Are All-Girls Engineering Classes Different?
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Episode Show Notes
Teachers at all-girls schools might have insights on how to engage more young people – especially girls – into engineering. Several teachers at The Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin shared their thoughts in this two-part episode. In Part 1 (01:15) we hear from Shamaa and Shireen, two high school engineering teachers, and then in Part 2 (28:50) we hear from Patience, Simon, and Kristina, three middle school engineering and STEM teachers. They discuss teaching in a small school, differences between all-girls classes and co-ed classes, the importance of school culture, Project Lead The Way curriculum, advice for parents, and more.
Our closing music is called “Girl” by Miros, used with permission, and you can find more tracks by Miros on SoundCloud, user mirossound.
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.
Pius Wong 0:00
You're listening to The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for October 30th, 2017. Companies and colleges are talking a lot these days about how to attract and retain more women and girls in engineering and tech. Part of the answer may be in our K through 12 schools. I spoke to several teachers at an all-girls school to try to gain a little perspective and reflect on how we teach engineering to young people today. Listen up to the conversation in two parts, next.
Pius Wong 0:43
I'm Pius Wong. I am in Austin, Texas, and on the south side of town there is an all-girls public school that happens to teach multiple types of engineering classes to its students. This combined middle and high school is the Ann Richards School, named after the 45th governor of Texas, by the way, and in Part One of this episode, you can hear my conversation with two high school engineering teachers there. Later in this episode in Part Two, I speak with the middle school engineering teachers. Now, let's hear from teachers Shireen and Shamaa.
Okay. I'm Shireen Dadmehr, and I teach at the Ann Richards School in Austin, Texas. And currently I'm teaching AP Calculus, AP Computer Science, Digital Electronics, which is the engineering course for our 11th graders, and Algebra 1 for our little ninth graders.
My name is Shamaa Laxshmanan, and I'm also a teacher at the school. This year I am teaching Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 and Introduction to Engineering Design, which is our ninth grade engineering course.
Pius Wong 1:49
So Shireen and Shamaa, what kind of school is the Ann Richards School?
It's a school of choice. We have all sixth graders through twelfth graders. We do not have cream-of-the-crop kids that people think, like, oh, you only have to have certain grades to get in. So we have a nice -- We have a diverse school, which makes it -- It's one of the many things that makes it phenomenal. There's an application process, and anyone from a -- Out of 20 points, if you get 13 points or higher roughly, you get put in the lottery and you're chosen. So we have 65% maybe free and reduced lunch, 65 or so percent Hispanic, and it's awesome.
So to add to that, like in the lottery situation, we do take -- 75% of our lottery gets pulled from Title One schools, and 25% gets pulled from non-Title One schools. So that's how we try and maintain the balance of it. Our focus is to get girls who are first generation in their family, both graduating high school and graduating college, to and through college.
And I said it's an all girls School, yeah? Okay.
Pius Wong 3:01
And if not, I will have said it in an introduction somewhere. So it's an all-girls school. You serve a wide range of kids, a diversity of kids, a wide age range, too, right? Is it from middle school to high school?
Six through twelve, yeah. Like you said, it's diverse in socioeconomic background and racial and ethnic background and in age, and ability and skill for sure.
And interest level. When they get to the ninth through twelfth grade, they have to pick a pathway. And they have one of three choices. They have media tech, they have biomedical engineering, or they have engineering pathway. So every year they take a course in one of those pathway fields.
Pius Wong 3:43
Interesting. Engineering is required, even if they don't necessarily say, I want to do engineering,
They get a choice. After eighth grade, they get to choose which pathway they want. And so they don't necessarily all of them go into engineering. But yes, they have one class out of eight, which is their pathway course, all through their high school career. And then in middle school, we have STEM and Project Lead The Way classes for sixth, seventh, and eighth. It's what we call the required elective. So they got [laughs] It's an elective, but they got to choose it. They have to take it. Yeah. And in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade is just kind of a hodgepodge of STEM focus, STEAM-focused --
Pius Wong 4:25
So you are into the STEAM acronym.
We have a phenomenal art department.
Yeah, and we went from STEM to STEAM probably about three or four years ago. And this whole school is a STEAM-focused school. Our main mission is to get more girls STEAM-focused.
Pius Wong 4:40
Cool. I think the people in Central Texas or in Austin do know the reputation of Ann Richards School, but thank you for explaining that. There's a lot of people listening who may not know Ann Richards. I'm really happy that you could meet me and talk to me. And the reason why, as I already told you off the record, is that I'm interested in learning about how to teach engineering and computer science to classes of all girls. And you obviously have a lot of experience with that. How long have you all been teaching at Ann Richards, or in general?
I've taught here since we opened. So this is my 11th year here, but I've been teaching for 15 years.
And I've taught since they first had high school classes. So it's my ninth year here. And it's my 21st year of teaching.
Pius Wong 5:23
And you were always teaching engineering?
