Justice in Engineering Education
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Episode Show Notes
The SXSW Education conference and festival this year highlighted equity, fairness, and justice as a major theme. How does this apply to engineering and computer science education? This episode explores the views of various speakers and attendees at SXSW, starting with Dr. Chris Emdin, who emphasized that education is a civil rights issue. Then it looks at the relevant views of college students, educational leaders, teachers, and industry professionals. Finally Aditya Voleti and Michelle Ching share their thoughts on equity in educational technology, coming from the perspective of two teachers-turned-entrepreneurs.
Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.
Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, by purchasing digital teaching materials at the Pios Labs curriculum store, 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
Justice in Engineering Education
[Pius Wong] The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is made possible by generous individual listeners who donate to the show. Thank you. You can keep this show going, too, by donating to my independent studio at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.com.
[opening music fades in]
[Pius Wong] It’s March 27th, 2017, and I’m your host Pius Wong for The K12 Engineering Education Podcast.
[Pius] The South by Southwest [SXSW] Education conference in Austin, Texas, has ended, but its emotional tone still lingers on. In this episode, I try to go beyond products and programs as I cover some of the urgent voices calling for fairness, equity, and justice in education today. For engineering education in K through 12, what does justice look like?
[music fades out]
[Pius] [SXSW] opened this year with a fiery keynote address by Dr. Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor in Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. He’s also author of a bestselling book on pedagogy in urban education.
[Christopher Emdin, in presentation] Good morning everybody.
[crowd] Good morning.
[Pius] That morning, Dr. Emdin spoke in front of hundreds of South-by attendees in a main lecture hall. Early in his speech, he made clear he was addressing three groups of people in the conference: his friends, his enemies, and his frenemies.
[Emdin, in presentation] I want to speak to our friends, my friends. My friends are those folks who understand the idea that education is essentially the civil rights issue of our time, that we cannot have…
[Emdin] …conversations about education without talking about equity and diversity.
[Pius] Then Dr. Emdin defined his enemies.
[Emdin] I want to talk to the enemies.
[gentle laughter from audience]
[Emdin] We’ve got to be clear that we’ve got some folks in the building who are enemies, and not enemies because they’re inherently bad people, but they’re enemies because they come to this conversation at [SXSW] EDU, because it’s a time for them to be able to pitch a new product or make social connections with folks in certain spaces, or talk about their new tech initiative or tech company they’re trying to build up, or pitch stuff to schools and curriculum, and I’m just saying to you that if that’s your sole intention to coming to a gathering of educators, in many ways I’m going to have to position you early on as not being exactly where I’m at. So you’re sort of an enemy.
[Pius] So who were his frenemies?
[Emdin] And these are the folks I’m going to talk to in particular today, right? Which are the folks who actually come to this work with amazing intentions, who really believe in what we said the friends believe in, but by virtue of being a part of systems and institutions and structures that do not value certain populations, they end up being enemies despite the fact that their intentions are good.
[Pius] Yes, these were broad labels for effect, but it got his point across, and that was just the start. For the remainder of the hour, Dr. Emdin expressed utter frustration with how the US treats kids on the margin, such as black and brown kids in our segregated urban schools. Audience members all over the room cheered along with much of what he said.
[Emdin] And trauma is living in the full bodies of the young folks who are most marginalized in schools today. Whether its urban schools or rural schools, folks who’ve been pushed to the margins are undergoing severe trauma. Right now we’ve got PTSD going on everywhere, undiagnosed, that needs to be treated. And they are a function of folks being adjusted when they need to be maladjusted. A President Trump Stress Disorder is a real phenomenon. There are folks in urban spaces…
[clapping from crowd] There are folks in urban spaces who see themselves being killed spiritually under the guise of a person who’s going to make America great again, and the notion of America being great again is circling back to a history of education where they never have a voice. Y’all with me?
[Pius] In addition to explaining his frustration, Emdin also urged dramatic solutions, such as embracing the cultures and passions of kids being taught, not extracting them out of the classroom. These clips you’ve heard only tell a tiny part of his message, and you can find Emdin’s full speech on video at the [SXSW] website. Although not everyone gave him a standing ovation by the end, most people in the room did.
