Much More Than a Social Network
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Episode Show Notes
Today's guests present a smorgasbord of resources available for K12 engineering educators, starting with the website www.LinkEngineering.org, an online toolkit to support PreK-12 engineering education. Guests Dr. Elizabeth Cady and Dr. Linda Kekelis explain what LinkEngineering is. It's hard to sum up the website in one word. Produced by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), it's part social network, part resource database, part review site, and part Q&A site. A bit like LinkedIn, Yelp, and Quora, morphed together, but for engineering education. And it's still evolving. Listen to this episode to learn more, as well as to hear about role models, philanthropy, gender equity, and toys.
Our opening music comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze, our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor. Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses: creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0
Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
Much More Than a Social Network
[Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for October 10, 2016.
[Pius] I’m your host, Pius. My guests are Dr. Linda Kekelis and Dr. Elizabeth Cady. They work to foster connections among people and resources in the field of engineering education. Both are connected to the National Academy of Engineering, or the NAE, and they’re speaking with me over Skype about an ambitious digital project from the NAE called LinkEngineering.
[Pius] So I just wanted to start off with introductions. Beth?
[Bethy Cady] Yes. I am a program officer here at the National Academy of Engineering. I work on a variety of projects related to engineering education, ranging in the ages from pre-K to gray, essentially. I work on, in addition to LinkEngineering, I work on some projects with undergraduate engineering education, as well as faculty development, and also some projects with workforce development.
[Pius] And Linda?
[Linda] I’m advising on two projects at the National Academy of Engineering. I’m advising on LinkEngineering, and also I’m on the steering committee for EngineeringGirl, which is a website for middle school kids, primarily girls and parents and the educational community, to learn more and get inspired in engineering.
[Pius] What background do you need to do the things that you do? Maybe we could start with Beth again.
[Beth] Well, my background is in psychology. I have a PhD in Cognititive and Human Factors Psychology, and I’ve been working at the National Academy of Engineering for about ten years. But the other staff members here have a variety of backgrounds, so where my cognitive psychology helps me in what I’m doing – It’s not the only pathway into doing something like what I do.
[Pius] And Linda, what is your background? How did you get started in this?
[Linda] While I’m not an engineer, I am a champion for engineering. I bring over twenty-five years involved in research and practice and passion around equity, particularly around STEM. I was the founder and former CEO of TechBridge, which is a national nonprofit that’s headquartered in Oakland, California, that offers afterschool and summer programs for girls, and also professional development for partners who support girls and boys in STEM. And currently I’m consulting on a number of projects and working with partners to support them and taking research and resources that are already out there to empower many more girls and boys in STEM. And I’m especially interested in helping to bring engineering experiences to girls.
[Pius] That’s great. So it sounds like you all do a lot of different things. I think that not everyone listening might even know what the National Academy of Engineering is. That’s just some of what you both do. Maybe Beth, would you want to briefly describe what the NAE is?
[Beth] Sure. It’s part of the National Academies, of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The National Academy of Sciences was chartered in 1864 to provide unbiased advice on matters of science to the United States government. And then the National Academy of Engineering was started in 1964 to provide unbiased advice on engineering matters, matters of engineering, and similarly the National Academy of Medicine provides advice to the government about medical issues. So we’re a very large institution. We do a variety of projects. The larger institution releases approximately one consensus report every business day of every year.
[Pius] Oh wow.
[Beth] Yeah. It’s on a variety of topics, so this is – Engineering, science, and medicine. There are, as you can imagine, a variety of topics, because we do things that are very small, and things that are very large. Something like Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which came out about a decade ago, is one of them. Some of them are much more targeted on specific aspects of a government agency or something like that.
[Pius] So the NAE isn’t part of the government?
[Pius] It’s a separate institution.
[Beth] Right. We are a nonprofit.
[Pius] LinkEngineering is one of those projects of the NAE, and when I first learned about LinkEngineering, it flashed a light bulb in my head when I heard about it because many teachers and schools and engineers had individually spoken to me, saying they’re really looking for literally ways to link up with other schools to do engineering better. Conveniently, I get an email that says, hey, LinkEngineering exists! So for other people who have never heard of LinkEngineering, what is it?