No, I wasn't even -- Well, neither of us were, but I wasn't planning on teaching. I started out in Jersey, and I had a math degree, and I worked in industry in math. And then for two years, did not like it. So I got an alternate route certificate. And so I spent six years working in Jersey. Then I was six years at Aikins, and this is my ninth year in Richards. So I was a math person, but in my interview, as they seem to do in small schools, and especially in this school, one of the questions was: How would you feel about teaching engineering? I'm like, yeah, sure, whatever. And so we went to a PLTW summer course. And at that time I taught the IED, the ninth grade engineering. And so as we build up the grade levels, and we got to the 11th grade, they said, How would you feel about teaching Digital Electronics? And so yeah, that'll be great. So I went to training, and then Miss Laxshmanan picked up the IED, and I'll let her tell you her story.
Pius Wong 6:25
So IED is the Intro to Engineering Design at Project Lead The Way, PLTW? Okay. And Shamaa, you were an engineer, right?
So I graduated from UT with a mechanical engineering degree, and I was in industry for almost four years. I worked in R&D, research and development, for a semiconductor company doing photolithography. And then, about four years into it was the tech bust of 2003-4 that hit Austin. And so I was gifted the opportunity to reevaluate my life. And I went into teaching, and I became a sixth grade math teacher at Keeling. That's where I met Miss Goka. And then I came over here and taught middle school math, and then as we increased and had higher levels of kids, then I traveled up with them, math. And then I also did some middle school STEM/STEAM elective courses as well.
Pius Wong 7:16
Because Ann Richards started out teaching younger --
Sixth and seventh grade.
Pius Wong 7:19
Okay, and as they aged up, you expanded.
Every year they added a grade. And we've had five graduating classes now. And our first graduating class just graduated from college, so that's cool.
Pius Wong 7:31
Pius Wong 7:32
It's all us.
Pius Wong 7:39
So I just want to know first of all your personal experience teaching engineering classes. What do you think about it? Is it fun? Is it creat -- just generally what do you think?
It's awesome. The Intro to Engineering Design is like a visual design, industrial design class. So it's a lot of creative product design, and we're on CAD, AutoCAD, 3D Inventor.
Pius Wong 8:04
So a lot of mechanical stuff.
Yes. And that's actually what I did when I was in industry. I was on Inventor a lot creating stuff. So I enjoy it tremendously just because I still get to tap into that part of my old life and then show the girls what they can do. It's awesome.
Pius Wong 8:22
And Shireen, you do a more electronics class.
Digital electronics. So right now -- for the people in the future, right now, it's September, and they're soldering, so it's the first time they've been soldering. It seems to be one of the favorite units of the year, because, you know: Can we solder? Because what I love about the whole digital electronics class and soldering and all the things that we're going to be doing is, everything seems so difficult and insurmountable to begin with. And then we're like, go do it, you can do it. And then once you do something challenging, then you -- like, the world is your oyster. You think you can do -- or you know you can do other stuff, right? So just like: Bring it. It's not something scary that -- oh my God, soldering, I'm going to be horrible. It's: All right, let me just see if I can tackle this problem. So it's a lot of just: Go make some mistakes, play, figure it out. Be scared, but do it anyway.
Pius Wong 9:16
And so they're building off of their experience in an engineering class before this, though. It's the second class?
Well, in the PLTW curriculum, which is awesome, the four classes we have really don't mesh with each other much.
We have a sequence, but like, Digital Electronics is not dependent on the pre -- So, like, our first year is Introduction to Engineering Design, which is a lot of just visual design stuff, not too much in hardcore engineering principles. And then the second year is Principles of Engineering. So they learn more about mechanics and thermodynamics and civil engineering and actual, like, stability and statics and dynamics, and then third year is Digital Electronics. So those three are not too terribly related to each other. And then their fourth year is a EDD, which is Engineering Design and Development. And it's a capstone class. And I think in that class they do utilize all of their engineering tools that they have learned from us throughout those three years.
So in that class, they pick a project they're passionate about. So maybe some people love the digital electronics, so that's the path they would go. Maybe some people really love the mechanical engineering, so that's the way they would go.
Pius Wong 10:29
How does your teaching experience here at Ann Richards compare to any other experience you've had? Whether it's in an all-girls school or otherwise? Is it different from other experiences?
Absolutely. I think it's been shaded, because I've been here for so long that I forget what it was before. To have them all in a group, I feel like they're a little bit more comfortable taking risks together. They're not -- They don't shy away, which I think girls tend to do in a heterogeneous mixture, and especially in sort of an engineering class, I feel. So we have a makerspace in the back that has all the, you know, drills, saws, all sorts of things. And it's awesome to watch our sixth and seventh graders just go at it, and cut stuff, and drill holes, and I don't know if they would necessarily feel as confident in doing that in a mixed environment, or have the ability to, because sometimes boys take over in engineering classes. And usually the balance of girls to boys is not necessarily balanced at all. There's fewer girls than there are boys, so then the boys really takeover. And here you can't shy away. You've got to do it. There's no shying away from it.
I think part of it is: It's all girl, so it's like, well you're doing it, I gotta do it, etc. But I think also part of it is: We're a small school. So 700 kids for seven grades, about 700, 800. So you can't be invisible. But then I also think another key part other than just all-girls, not all-girls, is that, that's the culture that's been set up. And it's just expected of you. You will be a leader. You will try something. You will go and try that bandsaw. And it's just expected, so it's sort of like peer pressure pushing you to actually do things that you think you can't do.