[cheering and clapping]
[Pius] I asked a woman sitting next to me what she thought about the speech she just heard.
[woman] I loved it, because it’s so true, because I came from a segregated school in Louisiana when my dad was in the military. So I started school in Germany. There were two African American kids in my class, and then we moved to Louisiana, and it was segregated. And then I moved to San Antonio, and it was still segregated. But somewhere in between, it became integrated. So I understand what he’s saying totally, and I totally agree, and I just think, you know, we do have to reach our young people where they’re at, like, really listen to them and hear what they’re saying. It may be hard for us to hear what they’re saying, and the language that they’re bringing it to us, but we still have to listen.
[Pius] Many rows back, another audience member was sitting alone in her chair, contemplating, as people were filing out of the room. I asked her what her reaction was. She said, at first, she was taken aback, wondering if Emdin was unfairly attacking her, a white teacher working in an urban school for decades. But she explained that by the end of the speech, she was totally on board and completely convinced of what he was saying.
[Pius] Another teacher outside the hall was already starting to think how to apply these ideas to her classroom.
[teacher] I’m teaching in a traditional STEM high school, and there’s all sorts of questions that I have with our population that’s already diverse, but wondering about the application of that to other groups, and how we can also emulate some kind of changes and make sure we’re letting educators and students be the people that are making the changes, and not somebody else.
[Pius] Non-teachers in the educational technology industry were also there, and those I spoke to were just as wowed and motivated by the talk as any of the teachers. I couldn’t find any opponents to what Dr. Emdin had said.
[musical interlude fades in]
[Pius] Throughout the next days, other speakers at different sessions and workshops kept referencing Emdin’s talk. He clearly struck a chord. The strange part was that after his speech, this was still [SXSW]. Education company representatives hawking products were nearly everywhere, also sponsoring parties and meetups, and they arguably could be Emdin’s so-called frenemies, if not outright enemies, depending on their goals. Were they only here to make money? Do they neglect to champion education as a civil right for all kids? I even had to ask myself, as someone creating an education business, am I an enemy? And maybe this was the goal: to provoke everyone in this education world to reevaluate what they’re really doing here.
[musical interlude fades out]
Four college students ran their own panel at [SXSW], confirming some of Emdin’s themes. Andrew Brennen, Zaakir Tameez, Ben Gurewitz, and Amanda Wahlstedt all were in high school not too long ago. They argued in their panel that inequity is a huge but solvable problem in the school systems they came from, and they wanted people to listen to, and value, students’ voices and ideas more to solve this problem. For example, here’s Ben.
[Ben Gurewitz, on panel] My story starts in third grade, and as Andrew mentioned, it is comprised of severe learning disabilities, things like dysgraphia, dyslexia, and slow processing disorder. And what I found in third grade is that the system that I was in, it didn’t work for me. I was falling behind in anything, everything. I felt incredibly ostracized, not only by my friends but by my teachers, and I literally felt that I wasn’t learning.
[Pius] Ben explained how he had to switch to a specialized school, which helped him work through his learning differences and disability.
[Ben] The moral of the story is that, if you learn differently, you have to learn how to learn differently. You have to do things in a different method if the prescribed method is not working. These years were tremendously beneficial for me, and partly because I could see people like me who succeeded. I had an incredible network of mentors, people who wanted me to succeed.
[Pius] Later, Ben explained that he had these opportunities because his family was privileged with resources that many other families don’t have. Amanda gave her story over video from an airport, echoing similar themes.
[Amanda Wahlstedt, on panel] So I grew up in Kentucky, rural Eastern Kentucky. I grew up in an abusive household with just my father, and I ended up where I am right now, because of a series of incredible adults. I can’t stress the importance of the network of mentors and advisors and just people that I’ve had that got me to where I am.
[Pius] But Amanda made clear that she faced and is facing many challenges, including cultural barriers and poor preparation in science and math compared to her college peers, due to coming from what she called “a low-achieving public school.” Texas student Zaakir talked about he’s been pushing for political solutions, trying to promote more funding for Texas public schools to help ease these inequities. Right now, he’s also promoting changes in Texas law, to require student input before school districts can make curriculum changes. This is in addition to input from teachers and parents. The Texas State House and Senate have both introduced bipartisan bills for this, but whether or not they pass them remains to be seen.
