Engineering for all

The egg drop competition, STEM Day at Colorado State University-Pueblo for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County, 2011. Source: author.

What’s new?

Early this month, the research group Advancing Excellence in P-12 Engineering Education (AE3) released a report on precollege engineering education, Framework for P-12 Engineering Learning. The vision is to promote engineering literacy for all, from preschool through high school, to be achieved through learning engineering habits of mind, engineering practices, and engineering knowledge.

What does it mean?

A continued fear of a shortage of STEM graduates and a continued belief that all students need education in STEM fields have led many organizations to develop programs to start STEM education, including engineering education, in high school and even lower grades. For example, Project Lead the Way (PLTW) states: “Since 1997, we have grown from a high school engineering program to offering comprehensive PreK-12 pathways in computer science, engineering, and biomedical science.”  The trend continues. In 2017, IEEE (the professional organization for electrical engineers) developed TryEngineering Together.

Many assumptions underlie this trend, some of them questionable. The shortage of STEM graduates may not be real and often is really shorthand for the desire to allow the admission to the US of more immigrants with computer programming skills or as a gateway to offshoring the work. This 2015 analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that STEM is not a monolith and concludes “Across all the different disciplines, yes, there is a STEM crisis, and no, there is no STEM crisis. It depends on how and where you look.” The trend to focus college and now school education on career preparation can be lamented for its lack of focus on a broader education. The real issue in STEM education may be the need for STEM graduates to keep up with new developments in their field. Regardless of the truth about these issues, I support the US Department of Education argument that STEM education should provide STEM literacy and opportunities for all: “A child’s zip code should not determine their STEM fluency.”

But what is STEM fluency and how should it be developed?

My childhood included playing with kits from Edmund Scientific and with equipment my father brought home from his job as an engineer at Bell Labs:  lenses, magnets, batteries, wires, and lightbulbs. I had an Erector Set to build things, I made a generator, I put together my father’s overhead saw, I made a model of a river lock and another of the hanging gardens of Babylon, I grew salt crystals in a jar in the refrigerator, I spent one summer in a science exploration program looking at everything in a microscope, in high school in 1964 I learned to program in Fortran in a class run a local company, I was fascinated by the Fibonacci series and the golden ratio, and I took calculus in high school. I knew that I could get out of trouble by saying “But Mom, it’s a scientific experiment!” Note that very few of those memories relate to in-school activities. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged my STEM interests, especially my fascination with math.

In my role as chair of the Department of Engineering at Colorado State University-Pueblo for 21 years, I was involved in many outreach activities to promote engineering education, especially through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County. I know that I changed lives.

But I also worried – and still worry – that many programs can portray engineering in a cartoon version, similar to tinkering. For example, several times I showed a project by our engineering seniors to middle school students. Our engineering students had developed a prosthetic hand, including sophisticated controls. Imagine my dismay when (not just once) some middle school students told me: “We did that already!” They had, of course, tinkered with moveable parts and rubber bands, but lacked the knowledge to see the difference in what they did and what the seniors did. Also, I must note, what our seniors did was not the same as prosthetic hands developed by industry.

In this new report, AE3 has done an excellent job of laying out what engineers know, including the technical knowledge and their way of thinking. They have also incorporated guard rails against cartoon versions of engineering, including the need to strive for authenticity to engineering (page 15): “While engineering concepts, habits, and practices can and should be leveraged, when appropriate, as a context for teaching and learning a variety of subjects, it is important that engineering learning is aligned to engineering as a unique discipline. Therefore, it is necessary to continually evaluate whether engineering-related instructional activities are accurately depicted to children in a manner that is authentic to engineering. If not, we may expose children to something called engineering, which they dislike and therefore never explore the actual field. Concurrently, we may mislead or underprepare them by providing activities that they do enjoy but which have little relation to authentic engineering practice.”

I am torn. A balance needs to be achieved between providing experiences that are authentic engineering and that enhance excitement. I am a big fan of the educational theories of John Dewey who argues that a well designed series of experiences is the key in education. Tinkering is great and a lot of what I did as a child was certainly in that category. But education in principles must also be present.