I don't know if you saw all of those ropes courses outside in the front. They're big, old, wooden crazy structures. Our seventh graders created those.
Pius Wong 12:31
Okay, I'll make sure to go out there.
So they're ropes course activities. They designed it. They built it. It was one of their seventh grade interdisciplinary projects.
Also, the cool thing is that the teachers are pushed, too. You can't just sit on your laurels. So that was an awesome teacher or two or three that actually designed that unit for them. Like, hey, this would be a great thing for the seventh graders and created it all from their heads. And then now it's just a thing. They do it every two or -- It's been done for two or three years.
Pius Wong 13:04
Yeah, Shireen, you're kind of tackling one of the questions that I wanted to ask anyway. I wondered how much of what you see in your classrooms is a result of it being an all-girls classroom and how much of it is it because it's Ann Richards? And it's that culture, and it's, you know, your colleagues, that kind of thing.
I'd say it's almost more culture.
Yeah. I feel like -- Yes, because you're around excellence. And even though you might not always successfully reach it. [laughs] Let me rephrase that, since I'm --
Pius Wong 13:39
You're pointing exactly at her.
You're like, oh -- I've got to use my language properly -- gosh, golly. You know, this is what's expected. And I should, you know -- What can I try that's out of my comfort level? And what can I experiment? And the nice thing about our administration is that, if we say, Oh, we want to try this activity, or I'll try this project, like: Go for it. It's not like, wow, that failed, you're a horrible teacher. It's like, wow, that failed, what did you learn from it? Can you make it better? And go, you, for trying something different?
Pius Wong 14:13
And is that unique? Is that culture unique compared to your experiences or experiences you've heard about?
Yes. Yes, it is. To have the ability to fail as a teacher usually doesn't happen, right? And we try out stuff. You can ask the girls. Sometimes they feel like they're guinea pigs, because we try out new things constantly. That's one amazing and awesome thing about this place, is that twenty, fifteen years into it, like, we change our curriculum almost every single year.
Pius Wong 14:42
That's really unique.
So it is the culture, but then also backing it up is, like, we're trying to design the best curriculum and the best learning experience for our girls and our students. So we always have that in mind as well, too.
Pius Wong 14:57
Has anything ever not worked out that you've tried?
Oh yeah. [laughs] Let me count the ways.
Pius Wong 15:04
Any warnings for other teachers of what not to do?
Because you have to go through it, right? You learn from your mistakes, and you --
You don't know what's going to go wrong.
No. And you might take a nugget of something that actually went well in that project, and then you're able to build upon that goodness to create a better project.
But then I feel like that's a nice model to show the kids too, right? You're like, well, I'm working -- Because we're trying something new in Algebra 1 this year. And we're sort of going by the seat of our pants. And sometimes we're like, you know what, that didn't quite work out well, and then let's adjust it this little way and go on from there. But I think that's a good thing to model for just humans. Like, look at me trying something new and failing, but not going, like, oh my god, you know, putting your tail between your legs and going back to your comfort zone. It's just pushing on and trying something else. And what's the worst thing that can happen?
You burn yourself with a soldering iron.
There you go. Singe some hair.
Our second year, their 10th grade class is a DAP year. So it's a Distinguished Achievement Plan. And when you said, "starting stuff and failing stuff," I just think of Ana Jo and all of the stuff that she tried. She was our old POE teacher. But there's trailers in the back that the kids renovated. There's a greenhouse. She kind of motivated me. She tried new things every year. Like, let's gut a trailer and redesign it. Let's create a greenhouse.
Pius Wong 16:27
So that was the more open-ended design class, Principles of Engineering.
Yes. And they have a capstone or cornerstone.
Yeah. And her theory was, she says: Well, you know, the kids come like, Well, I don't know how to do this part of it. And she goes, I don't either. Let's go research it, or you go research it and teach me how to do it. So it's a nice, collaborative design.
Pius Wong 16:47
Would you say that the students here, their level of knowledge or comfort with not knowing something and trying it any way, that this is different at Ann Richards compared other schools or other experiences?
Again, we can't speak for every single school, and I've taught at only two other schools. I think you don't get comfortable making mistakes and try new things until you actually make mistakes and try new things and say, oh, it wasn't so bad, right? Just somebody telling you that it won't be bad, go for it, you know, you might be hesitant because you're going to look like a fool, you're going to do this or that. But here's, it's like, go, you know, jump in the water and see if you can swim. If you can't, we're gonna help you out, and then you go try some other way to swim or whatever.
And I think the small learning community aids in that ability to go and take risks. The girls are super, super supportive of each other.
Pius Wong 17:50
I wanted to briefly talk about research as well. So I'm trying to look at whatever research I can about single gender classrooms, especially with regards to STEM. So based on what I've found, and I'm wondering if you could help clarify my understanding of it all, I seem to find that the research is not consistent. It's not conclusive. Like, you might have an all girls classroom in physics. And in one study, it's great, and in another study it doesn't do anything, and in another study, it might be a little worse. Same thing for math, for science. So my interpretation is that there are a lot more important factors than just all-boys, all-girls --
Or as important.