[Pius] When it came to engineering education, the ideas of equity, diversity, mentorship, and valuing students’ perspectives still came up again and again, even at the more casual nighttime events.
[clip from film Hidden Figures trailer fades in]
[Mary Jackson, in trailer] Mr. Zielinski, I’m a negro woman. I’m not going to entertain the impossible.
[Karl Zieliniski] And I’m a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp. Now I’m standing beneath a spaceship that’s going to carry an astronaut to the stars. Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would wish to be an engineer?
[Mary Jackson] I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.
[clip fades out]
[Pius] The nighttime showing of the film Hidden Figures at the Paramount Theater was completely packed. And at the Q&A panel afterward, one guest easily got the biggest applauses.
[Camille Alleyne, on panel] Hi. Good evening. I’m Dr. Camille Alleyne, and I am the Associate Program Scientist for the International Space Station at NASA Johnson Space Center.
[Pius] Besides working on technical NASA projects, Dr. Alleyne also works to inspire kids in science, technology, engineering, and math, especially girls and girls of color. The movie fell right in line with that goal.
[Alleyne] For me, there are so many lessons. I mean, I’ve seen it five times already. There are so many lessons. I couldn’t do what I’ve been able to do for the last twenty-one years without the trail these women blazed for people like me. So I’m clear that I stand on the shoulders of giants.
[Pius] Every day of [SXSW] EDU, numerous sessions took place on how to teach and spread computer science, or CS, education better, since it relates to economic and social disparities. One session sponsored by Oracle Academy brought together different leaders in CS education to discuss the issue, including a principal, a school designer, and a university program director. Among their many points, they said that teaching CS concepts and logic is better than teaching any specific language, that we need to find ways to ensure CS isn’t boring our kids, and that good CS teachers are absolutely key. The audience reaction was positive. For example, here’s Ken.
[Ken] I’m in the tech industry, and a lot of the computer science education – Yes, coding schools doesn’t quite cut it. Just plain teaching somebody Java doesn’t make them a good computer scientist or engineer. So the recognition that in schooling system, and the recognition or challenge and having industry partners like Oracle being part of trying to find that solution and not just being, like, hey, use Oracle products – No, it’s a more holistic view. It’s very encouraging to see.
[Pius] Another woman watching the panel liked their point about CS pedagogy.
[woman] I think the two thinks that stood out most for me were the idea that schools and educators may want to think a little bit more about being comfortable with breaking things, or allowing their students to break things. I think it’s a great learning tool, especially for CS. And then the other piece is the lack of computer science community for teachers. There, of course, online, makes this easier, but the person-to-person communication and sharing of ideas and sort of experimentation, I think, is a great thing to promote.
[Pius] I got to ask the panelists afterward for their ideas on the issue of CS teachers, specifically the lack of CS teachers, both in numbers and diversity. Principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman wants to find the potential CS experts and CS teachers early on.
[Linda Cliatt-Wayman] Well, it really begins in high school. And we have to identity young people who are uncertain about what field they want to go into, based on their academic potential at the current moment. For example, I know this is an honor student. I’ve looked in his file. He is an honor student. He is mentally gifted. He is unsure what he really wants to do. How do we expose him to something new to show him that this is a possibility, that this could be a field for him, and then channel that energy into trying to get into the field?
[Pius] Panelist Dr. Carol Fletcher from The University of Texas Center for STEM Education says that computer scientists and engineers should be exposed to teaching opportunities.
[Carol Fletcher] It’s just like how do we get kids into computer science. If they’ve never done computer science, they have no idea that they want to, how do we get computer scientists to want to be teachers? We have to give them opportunities to actually do that kind of teaching and things like that.
[Pius] Ted Fujimoto from Landmark Consulting Group agreed, saying that mentorship opportunities can attract industry professionals to teaching. He also is a strong proponent of CS teachers not having to know everything about CS.
[Ted Fujimoto] So that’s where it boils down to. What is the role of the teacher in the first place? And how specialized should they get? Should they be the expert programmer in X? Because the reality is, if they know one thing, there’s a hundred other things that they don’t know. I’m working on a number of projects, and we’re using dozens of technologies coming together, right? And we’re hiring specialists for those things. So for a teacher to try to say I know something about the world that’s coming up, and I’m going to teach you about it, that’s a losing battle just from the get-go. So I think part of it is changing the profession to thinking the profession of, what is the role of the teacher? How do you create as teachers the safe space and time to solve real amazing problems that students can get into?
