many educators who have mixed feelings about tech are hard to ignore. After all, I’m not in schools seeing how children interact with their devices and each other. I’m following the debate closely on social media, but I’m still an outsider. I’m always looking for more perspectives and opinions. After careful consideration and heartfelt discussion, however, my opinion is this: digital natives are fundamentally different from us. Their home is online – this is where they communicate, collaborate, and learn. They will harness the power of technology in ways that we can’t even imagine because they were born into it, but this comes at the expense of their offline functioning. If we take the term ‘digital native’ literally, it means that these kids are foreigners in the offline world, and they have to overcome all of the obstacles and barriers faced by immigrants learning a new culture and language.

There are two ways we can deal with this: we can create classroom programming to socialize students and encourage parents to facilitate bilingual online/offline development. Or maybe we can just back off and let them do their thing. It’s very possible that, in the world they create, they won’t need the offline skills we value so highly. But cutting them off from tech, banning it from schools, is not an option. Cutting them off from their homeland will only stunt their growth, leaving them disconnected and disengaged.

* Editor’s note: CUE will be featuring Marc Prensky, who invented and popularized the phrases “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants” as a CUE 2015 Fall Conference Spotlight Speaker.


KateKate Salmon (@CSCKate) is a Communications Specialist and general word nerd from Toronto, Ontario. With a BA in Rhetoric and Professional Writing from the University of Waterloo, she continues her learning journey at Learnography, a non-profit education consulting organization. Learnography’s team of former educators are dedicated to creating transformative learning experiences, inspiring her to take on new challenges every day.