Pius Wong 18:26
Or as important. Is that an accurate interpretation?
Because if you have a teacher or an administration that is doing things in a certain way that's not open to being successful by making mistakes and such, then that's going to filter through as a message, and you're just gonna like, Well, okay, they tell me this, they say that we're all girls, but, you know, it's still a certain way.
Pius Wong 18:52
Okay. The culture is much more important, for example, or the teacher, that kind of thing.
The culture. Yeah I definitely think --
It's as important. But I want to say, I think that even if we had the small school environment, and if we had boys, I think it would be different. I think they're all equally as important. But yeah, it's not just one thing, like, oh, if we just do that, it's going to perfect. I think you need a mix of it.
Yeah, I agree with all of that.
Because yeah, of course you do.
Because you're amazing.
Pius Wong 19:17
You agree with smart people, and everyone's smart. Okay. One other criticism that I've heard, I'm wondering if you could respond to it, is that, whenever you have a single gender classroom, if it's all-boys schools, I've heard this, or all-girls schools, that, especially in engineering, because it's supposed to be team-based, you're maybe training people not to work with people who are different from you. Like, they don't get used to working with boys, or the all-boys school doesn't know how to work with girls. What do you say to that criticism?
As you see in this classroom, there's no desks, so you're forced to work with people. And just because you're all girls doesn't mean you're all the same. Like, we have kids, you know -- the kids that things come easy to in a particular topic, that don't come easy to. Kids that are very loud. Kids that are very quiet because they're shy kids or whatever. So you still have that mix. And not that it's always successful, but you're forced to work with people in a group here. And it's a safe environment to be like, oh, that didn't work out so well. So, you know, as an adult, I have to go work in groups, too, and this model was successful. You know what I'm saying? Like, you know, some people, there's personality clashes. But I think now that you -- Yeah, like this lady over here. But now that you're forced to do it, and you have some resources to pull from when you have to do it later on. Well, we've found from some of our girls that have gone to college -- So I have a student, she was all my student, nobody else taught her [sarcastically]. And she's a computer science major at UT. And she was talking about: She's in groups and she's in a group of boys. And she had this example of, you know, they were trying to solve a problem. She's like, Well, what about this? And she's not a wilting flower type of -- She's like, what about this method of solution? And she said, they all ignored her, or they go on trying to tackle it again. And another boy, a boy, proposes the same solution, like, whew, that's a great solution. And so she's like, what? And then some other girls, and it's not an all-girls school thing, but we force our girls to talk and to present and to, like, talk to strangers and all this. Well, you know, not stranger dangerous, but, you know, strangers that are safe, safe strangers at school. So when they go to college, and they come back and report sometimes that, like, well, I'm the only one that asked questions in class, or I'm the only one that speaks up, or I'm the only one that goes and gets help from my professors. So I think part of -- I don't remember what your original question was. But part of the success of the school is, you're forced to advocate for yourself and you're forced to speak up and participate.
Pius Wong 21:53
In any situation, whether there's boys or girls. Okay.
Pius Wong 21:58
Whatever these kids -- Or whatever your students are learning now in Ann Richards, how much of that -- How similar is that to the workplace? Are they doing the same thing?
Yeah, I mean for me, for my almost four years at the company that I was at, I was on AutoCAD inventor creating mechanical parts. And that's what we do in IED. They're on the full-blown engineering version of AutoCAD Inventor. And they're going through the whole design process. So it's completely equal and similar, and the capstone class that they have as a senior, which is EDD, is super, super similar to my capstone mechanical design K classes at UT.
Pius Wong 22:41
What you were doing in college.
Pius Wong 22:44
Was that with Dr. Crawford or something?
Yes, it was. Yep. So super similar.
Yeah. And same for -- So here's the table of contents for digital electronics, and I had gone to ACC for some training. And I'd heard back from kids that did electrical engineering in college. And I'm like, Oh my God, we're doing the same thing. So they learn right now the little resistors and capacitors, a little bit. They are soldering, but then they go to circuit theory. Then they talk about basic gates, they talk about truth tables, they talk about logic analysis, like, I've created my circuit and there's a mistake, what should I do? So here's basic truth tables that we do. Then they take it to MultiSim. So by the end of the course, they can just get a statement, and they know how to set up the logic table. They know how to set up the circuit, you know, drop the circuit, then they can actually put it on a simulation, see if it works, and they know how to breadboard it and test it out. And if something goes wrong, they know how to figure it out, so that's cool.
They're our articulated courses, so some of our students get college credit for it.
And we touch on 7-segment displays, state machines, flip-flops. So I take notes with my kids, but these are the notes. So if they take those to college, it's stuff they're going to use.
Pius Wong 24:06
Awesome. How many of them end up studying engineering or computer science in college?