[Pius] Maybe this puts less pressure on potential CS teachers, and they might be more willing to make the jump into the classroom.
[Alison Derbenwick Miller] My name is Alison Derbenwick Miller. I’m Vice President of Oracle Academy. Oracle Academy is Oracle’s flagship philanthropic program in education, and we support computer science education around the world.
[Pius] Miller was one of the organizers of the panel, and I asked her how to get a greater diversity of CS teachers. She says the issue runs much deeper.
[Miller] I think we actually need to promote diversity in teachers universally. I don’t think it’s a terribly diverse population to start with, and I think that gets increasingly complex as you start going into specialty fields where industry salaries are way better than teacher salaries. So I think a key part of it is the professionalization of teaching and the respect for teaching as a professional field, first of all. And then I think we really do need to provide bridges between industry and education so that we’re working with teacher prep programs so that all the teachers are getting exposed to computing and engineering as part of their teacher prep and can just use this as a tool in their teaching and are comfortable with it.
[Pius] I then asked her, what do tech industry professionals, such as those at Oracle, think about CS education initiatives? For example, what do they think about the new Advanced Placement curriculum for Computer Science Principles?
[Miller] So I think there is good support for AP CS Principles. That is a well-researched curriculum and course and exam that really has been specifically designed to be broadly appealing. It’s a good, broad survey class. I think, though, if you were to ask in industry what people think about how we engage kids effectively, it really is going to come down to contextualization of the content for the students in the space that they’re in. Meet them where they are rather than trying to lift them to somewhere they’re not comfortable being. And I think the tools are going to be really different for every class and every school. And I think that’s one of the challenges in sort of codifying some kind of computer science education curriculum.
[Miller] We did a video several years ago where I talked to our executives in development about if you were to give advice to students about what they need to learn to be successful in computing, universally the answer was, learn how to learn, and be curious about learning. You can manage to learn any coding language you need to learn; you can learn logic, if you know how to learn and are intellectually curious. And I think that’s the hardest thing to teach, right?
[Pius] The talk at [SXSW] made it clear that broadening access to CS and engineering is only the beginning. One statement that summarized the issue came from Dave McClure a global venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley. I’m not going to say an exact quote, because he used a lot more f-bombs, but basically he said in a panel hosted by him, “I don’t want my daughter just to learn to code. I want her to run the friggin company.” He, along with several others at the conference, warned against merely training more workers to do what a boss says in a corporation. He wanted diversity in the leadership, too.
[Pius] Despite all these warnings, there were palpable stories of hope, too regarding the broadening of both education and leadership in CS and engineering. Entrepreneurs in education technology spoke in their own diverse panels and sessions, and they agreed with educators on many points. Business and education leaders both want more diversity in CS and engineering. They both want more proficiency in CS across the board. New entrepreneurs and new teachers both tend to have crazy work-life balance and need more support. There may be more common ground among educators and business people in CS and engineering than I had once thought.
[Pius] One especially hopeful featured talk was by Laura Weidman Powers, the CEO of CODE2040, and CODE2040 is a Silicon Valley-based organization that, broadly speaking, is trying to end structural racism in tech. Among other things, they match talented black and Latina or Latino CS students with tech companies in need of that talent, and they also support diverse entrepreneurs to form their own tech-related businesses.
[Laura Weidman Powers, on stage] About a year ago, we started to debate a really key question, which was, is tech the means, or is tech the end goal? Do we work with communities of color, with black and Latinx communities, in order to diversify tech, or do we work with tech in order to impact black and Latinx communities and communities of color more broadly?
[Pius] You can watch Powers’ full talk online.
[Pius] On Saturday night of the main [SXSW] festival, I visited a downtown Austin highrise to see the CODE2040 party, also sponsored by Google for Entrepreneurs. Beats were pounding from the funk cover band, coders and entrepreneurs were swaying to the music, and, of course, business cards were passing back and forth. There were faces of all colors, all ages, men and women. One software developer there told me this CODE2040 party was easily more diverse than any similar tech networking event back in Silicon Valley. Could you imagine? The diversity of people in that room could be the faces of future tech celebrities and future role models for countless kids.