The AE3 report has taken important steps toward creating the needed balance. The report argues that general learning objectives such as “apply the engineering design process to solve a problem,” must be replaced with much more specific content objectives. On page 13, for example, the report gives performance goals for high school students who may be engaged in projects such as the egg drop competition (design a package to keep an egg from breaking when dropped from a height) or in design tasks of constructing bridges or other structures from everyday objects such as popsicle sticks. One of the key ideas in such design is to understand the properties of the materials and the AE3 goals include the achievement by students of increasing levels of knowledge in the physical properties of materials, material deflections, material deformations, and column and beam analysis. If you are going to have students build, then make sure they are learning concepts (in structural analysis, statics, and project management), and that they are not just tinkering.

A series of structured activities is needed, the report argues, to build from P through 12. For example, from page 16, “Starting in the early grades, students could be provided with structured design problems, which will inherently be inauthentic, that allow them to build upon playful and experimental approaches to designing and problem solving.”

What does it mean for you?

I strongly suggest you read this report. I am having trouble not quoting from every page, because it is packed full with knowledge of education and engineering: the Engineering Habits of Thinking (including my favorite, Systems Thinking), Engineering Practices, and Engineering Knowledge (pages 25-26 and Appendix A, starting on page 63), the connection between science and engineering (page 20), the engineering literate student (page 32), engineering knowledge domains (pages 35-38), specific strategies for equity, diversity, and inclusion (pages 40-51), and a lesson plan template (Appendix B, pages 85-86). You will learn about engineering, about education, and about engineering education. You will be better prepared to help support teachers, schools, and other organizations in providing excellent education in STEM. You will also gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for engineering.

Where can you learn more?

The AE3 report builds upon the 2014 British report from the Royal Academy of Engineering, Thinking like an engineer: Implications for the education system.

Good job

Cedar Knolls Fire Department building, 1964, Cedar Knolls, New Jersey.
In 1957, the author attended school on the second floor of this building.
Source: author.

What’s new?

The Hechinger Report recently described a study in which more than 1500 teachers were asked to evaluate whether a hand written essay showed writing at second grade level. Half of the teachers evaluated a version that referred to the student’s brother “Dashawn,” while the other half evaluated a version that referred to the student’s brother “Conner.” Otherwise the essays were identical. About 30 percent marked the first version at grade level work or better, while 35 percent marked the second one at grade level or better. White teachers were 8 percent more likely to grade the Conner version as at grade level; females were 7 percent more likely to do so. Teachers of color rated the versions about the same. Tests of the teachers’ implicit and explicit bias did not relate to the differences in grading.

When teachers were “given explicit criteria for how to judge the student work” the ratings for the Dashawn and Conner versions did not differ; about 37 percent of teachers rated the two versions as at or above grade level.

What does it mean?

The researchers interpret the results as indicating that the two names, one stereotypically black and one stereotypically white, influenced the ratings. The author of the Hechinger Report article, Jill Barshay, commented: “Small injustices early in life can have consequences. If young children of color get discouraged by unfair grades at the beginning of their schooling, they may never progress very far in their education. We’re losing talent early on and this is one problem for which we may have a solution.”

What does it mean for you?

First let me tell you what it means to me. I know what it feels like to feel different and to wonder if I am being judged fairly. In 1971, I was the first woman PhD student in my engineering program at the University of California at Berkeley. During much of my career, I was the only woman in the department where I worked, and often the only woman in the room during meetings.  I could do pages and pages of examples of microaggressions. The most annoying for me are the ones that assume I will do the secretarial work; for a long time I told people I would be the secretary of an organization “only after the revolution.” Then there are the times everyone in the room but me would be addressed as Dr.  I know the situation has improved for women in engineering, but I hang out at reddit and I hear the stories there from young women; I try to help them.

However, the article on evaluating second graders reported only a small difference in grading. Some may say: microaggressions are just micro, get over it, and stop being annoyed. My literal nightmare during graduate school was the one where I was running a race and had to finish it by crawling through mud. I did finish my PhD, but, even with the highest GPA in the grad program of any student before me, I was plagued with self-doubts. I am concentrating on differences in the treatment of people based on gender because of my personal experience, but the same ideas apply to differences in treatment based on other categories. Racism is baked into the United States; we all need to work hard to overcome the system.