We've had the first couple of graduating classes, I don't think it was such a high percentage, but I felt the last year, we had -- our graduating class was super small. There's only 47. And we had in the engineering pathway, there was ten, and all ten majored in engineering. And then I would say like, I wouldn't say 100% of the girls that go through the engineering pathway do major in engineering, but it's a high, decent percentage. And also she hasn't said anything, but she's also a computer science teacher, and she has inspired many kids to go through computer science, so it's a good, hefty amount. Something to be proud of, I feel
Pius Wong 24:53
Now, whether or not they graduated with an engineering degree. [laughs] They started out as an engineer, but yeah.
Pius Wong 25:00
Okay. And do you have any questions that you wonder about as teachers, regarding how to better teach your kids?
All the time. All the time. [laughs]
Yeah, we're constantly searching the internet. We're constantly looking at blogs and Twitter, and there are secret Facebook groups. I don't know if you know this, but there are secret Facebook groups for AP Calculus, AP Computer Science, and I'm sure for other stuff. So there's a lot of sharing, because otherwise you're working in a vacuum. And then you just -- You're potentially missing out on some great ideas of how to teach. So there's a world of information out there. And if you just ask the questions, people are happy to share.
And one of our main goals to think about the last couple of years is the idea of compliance versus engagement. So like a kid could look like they're engaged but they're actually just being compliant, you know? And so like how -- And that's our kind of our new thing, like, how do you assess if they're being compliant, because we have great kids that will do what you ask, versus being completely engaged in the lesson. So that's probably my question, is how teachers assess compliance versus engagement in their classroom
Pius Wong 26:19
Is there any way that you teach differently for an all-girls classroom or majority girls classroom? And what are some of those ways, if so? I see you are nodding your head, Shireen.
I am nodding my head. And I don't know if it's a human condition or it's a teenager condition or if it's a teenage girl or it's just a girl condition. But it's a lot of -- But so I've seen the research, right? There'll be adult men and adult women in a workplace. And you know, they'll ask, like, Who wants to go try this, and how did you think you did on this? And even if they both actually knew 70% of it, guys that know 70% are like, Yeah, I got this. Bring it. And girls that know 70%, it's like, Well, I'm not that good at it, I'm only like at 70% in my mind, so me, I'm not that good at it.
Or even lowball it, right? They're at 70 but they think that they're at 40.
Yes. I think part of the thing is just getting the, like, no, you're awesome go do it. Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can. So it's a lot of the pushing yes. I don't care 70%. 70% is awesome, and so it's not the "fake it till you make it," but it's the -- not the cockiness. You just have to have the, whatever, fill in the blank. I'm getting old with the little brain thing going, but like, you have to have the confidence to be like, You know what? I might not know it --
But I know enough. Yet. And let me just go do stuff. Yeah, growth mindset. Let me just -- Yes, I'm capable. I'm the person for this job. So I think a lot of the -- And again, so I teach hard classes. I'm like, you got this. You got it. You know, it's like, oh, no, I messed up on this one little thing, so I'm a horrible person. No, you mess up on one little thing, you know the whole big picture. So a lot of it is not confidence-building but confidence-revealing.
Pius Wong 28:03
These are my quotable phrases.
I totally agree with all of that. And a lot of it, though, it's like, I don't think we necessarily go into lessons thinking, Okay, I have all girls, how am I going to design -- It's best practices for all kids and any kids. But like she was saying, it's a lot of confidence-revealing. Like, get off the cliff. You're going to be fine. And if you make a mistake, then it's okay, you know?
Not a good analogy. We do not kick them off a cliff. [laughs]
Pius Wong 28:34
All right, thank you very much. That was Shireen and Shamaa from Ann Richards School here in Austin.
Pius Wong 28:49
Now that we heard from the high school teachers, let's continue on with middle school. On another day that I visited Ann Richards School, I sat down with engineering teachers Christina, Simon, and Patience, right outside their makerspace.
My name is Patience Blythe, and I teach seventh graders engineering and design via the PLTW program, Project Lead The Way program, but I do specific design focus.
I'm Simon Mangiaracina, I teach the sixth grade STEM class here at Ann Richards, and I also use, in part, the Project Lead The Way curriculum for Flight in Space and Energy and the Environment.
I'm Kristina Read, and I teach the eighth grade version of our PLTW curriculum, which focuses not only on the pathways that they'll be choosing in high school -- so engineering, media, tech and biomed -- but I also focus on, how do you actually make a project go from start to end? By the time they get to eighth grade, it's basically like, Hey, what do you want to do? And then I give them the tools, and the resources to figure out how to do their passion.
We're a that is focused on young women's empowerment and leadership, with a particular focus on STEM education.
I'm going to add to that, in that our focus on STEM is not necessarily just what typically is regarded as STEM, but we try to blur the lines a little bit, in the sense of understanding how STEM applies to a lot of different disciplines, academic disciplines, even from art to civics to language and language arts, and try to get people to understand how it's inextricably linked to most aspects of our society.
Pius Wong 30:37
So you integrate English and civics and art in each of your classes. You're all nodding, okay.
Yeah, I'd say there's a big initiative on campus to really go after the interdisciplinary connections in all of our classes. So regardless of what project you're in, or what class you're working in, you're trying to make those cross-curricular connections as often as possible.