[Beth] So it’s a project that we started – We actually started it about three years ago, I believe, with background research and gathering information from stakeholders, like you said, like teachers who are looking for ways to connect, and also looking for resources they could use in their classroom, or in their after or out-of-school settings. We also provide resources in the community for professional development providers, pre-service teacher educators, administrators, basically educators and the communities that support them. So we’re still in this very iterative development process. We had multiple versions of the site. We got feedback from a variety of different stakeholders on each version. We are also doing a collaboration with TeachEngineering, which is an online repository, part of the National Science Digital Library websites. They have about almost 1500 engineering lesson plans for classroom and out-of-classroom use. So we are forming a collaboration with them where educators who are using their materials can do a, kind of a, share an experience about how they’re using the materials, and people can start talking about that. You can get a lesson plan, but if you don’t have the background and have never done this before, it’s sometimes hard to implement it in your work. And so this way people can talk about things and ask questions and if they need to change something because it doesn’t really fit their context, they can do that and share that. And then people can then move forward. It’s sort of this growing together, and the community.
[Pius] That latest feature of yours makes me envision kind of a Yelp for engineering curricula, where teachers can try things out and rate it or put comments on there. Is that what you’re describing?
[Beth] That is kind of the thing we wanted to get away from. The rating part of it – We really wanted it to be more sharing, you know, “Did this work for you?” And if it didn’t, were you able to change it so it could?
[Pius] Right. The specific reasons why and how you could adapt it.
[Beth] Right, yeah. So it will be a rating system, but it’s not as – I think, in many situations having a rating system can be very discouraging for people who want to try to post or upload new lesson plans, so we wanted to get away from that. You know, be very encouraging to people who want to try and do new things.
[Pius] And so, who uses LinkEngineering now, and who do you think should use it?
[Beth] It is a wide mix of educators at all levels and in – in school, out of school, at museums. We also have professional development providers. People who are educating future teachers. We have state and district and local school administrators, so it’s a large community of varying people. We also have some engineering education researchers, who are on the site. So it’s people who can really share their knowledge and try to, you know, form this community and help people.
[Pius] So you’re really targeting everyone involved in the engineering education space, not just teachers, for example.
[Pius] And I’m wondering how the both of you got involved in LinkEngineering in the first place, because, Linda, it sounds like you’re not directly working for the NAE, I could ask that to you first.
[Linda] Sure. I was invited to work on the committee because of my experience in three areas. One is, as I already mentioned, I’ve been supporting programs for girls around STEM, particularly girls who are underrepresented in engineering. So that includes girls from under-resourced communities and girls of color, girls who are first in their family to go to college, and since many engineers become interested in the field because they have a parent or a relative in engineering, it’s really important to expand our way of working with other groups to be able to get them to get hooked into engineering. I also bring experience in special education. My doctorate is in special education, working with youth who are blind and visually impaired. So as part of the committee, I’m really trying to help us be thoughtful, to make sure that materials, professional development, and curriculum are accessible to kids with disabilities around engineering. And lastly, I work with groups that provide programs in out-of-school time, and since kids spend most of their time outside the classroom, programs can be a perfect space in the summer or after school to be able to explore engineering, so groups like Girl Scouts and Boys and Girls Clubs in school districts reach lots of kids. And so I am mindful during our committee work to make sure that we bring attention and voice to those groups and think about, what are the resources, the professional development, and the needs of these groups in bringing engineering to their youth.
[Pius] Oh wow. I have tons of questions related to that, but I’ll save that for another time. I’m wondering, Beth, how did you get involve din LinkEngineering.
[Beth] Well, it was part of my job.
[Beth] We received a grant from Chevron to develop the site, and my colleague Greg Pearson and I are the ones leading the staff effort for the NAE.
[Pius] OK, so is Chevron – They just have an interest in engineering education as a whole?
[Beth] They do. They also have an interest in diversity in the engineering workforce and STEM education broadly.
[Pius] That’s great that there are industry partners for all of this.
[Pius] And you kind of touched on this earlier. I was wondering about the process for creating this whole resource. You were talking about how you had a series of discussions with stakeholders, and how it’s a constant iteration process for creating LinkEngineering. It sounds like you used the engineering design process to create this product. Is that true?
[Beth] That is absolutely true.
[Pius] And so you’re not done.
[Beth] Nope, we’re not done. [laughs]
[Pius] What was maybe one of the hardest parts of developing the site? Or if you’re still developing, what do you envision is going to be the hardest part?