I have worked to avoid microaggressions against others, but I still have to monitor myself daily. And I work very hard to evaluate people fairly. I don’t concentrate on changing my beliefs or feelings (as is done in training designed to reduce bias); I concentrate on changing my behavior, because I know my beliefs or feelings follow, not lead, my behavior.

The most important lesson from the article is that rubrics eliminated the bias. When I was teaching, I often used rubrics for grading because (1) they make grading easier and (2) they help me be consistent. Especially on tests, I worked hard to be consistent, grading all students on the same problem while having the pages of the tests turned so I could not see the names. I would lay out in front of me all the answers with errors and compare them to ensure my consistency.

The use of rubrics in the study also increased the overall grades. I think we all have a tendency to notice what is wrong and to overlook the good. I know that when I am doing evaluations for engineering accreditation I find that early in the process I am often annoyed with everything the program is doing wrong and I have learned that I have to go back again and again to the written criteria and keep myself honest in the evaluation. I always end up reminding myself of everything they are doing right – and also that I may not like something they are doing but the issue is NOT addressed in the criteria so I cannot let my dislike affect my evaluation.

What does this mean for you? Only you can answer that question. I hope that it means you will redouble your efforts to evaluate people fairly by creating a system of evaluation that ensures that ratings are based on the actual performance of the task. For example, the use of a curtain to hide the musician from the jury had a significant effect in increasing the number of women in symphony orchestras from 6 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993.

Where can you learn more?

The original article by David M Quinn of the University of Southern California was published in Education Next.

Susan M Brookhart defines a rubric as “a coherent set of criteria for students’ work that includes descriptions of levels of performance quality on the criteria.” She also provides a great deal of guidance on designing and using rubrics in education. Rubrics for hiring and job evaluation are also used and some believe they can mitigate bias. The amusing rubric for evaluating Superman has many versions and has circulated for many years. I like this one.

The existence of implicit bias is widely accepted but its measurement is controversial.  It is also unclear whether programs designed to reduce implicit bias have the desired effect.

This article makes a strong case that in evaluating people we need to learn to distinguish between confidence and competence.

“And then?”

A spork
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

What’s new?

Several tech columns (for example, this article at INSIDEVS) have commented recently on Tesla’s approach to batteries in which the battery forms part of the structure of the vehicle: a structural battery. Chanan Bos at CleanTechnica likens the approach to the change from fuel tanks in aircraft wings to aircraft wings that are fuel tanks. The wing doesn’t contain the fuel tank; the wing is the fuel tank. Others point out (for example, this article at Wired) that a structural battery is not a new concept. See, for example, this article from 2012.

What does it mean?

A battery stores energy. A structure supports mechanical load. A structural battery does both.

My favorite element, carbon, has properties that may make it useful for structural batteries, as explained in this 2012 article in Smithsonian Magazine about research by Leif Asp. In this 2019 review article, Asp and his co-authors discuss design issues, including selection of materials for different parts of the battery. They note that electrification of transportation depends on better design for batteries and that eventually this research could lead to electric airplanes. Their batteries are not just an assembly of components each with one function, but rather batteries in which every component has multiple functions.

What does it mean for you?

The Institute of General Semantics says “General semantics is the renowned, practical discipline that applies modern scientific thinking and language strategies to solve problems in everyday life.” More definitions are here, including this one from Catherine Minteer: “General semantics provides a method of studying the part language plays in human affairs. It emphasizes the effectiveness of human communication in (1) the awareness of the all-pervasive character of language in daily affairs, (2) the habit of looking to language as a possible clue to some of our misunderstandings and conflicts, and (3) an appreciation of the scientific method and a consideration of applying it to language.”  General semantics is an annoying and useful field of study. Often the statements are simultaneously obvious — even trite – and deep and insightful.

One of my favorite sayings is from Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics: “the map is not the territory,” or, as I often say to engineering students, “it’s only a model.” Do not mistake a map or a model for the real world. The map or the model may lead you to some result, but you need to make sure the result is actually true about the real world. Or in the 1929 art of Rene Magritte, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” which means “this is not a pipe” and is written on his painting of a pipe, titled “The Treachery of Images.”