Pius Wong 30:59
Why is this important for your students? Because you guys teach the middle school level up to eighth grade. Why is that important to do that at that level?
Well, increasingly, we're in a world where knowledge is no longer locked down to one person or one resource. All of the world's knowledge is available to our students. And I think by showing them how to connect knowledge enables them to use that knowledge more efficiently, then perhaps, you know, learners 50 or 60 years ago did. And I think that interdisciplinary approach is something that employers are expecting, because as our world is more interconnected, they're looking for people who can expand just beyond their one field of interest.
Yeah, I also think that as we try to recruit more young women and girls in engineering in particular, it's important to make those cross-curricular connections, to make the subject more approachable and more relatable, especially at that younger age.
And I think also the interdisciplinary education fosters a sense of resilience. And also it's a very real-world experience at that point. It's more akin to what they're going to experience as adults. And I think that resilience piece, that we give them an understanding of the connections and how things interrelate, is going to seem to spur them forward in a more real-world way.
Pius Wong 32:19
How do you have time for that? Because it seems like you'd be filling their days with lots and lots of stuff, which sounds awesome, but like, yeah, realistically, how can you plan that for sixth graders, seventh graders, eighth graders?
It's a constant work in progress. I mean, a lot of these projects, they'd make those connections across the disciplines, these are years in the making. You know, we start small, and every year, we build on it, and so that when you see one of these projects that's very successful here on campus, that's not just something we whipped up in a matter of weeks before that class got started. This is something we've been collaborating with our peers, our teachers here at school, for a number of years, and really building these up.
Pius Wong 33:01
You were telling me earlier that you're also under the Career in Tech Ed department, I guess. And so do you have to prepare your students for standardized tests that kind of thing or meet some some state standards?
No. Our classes don't have STAAR tests. So we do have some TEKS, but they're very, very general. So we're lucky in that we can pull TEKS from other disciplines if we want to, if that's applicable, or we can look sort of forward, which I think is what we do. We look forward to high school, and we really think about propelling them in that direction.
Yeah, as far as the TEKS go, I really focus much more closely the grade level science and math TEKS, because I see my role here as someone who should be making those connections constantly. So those same skills they're using in their science class and their math class are coming back to my class and being applied to whatever project we're working with. So we're in a lot of close communication with those science and math teachers at the same time, to make sure we're hitting those skill sets.
So prior to this, I taught astronomy and science, and the astronomy class I taught was an elective. And so it was primarily males who were white, and between the ages of 16 and 18 years old, and it was a very different dynamic, because oftentimes, they were coming from a background where their parents expected them to go into engineering, or they already had like experience in calculus. And a lot of them were very, very focused on, like, this is what we want to do with our life. And this is what we're going to do. And often if I had a girl in that class, she was either there because she thought, Oh, well, maybe this is interesting, maybe I should try it, but maybe didn't necessarily have family support. Or sometimes she was in it just by accident. She didn't have space in her schedule And so actually that was kind of what piqued my interest on single sex education, because I was like, Whoa, this is so -- I didn't feel like -- up until that point, I didn't feel like there was a difference. I just kind of made everyone's, like, everyone's the same, until I realized that no, maybe they're not. And so having that kind of in my mind, like, that's what that classroom look like, and that's what students who had family support to be in a higher level class look like, how can I transfer that into my classes here? And I think really, just the big difference is just background knowledge. Because back to the astronomy thing, is that these students had parents who were highly educated already. They had the support of maybe older siblings who had already gone through this kind of pathway and had that, and I feel like, if you can give a student that support, then they can do it. And so I feel like my role here definitely is, if the students don't have the family support to be involved in the sciences, then where else can I find that support system? So a lot of it is like finding mentors, finding other people on campus. And then a lot of times, it's just me to support this person into being involved enough with the science and having those backgrounds, so they can pursue those more challenging careers.
Pius Wong 36:29
Kristina, it sounds like your students, even though it is a different age group, they're very different because they don't have they don't necessarily have family who's been an engineer or in computer science or any of those fields. Is it required to take your classes here? Or do you teach electives?
Yes, our classes are required because the admin sees that it's very, very important to have that class that connects science and technology and math, in order for our students to really see that this is something that permeates the world around us.
Pius Wong 37:01
I saw you guys nodding. Did you have anything to add?
I taught science for seven years. So I started teaching science about 13 years ago and always taught coed environments. And then I ended up teaching art for a few years before I came to Ann Richards. This is my first experience with single sex education. And I also didn't really know what to expect, as far as the differences. What I've noticed is, the biggest difference is that girls in a single gender environment, I think, feel more confident to express themselves either positively or if they need help, or they're willing to take more risks. And what I noticed in my science classrooms, my coed science classrooms -- I've always taught middle school -- is that girls tended to be very quiet. They wouldn't necessarily advocate for themselves or ask questions, because I think of the boys in the class. And so in this environment, what I notice is that everybody asks questions. They're very free. They're very open to being challenged. And if they need help, they have that space, that there's like a safe space aspect to it, which I really welcome. And I think for middle school students, I think it's a very powerful benefit.