[Pius] After a couple days of South-by EDU, as the festival wound down, I managed to talk to two teachers about what they were really thinking after all the sessions, meetings, and events. I spoke to them on the second floor bar overlooking 6th Street as a jazz band jammed around us.
[Pius, in bar] What is the number one thing that you learned so far at [SXSW], at this particular conference?
[Teacher #1] I learned how to talk to my students that are on – that are of different ethnicities – about the fact that they don’t want feed into their own stereotypes.
[Teacher #2] I went to a session about personalized learning in project-based learning units, and I just learned about how to structure a project-based learning unit to allow for more student voice and personalization within project-based learning.
[Teacher #2] I have a question. It’s just, what is the thing that pushed your thinking the most this [SXSW] EDU?
[Teacher #1] Definitely, definitely Chris Emdin’s talk, because it actually become more of a ruminating point. It’s not like the thought is done. I’m still thinking about it.
[Pius] It’s not just you. I’ve spoken to other people about it, and it keeps getting referenced, like in the last session I went to, it got referenced, and, yeah, just multiple people. People will talk about it off the record, on the record. They’re thinking about it. And everyone I’ve spoken to so far says he’s right. I’ve not met the person to disagree yet. And not that it’s wrong to disagree or to have nuance about it, but it means that, yeah, he’s hit on something that we got to focus on.
[Teacher #2] Yeah, I agree. For me, that was the session that still pushed my thinking the most. It’s kind of incredible. That was the first one of the entire conference, because it kind of made me think about everything in a different lens, and it made me be more vocal when I heard some things that made me question – I actually would start speaking out more about it. It was a very cool experience, and it’s something I’m still thinking about.
[Teacher #1] Here’s my question. Do you think that if Chris Emdin – Like the fact that he spoke on the first day, and then we had other sessions to go to and other sessions to think about – and the fact that we were outside our classrooms, do you think it made more of an impact than it would if he just did a staff development talk?
[Pius] I don’t know how to answer that.
[Pius] On the final morning of [SXSW] EDU, I listened to a presentation by two educational technology entrepreneurs, who also were former teachers, so they’ve seen both the education and business worlds from the inside. They talked about the importance of equity and inclusion in educational technology, to make sure all kids and communities can be served. Following their talk, I had a brief but enlightening interview with them, which is presented here in full to close out this episode.
[Michelle Ching] OK, so my name is Michelle Ching, and I am the Founder and CEO of Literator out of Oakland, California, and I was a teacher before I was a founder. For that reason I’m coming with the lens of needing more equity and inclusion at the forefront of the conversation on what’s happening in edtech. So I wanted to facilitate a conversation at a huge edtech conference with educators about how we can be better about that.
[Aditya Voleti] I’m Aditya Voleti. I am Director of Community and Partnerships at the Lean Lab, and we are a startup incubator in Kansas City. A lot of the work that we do is very, very community-based and very, very equity-focused, so we really try to source entrepreneurs from the communities that send or work in – or were students in the public school system, especially. Very under-served zip codes. And I really just wanted to have a conversation about what it’s like to have diversity of founders in the edtech space and also just to make products that actually really don’t replace the teacher but really make it more about facilitating teaching and having it as a regular tool.
[Pius] Interesting, and I liked how you were talking about diversity both at the founder level but also at the people you’re serving, it sounded like. So there are a lot of teachers, including, I think, Professor Chris Emdin at the opening, who can be skeptical of edtech, probably because edtech has not always been famous for equitably serving people. How did you respond to Professor Emdin’s opening if you have a response?
[Voleti] So I was actually grateful to Professor Emdin for framing this conference in that way. I think that honestly, just as with anything else, if equity is not a core value of what you’re doing, then whatever you’re doing just won’t be equitable. The forces of society are such that inequity is the norm, rather than equity, and so I really liked that he framed is that way. I mean, equity is one of our core values. If it’s not, even when we work with entrepreneurs and support them in creating solutions, we really say, well, are you taking the current system and just making it more efficient using technology? Like taking tests that are already biased and just making it easier to administer them and grade them? Or are you really changing it so that the systems that are currently inequitable are actually being transformed by the tools that you’re creating? And I just think that’s a very, very important core thing that we have to keep in mind all the time, so I was very grateful that he framed it that way.