[Beth] At the moment, it – Not really in developing the site, but bringing the community to it and encouraging the interactions. I think that’s true of most websites where it’s sort of a community. We have – I just looked it up – We do have exactly 800 members. And we have some interactions, but it’s tough to get people really talking about things. You know, there’s a level of motivation, sort of a threshold, that needs to be passed, and we are working on that. But that, I think, will be – has been our biggest challenge since we went live, and will continue to be our biggest challenge.
[Pius] In a way it seems like your competitors are Facebook, Twitter, and the big players there.
[Beth] Right, yeah. [laughs]
[Pius] Well, on the other side of the coin, were there any success stories that you’ve already run into, based on people who use the site?
[Beth] Yes, we actually had one that was very early. We had a woman who was a PhD student at the University of Texas, who had posted what we call a work in progress. So it was a lesson that she was trying to develop on designing the perfect shoe, and she posted it and asked for comments. And as it happens, someone who is on the site, someone else who was on the site, used to be an engineer with Reebok, and so they have connected and are working together to help develop lessons on shoes.
[Pius] And Linda, did you hear anything interesting coming out of LinkEngineering?
[Linda] I think for me, an example of a success story was the ability to be able to share resources and get the word out about folks that are doing really great work in engineering. For example, this summer I learned about two really interesting teachers at a middle school, Preston Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado, who were doing philanthropic engineering with middle school kids. They came up with the idea of creating lights for folks in developing countries, and when I heard about their project, it was so interesting, because I often hear kids talk about the fact that they want to make the world a better place. Don’t make the connection to engineering and technology. And I thought that the work of these two teachers would perfectly align with, you know, really showcasing how engineering does help the world. So I was able to reach out to these two teachers, talk with them, be able to write a blog that actually just was posted on LinkEngineering yesterday.
[Pius] Yeah, thanks I read that.
[Beth] Thank you, Linda.
[Linda] Oh, it was great, because I was really so excited with their work, and I just want so many other people to know about it. So it’s an opportunity for more people to learn about the curriculum. And I think really importantly, to be able to reach out to Tracy and Dawn, and to come up with questions. If they’re getting started or afraid or feel like they don’t have the expertise, they can go to Tracy and Dawn and be able to get really practical advice in terms of getting started. So I’m really excited to see this as the place to be able to really share the great work that’s going on with lots more people around the country.
[Pius] So I want to broaden the discussion a little bit. You both started to talk about this, but why is engineering education important to you personally? We’ll start maybe with Beth.
[Beth] OK. Well my father was an engineer. He was an electrical engineer and was a professor for many years. And so I was always around engineering as a kid. Basically when I finished my graduate program and I was hired at the NAE not long after that, and was familiar with engineering education but really got most of my education, if you will, in the field once I started working at the NAE. But you know I’ve, like I said, I’ve been around engineering my life. I have a whole lot of friends and family members who are in engineering, and talking to them, especially about the projects that I’ve worked on that are focused on both K12 and increasing diversity in engineering – People are very passionate about that, and I am, too. I think that’s a very important part of what I do.
[Pius] And Linda, how did you -- like, what was your path to getting into engineering education.
[Linda] My interest began when I was a really little girl a long time ago. I used to love to play with my Barbie dolls, and I also loved to tinker with my brother’s Erector set. So I would take his Erector set and build furniture for my dolls.
[Linda] When I put away the Barbies, I stopped playing with the Erector set and never thought about continuing to tinker. My brother went on to study engineering in college and became a civil engineer, and never once did I imagine following in his footsteps or becoming an engineer, and no one ever suggested it. I had no role models. But then, you know, about twenty-five years ago, my interest and passion was rekindled when I had a son, and he had lots of Legos, and our house was overrun with building blocks, and, you know, his engineering endeavors. And he went to a preschool cooperative, and once a week I was at the preschool. And I just saw how he was encouraged with the other boys to go to the block corner and, you know, build towers and take things apart. And the girls were encouraged to play dress-up and go to the, you know, doll corner. And I just thought at that moment, wouldn’t it be great if the boys and girls could play together and play with more common toys? So I talked with the parents and did a little social engineering at that preschool, and…
[Linda] …got the boys and girls to build a veterinarian clinic, and using the blocks together, and playing with stuffed animals. After that I went on to do a series of workshops for parents and really encouraged the parents of daughters to think outside the box and encourage them to think about their girl liking science and engineering and breaking down some of the stereotypes they have about, you know, what boys and girls do, and helping them reimagine futures for their daughters, especially.