One of the things we place a lot of emphasis here on this campus is sisterhood. And so it's this idea that the girls are sisters. They're supporting each other. And so what I've had to do to sort of shift my approach to engineering and my understanding of how an engineering class gets taught, is that things are moving more towards the realm of collaboration, and less such as competition. Because so many of those engineering design challenges tend to be competitive in nature, if you think about, like, robotics competitions, or just like structural engineering stuff that gets done in the classroom. And what I found is that our students tend to respond more to the collaborative challenges, where the things that they're building, the things that they're doing, becomes sort of this team effort that has a greater, broader application than just being better than someone else. And I think that's really, really powerful. And it's taken me a few years to sort of witness that and embrace that and see how much better off our girls are in an engineering environment with that kind of parameter. So it's been a really amazing experience to see that first-person.
Pius Wong 39:22
Tell me about the perceptions that your students have before they come into your class. Like when they're younger, do they have any misconceptions about what engineering is? And just so you understand the context, I'm thinking about what other people have told me. I just re-listened to a conversation that I had with some nonprofit organizers, GirlStart and some other nonprofit where they serve middle school girls and try to bring them STEM experiences. And they told me, at that age girls are already, like, eliminating career options if they think it's stupid or something, as opposed to maybe boys who don't care as much. Do you see that? Do to your girls think engineering is something before they even get here?
I mean, I think we dispel any of those notions that the girls might have, any of those preconceived notions, pretty early on. I don't see a lot of that anymore. But every now and again, I'll encounter a kid who does have that vision of, like, the man in the white lab coat and the glasses or something, but I don't hear that from the kids as much anymore. And I think because there's been so many initiatives like GirlStart that are bringing young women into the classroom as role models. I really think it's made a huge difference. Because my new sixth graders this year, I don't see any of that sort of squeamishness around the topic of engineering anymore as often.
I was talking to a colleague yesterday about how I went to a science and math magnet school outside of Houston, and that engineering was not offered as a course. And I was actually -- I'm really bummed about it now, because I think it would have been a really great thing. I went to high school like 20 years ago, so it was a long time ago. But what I often think about is, there was already built into my high school experience that perception of engineers ss not even being something that was connected even to high school at all. I think that we definitely -- we bump up against those gender biases a lot. And I think a lot of those are sort of unspoken, but I think if we're actively -- If we're proactive about communicating that engineering is a field that is open to all people, then we'll slowly start to chip away at those perceptions. It just takes time.
Pius Wong 41:37
What other ways can you do that? You said you bring in role models. I guess you're explicitly telling them. So it's not this implied thing. Is there anything else?
Well, actually, I've had -- I think a lot of it is just in the small experiences. I actually had a group that is based out of Austin that's creating software for education. And we just connected at one point. And I was like, hey, wouldn't it be cool if y'all showed your software to my students and have them basically give you feedback on it? And they're like, Oh, yeah, that makes sense. We're developing educational software, we should have, like, students look at it and tell us if they like it. And so they came by just the other day. And the students that I had -- you know, this is the first time they had worked with just an all-girls group. And the students were very focused on the user experience, which they thought was so -- they were so amazed by that. And they were just like, Whoa, the stuff you've given us is stuff that our engineers at our company who have done this for most of their lives haven't even picked up on. And they're asking our girls, Where did you -- how did you know to look for this? And it became more of a conversation with the girls telling them what they learned and what they understood about the design of their product. And then after that the students were like, So what is UX? What is this? So it's one of those things where I hadn't even mentioned it to them at all. And it was a brand new career for them that they could explore and be interested in. So a lot of it is just offering diverse opportunities. This really wasn't going to be something where I thought the girls were going to come away thinking this is a career I want. I really thought it'd just be like a fun little like afternoon activity. And it could have changed those girls lives.
Pius Wong 43:24
Yeah, it sounds like a good technique for anyone to use regardless of if it's a single sex classroom or not. But you all were saying that there are some unique aspects of teaching an all-girls classroom. Do you change how you teach your classrooms at all compared to past classes that you've had that were coed?
I don't think so. Not significantly. And I think I still approach the way I teach the same way. I mean the topic is a little bit different, but my focus as a teacher is on relationship building. And you know, creating a space where students can take risks. And that's been consistent the whole time that I've been a teacher. I think what I'd noticed is this, though. The real significant difference I see here is just the confidence of the students, and the willingness to take risks earlier on and be more innovative, themselves.
Yeah, I'd say any effective classroom teacher is going to adapt to the needs of that class. And so to say, like, Oh, I teach differently, because it's all-girls or all-boys, it's more nuanced than that. It's like, what do these particular kids need right now? And you've got to adjust to that. So I can't really speak to, you know, one gender or another, one sex or anothers. It's: what do these girls need right now?
Pius Wong 44:48
And what do your girls need right now? Like, you said something about confidence, or just in general when you are teaching engineering and middle schoolers -- Because a lot of people listening don't even know what that's like. What do middle schoolers need when it comes to teaching them engineering, as opposed to older kids?