[Pius] Thank you.
[Ching] I don’t have a response because I didn’t get to see it, but I’ve heard that I will be very moved by it. But from what I’ve heard of it and what I think about what he’s trying to say, I think it’s a really valuable conversation to continue to have, especially as an edtech founder who is critical and skeptical of the space, as well. And it’s always good to see, (a) a person of color who is in this space and has success and able to kind of have a platform to be able to put that out there and make sure that’s something that we’re really thoughtful about.
[Pius] Actually, Michelle, questions for you. So a lot of teachers listening, they teach engineering to kids and teens, and I know that your product isn’t necessarily for engineering education, but you’re doing engineering, making your product.
[Pius] OK. So I’m wondering if you can give some practical tips for these teachers. What are some ways that they can teach the design process while still designing products that are equitable and accessible for all?
[Ching] Yeah. I mean, more than anything, I think, especially if the teachers themselves and the students themselves are leading these things, it’s really thoughtful to be thinking about the classrooms that aren’t exactly like your own, right? And how best to serve other students, and also to just scale those things on a bigger level to be more equitable. I think another thing, too, to give you more context – is building a community and expanding it to include people who aren’t, like, technical. If you have that experience, and you have that mindset, I think it’s so interesting to find out that, you know, like, people who identify as non-technical like I do feel really intimidated by – or they don’t feel like they can even have a conversation or feel included in the process of building something or thinking really technically. And I think anybody who has access to those tools or is engaging in that kind of context, it’s incredible what building community can do. So one thing that I really want to shout out is – Literator came out of a Startup Weekend EDU. Startup Weekend for EDU is a really amazing space where nontechnical folks coming from different backgrounds can also connect with people who have technical skill sets, and with the intention around building things and making products, or building, you know, education solutions, with that mindset that we are empathetic and that we have humility and that our intentions are there for the right reasons. And so that model of coming together or finding ways in which you can build community, like, do that as often as you can. Don’t talk and silo yourselves just because, “We’re the ones who are doing the engineering.” We can build off each others’ ideas. I think it’s so important when we’re talking about inclusion to, at bare-bones minimum, be inclusive in the conversations that we’re having and who we’re meeting.
[Voleti] In terms of teachers who really want to build that sort of culture within their classroom, I’d say things that I’ve seen work really well is – Especially with design thinking, it lays over so easily with just the scientific process. You know, you have a hypothesis, and then you test it, you do a lot of observation and that kind of stuff, and I think that it’s almost as if you’re going through that process but in a non-very technical scientific sort of way. And then also whatever content area you are, because now the world can get so technical, it is OK to model for your students what it’s like to not come from a technical background but try and figure it out, you know? And just be very open with them about it. In a lot of ways that’s what I did when I was working with my ELLs. How do I – You know, like, let me just actually try to figure this out, and I would be very open about the fact that, like, hey, I just read about this yesterday, and I want to try it out. And it’s, like, good to just – Those little things instill a culture of, like, it’s OK if I don’t have this background and I can just hop into it and try and figure it out. Those little things like, I’m new to this too, and I’m also just working on it, and I just read about this last night, and maybe we’ll try it in a week, you know? Or come to me, maybe you can read about it and tell me what you find out. Just those teeny things help out, as well.
[Ching] I want to mention one more thing, because you kind of mentioned design thinking when you asked the question. I actually know somebody who is a great advocate for equity, but who is also a huge leader at the Stanford D-school, and bringing that perspective and having conversations with him, I’ve seen that, like, design thinking and the processes of it are really just about building agency and expanding this mindset that means you can solve your own problems. But I think framing it as in, taking it out of the institution, like “Stanford D-school is where design thinking happens and nowhere else” is what is flawed and problematic. The reality is engineers especially are approaching these problems because they know they can build solutions. Like you said, if we’re including other people and saying, “You have the agency and ability to tackle the same things that you’re seeing, maybe you can’t code it yourself, but you can meet somebody who can.” I think that’s really important to understand. But yeah, at the core of it, I think it’s about facilitating this mindset of agency and proactive-ness.