[Pius] That brings up a related topic that I was thinking about. This idea of gender equity in engineering, especially. You both had said that – It sounded like you had some interest or connection to engineering as kids, but you never officially studied engineering in school. Do you think it’s just a cultural thing in the US? Is that the reason why girls are not as encouraged to be engineers?
[Linda] I think there’s lots of factors. In part, I think it’s just unconscious stereotypes that we have about what boys and girls like to do. So from very early on the kinds of toys and games that boys and girls get are very different, and you know, boys are much more likely to get those building blocks. It’s beginning to change now with groups like Goldiblocks that are turing girls onto engineering. I think there are fewer role models and a lot less messaging about when you grow up, what you might think about doing. And while nobody had encouraged me to think about engineering, I’m surprised today that still so many of the girls that I’ve worked with have also not been encouraged to think about engineering unless they’re in a special program that focuses on that.
[Pius] So how would something like LinkEngineering, this social network, which is how I view it – How does that tackle some of these more pressing issues like engineering education, like gender equity or role models?
[Beth] Yeah, I think we have been very careful and intentional from the beginning to build issues of equity and inclusivity into the site. So we do have some resources that are focused on equity, but we also make sure that the lesson plans that are on there and the conversations are inclusive. So they’re not sending the wrong message. So that’s one of the things that we have done. We also have a lot of the experts who are on the site, which include both the committee members like Linda, but also some other experts that we have. We have experts in equity who are available to answer questions.
[Pius] Are they the ones also reviewing, for example, those resources that are on LinkEngineering?
[Beth] They are some of the ones. So some of the resources on LinkEngineering have been reviewed by what we call a sort of expert vetting group. Some of them are uploaded by users. We wanted to have a very community-based, ground-up collection of, or bottom-up collection, so that not everything is going to be reviewed, but I think that’s where the community comes in and can point out issues that they see, where something is less inclusive than it could be.
[Pius] I’d like to see in the end what this evolves into. I’m sure that a lot of stuff will bubble up to the surface. So I’ve found out that in my small little podcast, the majority of listeners are educators. They’re teachers. I would estimate that it’s about 70%, but the other remainder right now seems to be a mix of engineers, parents, and just general people who are interested in the field. What advice could you give to people like them, people who aren’t teachers, or they’re not educators? What advice can you give them about to how to get better involved in K-12 engineering education, if that’s what they’re interested in?
[Linda] That’s a great question, because engineers and parents are so important to this topic, and they really are an important part of the solution, and can do a lot to encourage kids to pursue engineering. So to the engineers that are listening to the podcast, I’d like to say, we need you. Both in classrooms and also in programs that are outside of school. Engineers can really help kids connect the dots between an activity that might be fun to do with what the possibilities are in careers in engineering. I’ve talked with kids when they’ve done engineering design challenges, and they’ll say, like, this was really fun, it’s like a hobby. And they make no connection to a career, but a role model can. So if you’re an engineer, I suggest, check with your local public school. You can check in with the Girl Scout Council or a summer program at a library or a YMCA group and let them know that you’re interested in wanting to get involved, to be able to share about what you do. There is a national database called The Connectory, where you can find a STEM opportunity in your community, and you could either do that in real-time, or if you just want to be a role model online, you can do that, as well. And role models are so important to help kids understand what engineering is all about and dispel those stereotypes, because if you ask kids, what does an engineer do, a lot of kids really have no idea about all the careers that are making a difference in the world. So by sharing the passion for what you do and your personal story, you can really turn kids on. And I think another important role that, as a role model, an engineer can do is help provide some academic and career guidance, and just talk about some of the practical strategies that helped, you know, you get from studying a math class in high school to majoring in engineering in college, and things on the job. And for parents, what I’d like to say is, you don’t need to be an engineer. You don’t need to have completed college or to be an expert in order to inspire your kids to go into engineering. What you need to do is really just show interest and support. Look for afterschool and summer programs in your community, where engineering is available. If you’re thinking about games or toys for the holidays or for birthdays, think about those tinkering projects. If you have a household appliance that’s broken, think about taking it apart with your kids to figure out how it works. And these days there’s so many great stories in the news about engineers doing amazing work that helps make the world a better place, so talk about those with your kids over the dinner table, and really help them understand that engineering’s all around them.