Yeah, they need a place where they can make a lot of mistakes. And so it's like giving them room to be comfortable making those mistakes in front of each other and then pick it up and try again. And so I'm talking about a lot of the math skills that they may or may not have coming into sixth grade, but also when it just comes to learning anything new, that it is okay to not know and to try and to learn by doing. And so I mean, that looks a little different for every single kid. But it's really about giving them room to do that, and to not be ashamed when it doesn't go right. To own it and say, I did this. I tried this, and I'm going to try it again.
Yeah, I think uncertainty is the most important thing. Like, being able to give them space where they can be uncertain, and not have to be pursuing an answer, so that they're focused more on their process of learning versus the results. I think that's the biggest difference.
So because I do bring in a lot of experts in the field into my classroom, the experts in the field really are focused with the end result. But their perspective on it that they always share with the students is: Make the mistakes now while you still can. And hearing that actually helps boost their confidence more, because it's like, oh, by making these mistakes, now, I'm going to be a better engineer in the future, I'm going to be a better, you know, researcher, whatever pursuit they have in mind. And so to have them say, hey, make the mistakes now, don't make them all in the field, but make them now, I think gives the students an awareness of, like, why are we making these mistakes? Why are we learning from these? Oh, so we don't make them again, or if we do them again, it's a different mistake. And I think that's something that I think -- Sometimes when you read education blogs and stuff, they talk a lot about failing forward. And they talk about like, oh, failure is, like, growth mindset. But they sometimes skirt over the fact that eventually you do want to come to a successful product. But how you come to that is going to be different for every student.
Pius Wong 47:15
I'm glad you say that, because I feel like that's the same thing -- People are saying, Yeah, fail all the time, right now, which is true, but then the engineer cannot be exploding their shuttles in the future. Yeah. Not every day, maybe in a simulation or something. But OK, cool. And do you have any advice for other teachers who teach young kids or older kids that maybe you picked up while you were here at Ann Richards?
Well, I think I would say to young -- if a younger teacher or younger version of myself or somebody else, I would say, trust your hunches about how you want to teach. Find an environment that supports you exploring those hunches. and be willing to not have it figured out immediately. Like, for example, the first time I taught a class like my class now was 13 years ago, in this building when it was a different school, and I had a science elective. And it was the first time I played with this idea. It took 10 years after that, for me to actually be able to figure out how to put it into a class. But I trusted myself the whole way through. So I think if you have a -- I mean, I think to really find what you're passionate about, you're excited about, and find some people that will support you in that. And if you can't find -- if that's not where you're at right now, and you want to follow this hunch of yours or this dream of yours, go to a place where you find that to be the case. And that's really important, because this job is really hard, and it can make you be exhausted and feel sort of beaten, unless you have that kind of an environment.
Yeah, I want to give Patience a high five right now. [high five] I would say to any other teachers who are out there, younger teachers who are just getting started, like, if you're not happy with what you're doing, then find a place that is going to support you and will allow you to be happy, so that you can follow those things that you're passionate about and share those with your students. There's a lot of schools out there, so don't get boxed in. I mean, it's hard. I mean, I'm lucky to be here. But yeah, I'd say like, if there's ideas for projects and stuff that you have, that you're passionate about, find a way to connect it to the curriculum that you're teaching. Because the more excited you are about what you're doing, the more excited your kids are going to be.
Pius Wong 49:37
Any advice for parents or families of these kids when it comes to learning engineering or supporting your kid when it comes to engineering? And so Christina, you're saying, Oh, yeah.
This actually ties into your last question, as well. One of the things that has benefited me the most is to let the parents know what you're doing in your class, because they can come in and be like, hey, I do this other thing, and I can share this with your students. And I can give you that approach of like, Hey, this is what my version of this project looks like in my job. Or even at just like a, I guess, a more intimate level, that parent can have those conversations with their student. And so I actually start parent night, when the parents come to me, I always start off my conversations with the parents the same way. And like, your job is to share your passions with your student. Their teenagers are going to act like they don't care, but they really do, because later on in the year, I'm going to hear from your child, hey, my dad does this in this job. My mom helped build this stack. My sister wanted to create this weird contraption that did this thing. And I hear it in my classroom, because that's where students get their knowledge from. So like really, really share your passions with your children, because even though they seem like they're not listening, they are.
Pius Wong 51:03
Thanks again to everyone at the Ann Richards School for helping me with this topic, especially to the teachers you heard today: Kristina Read, Simon Mangiaracina, Patience Blythe, Shamaa Lakshmanan, and Shireen Dadmehr.
Pius Wong 51:19
For notes and links related to the Ann Richards School or anything else mentioned today, just visit this podcast's website k12engineering.net. The website also has transcripts for selected episodes, and I'll be getting more up soon. What did you think about this episode? Email or tweet me a message, or leave a rating and review of the episode wherever you're listening to this podcast. Don't forget to subscribe to the show on iTunes or elsewhere. And finally, you can do a huge favor to help support the show by donating on patreon.com/pioslabs. That's patreon.com/pioslabs. Our closing music is from a track called "Girl" by Miros, and you can find more music by Miros on Soundcloud under the username Mirossound, or just check the show notes for a link. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs. Level up your thinking with Pios Labs.