[Pius] And I guess one final question if you’ve got time for it is: something that I’ve noticed now that I’ve been here at EDU for a couple days, there seems to be a big parallel in my observation between the lives of teachers, especially first-year teachers, and the lives of edtech entrepreneurs. Is that an accurate observation? I know you’ve worked with a lot of startups, and you’re starting your own. Is this true, or is this not?
[Voleti] Go, go.
[Ching] So the answer to your question, “Is first-year teaching like doing a startup?” Teaching is way harder. There is no job more difficult…
[Ching] …more trying, more emotionally draining, more physically draining than being in the classroom, and I actually do an entire talk on this, which is, like, the misconceptions and the disparities between educators and edtech founders. One of the things I like to joke about is, when you’re an edtech founder, you can use the bathroom whenever you want. When you’re an edtech founder, you can make Spotify playlists. Let me tell you, when you’re a teacher, you, at every single moment, are attentive to bodies in front of you who need something from you constantly or are engaging with you constantly, and I think you are invested in that being a healthy and happy relationship, whereas when you’re a startup founder, a lot of things are your own prerogative and your own things and your own time. I can tell you, I sleep a lot more. I walk a lot more. I eat more. [laughs] Healthy foods. I make better decisions on a daily basis. I’m a lot more well-adjusted. I’m not saying people should leave the classroom to go be a startup founder. It’s still a hustle, and I still – It’s not good sleep – but I will say, it’s nothing compared to teaching. Part of the reason I think that startup life feels easy is that I went through the classroom. I will say another thing, too. I was thinking about this this morning. I find people all the time who’re like, oh, you’re a teacher, but now you’re a startup founder, but you’re really good at presenting. You’re really good at presenting. And I’m like, yeah. It was my job, every single day, to talk to people who were way harder to get their attention, from seven-year-olds and eight-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds who, like, don’t care what I’m talking about. I had to be engaging for them. So of course I can come in and work this room, right? So yeah, teaching definitely makes it easier to be a startup founder, but it’s not easier than being a startup founder.
[Voleti] I one hundred percent agree with that. One of the things I say all the time is that – People are – You know, they ask, how do you do it? And it’s not an edtech startup. It’s a startup incubator, which is great, but people are like, how do you do the startup life? Isn’t it so stressful? And I always so the same thing. Well, it’s easier than teaching, you know? Like I’ve done something harder, and that is teaching, and people really get shocked at that. I also – One of the things I also say all the time, especially because so much of my job is to find that teacher that wants to build that solution, and I truly, truly believe this, especially for teachers that work in under-resourced schools, they are the most entrepreneurial, innovative people that I know. They go into classrooms every single day and create learning and safety and love out of nothing, out of no resources, out of – against the odds, right? They are innovators. They create something from nothing every single day, and I think we as a society often forget that, and sometimes I honestly think in going with our talk that we as entrepreneurial communities sometimes forget that, you know? And it’s easy to find teachers and transfer that, because they know. The other thing is, as an entrepreneur sometimes the stress you traffic in is – the stress that you sort of traffic in is, like, money, right? You think about raising money, or your runway, your bottom line, all these sorts of things. The reason why I find that just less stressful is because as a teacher, my bottom line was, like, love and safety. It’s always, like, is there enough emotion here? Is there enough safety here for my students? Is there enough love here for my students? Am I showing enough kindness? Are they showing enough kindness to each other? Is there enough human interaction? Those things are just worth more. The stuff that we do has a price. This stuff that teachers do just doesn’t.
[Ching] Yeah, I think that what Aditya said about teachers being most innovative every single day and making so much out of nothing is really beautiful, but I think one thing that they don’t know is that they can see themselves outside that space also as leaders in innovation, outside the classroom. And I think – not necessarily to say by leaving the classroom, but by really – what we were saying before – by building these meaningful partnerships with other people. I think that’s at the core of all of the things we talked about today. I know that it’s empathy, but I really think that empathy is built out of community and that’s what needs to happen the most.
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[Pius] Our closing music is from “Late for School” by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons Attribution License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs, and you can support Pios Labs at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.
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