[Pius] Beth, did you have anything from the perspective of the NAE? That was a pretty comprehensive answer.
[Beth] Yeah, I’m not sure I can really add to that.
[Beth] I will say, there was a project that was done here, I think it published about eight years ago, called Changing the Conversation. Maybe you’re familiar with it. But that was one thing. Both parents and engineers can be familiar with the messages that were tested with middle school children and adults and high school kids, to really bring out the excitement and the passion that engineering can give you, that it really can make a world of a difference and really connects it to things that kids want to do anyway. So as we talked about before, a lot of kids don’t really know what engineering is. They don’t really connect it to helping the world, and so Changing the Conversation really had some good messages that could be used, you know, not in a sort of over-the-top way, but just to make sure that, in talking to kids, that you’re presenting the right message about engineering. I’d also like to point out that, on LinkEngineering, we do have ways of sorting and finding people who are at least in your state, and hopefully soon we will do something where you can find somebody who’s in your local community. So engineers, parents, and educators will be able to log into the site and find others who are very local to them. If an educator is going to do an activity and wants an engineer to come in that will connect the activity to something in the real world, they’ll hopefully be able to find someone who’s a local person.
[Pius] That’s great. That’s literally what so many people have asked me, if I knew anything, and I couldn’t tell them, so that’s great that LinkEngineering is working on that. Now I also didn’t know about The Connectory, either. I’ll have to check out that resource. Are there any other projects from the National Academy of Engineering that either of you would like to tell the public about, besides LinkEngineering?
[Linda] I had mentioned at the start that I’m involved with EngineerGirl, the website for kids in middle school. So I really would encourage parents and educators to look on that site and to encourage their kids to do it, because not everybody has easy access to a role model, and there are wonderful arrays of role models in lots of different fields of engineering. It’s also great because on the website, kids can pose a question. So if they’re wondering about what classes to study or what different fields of engineering are about, they can ask the question and get responses from engineers. And then every year EngineerGirl sponsors a contest dealing with engineering and its impact on the world, so I encourage listeners to check the website for details and be able to share that with kids who might like to try out the contest. It’s fun.
[Pius] That sounds excellent. And Beth, did you have anything?
[Beth] Yes. So in addition to EngineerGirl, which is a great resource, we have several projects that might be of interest. They’re available on the NAE website, which is just www.nae.edu, and if you click on Activities, all of our activities show up. So we have a variety of projects in addition to websites. We have some reports. I’m actually working on a project that will be released some time in the next six months or so, looking at where individuals with degrees in engineering end up in the workforce. So it’s kind of – A lot of engineers, people with engineering degrees do not end up working in an engineering field. So we’re looking at the factors around that and also the other aspects of that, that may be of interest to some people. And we just have a variety of projects, too many to mention, all of them.
[Pius] That’s awesome.
[Beth] We’re also developing – My colleagues are developing the Online Ethics Center, which has been around for several years, focused on engineering ethics, but is now also adding science ethics to it. So they’re redeveloping that site. That is also will be a responsive site. So yes, most of these projects are available on the web, and I think the NAE site, itself, will be responsive to mobile or is already.
[Pius] And so if anyone has questions for you or for the NAE, what’s the best way for then to get in touch with you, Beth?
[Pius] Great. And Linda?
[Linda] I would love to be able to support your listeners, so I am also available on the LinkEngineering website, and I can also be contacted via email at email@example.com.
[Pius] I think that’s about all the time we have, but I really appreciate you explaining the National Academy’s projects and what LinkEngineering is and what it’s going to be. So I hope that you can keep spreading the word about engineering education.
[Linda] And I think we’d both like to thank you, Pius, for giving us this chance to be able to help get the word out.
[Beth] Yes, thank you very much.
[Pius] You’re very welcome.
[Pius] A lot of resources were name-dropped in this episode. Check out the show notes for links to them in case you forgot. If you liked this show, please rate and review it on your player, whether it’s iTunesor something else. That really helps people like you find the show, and it helps me out, too. If you’re on Reddit, you can start conversations about this and other topics in the new subreddit, r/EngineeringEducation. And, of course, you can also find me on LinkEngineering now.
[Pius] The views expressed in this podcast are our own, and they’re not necessarily the opinions of any schools, companies, or other groups with which we might be connected. Our opening music comes from “School Zone” by The Honorable Sleaze, and our closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleeptor. Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses. Thanks for listening, and please tune in again.