D. David Bourland Jr took seriously a suggestion from Korzybski to eschew all forms of the verb “to be” in the interests of clarity. He recommended the use of E-Prime, English without that verb. I tried to do so in this blog, but failed: I couldn’t, for example, quote Korzybski in the previous paragraph without using the word “is.”

I am a fan of Edward MacNeal for his work on applying general semantics in decision making. In a 1986 article titled “When does Consciousness of Abstracting Matter the Most?”, Mr MacNeal cited Korzybski’s critique of elementalism, which means “our splitting verbally what cannot otherwise be split, … a serious structural flaw in language.” In that article, MacNeal deplored the linguistic split between “action” and “consequences” because this split lets us think about action without considering the consequences. He adopted the word “alternaquence” (combining “alternative” with “consequence”) and commented “If you ask me what my alternaquences are, that sticks me with the responsibility for what follows, doesn’t it? ‘Well, Ed, what are your alternaquences?’ Do you hear it? There’s no place to hide.” He stressed that decision making about alternaquences requires one to develop powers of forecasting simply by asking “and then?” One of my specialties, decision analysis, involves the use of decision trees to describe a decision situation, looking forward into time with decision nodes and chance nodes. Creating a decision tree requires exactly that outlook and exactly that question: “and then?”

Battery. Structure. Elementalism means we engineers long ago created those two separate concepts and we use the two words to keep their functions separate. “Structural battery” removes the split, a simple yet profound linguistic change. It makes me smile.

What words in the language that you use keep separate concepts that can, and maybe should, be combined?

Where can you learn more?

General semantics was first described in the book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, 1933, by Alfred Korzybski. Other significant roots include S. I. Hayakawa’s Language in Action, 1941 (the 1995 version is titled Language in Thought and Action), the linguistic theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf (the structure of a language affects how the speakers of that language think), and work in cognitive science and linguistics by George Lakoff (our metaphors and framing affect our thinking). The Institute of General Semantics publishes a quarterly journal, ETC: A Review of General Semantics.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, but first redesign

“Woman’s clothing being modeled at the spring fashion show of the National Retail Garment Association in the Hotel Commodore, New York City,” 1921. Source: Library of Congress, This photograph has no known restrictions on publication.

What’s new?

The collar on one of my partner’s favorite shirts was wearing out, so I recovered the collar with similar fabric and it looks quite nice. The popular European fashion store H&M has created its first in-store center that shreds old clothing to create yarn, then fabric, and finally new clothing. The fashion industry has been cited as being second after the oil industry for creating pollution. Also noted is that “we as consumers can impact the environment by making smart decisions on how and where we shop.” Tech Crunch reports that Thousand Fell is one of several shoe manufacturers “that are experimenting with various strategies to incorporate reuse into the life cycle of their products.” They also note that several companies offer recycling of denim clothing.

One of my favorite tech web sites, Modern Machine Shop Online, has a new post on “The Circular Economy, Sustainability, and Recycling.”

What does it mean?

Probably arising about the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” reminds consumers of three strategies for reducing waste and reducing environmental harm.  The first strategy is, of course, to reduce consumption: just don’t buy more clothing. Several bloggers have written about a year with no new clothes (“or at least no `new-new’ clothes”): here, here, and here (two years!). Lessons learned: take care of your clothes and they will last longer, not buying clothes becomes easier over time, and it is easy to do if you start off the year owning a lot of clothes. Irony abounds, however, in the plethora of Earth Day clothing and other swag that you can buy.

Reuse of clothing is increasingly chic with many sites that will give you ideas for upcycling clothing yourself (here, here, and here, for examples) or other sites that will sell you upcycled clothes. I never knew my father’s father, who was a tailor, but I learned to sew early and still enjoying doing so. The maker movement supports people in discovering the pleasure of making – or remaking – as an alternative to buying (but the success of stores like Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, and Joann’s makes clear that making involves a lot of buying). Used clothing has had a fashion resurgence with companies like thredUP.

But consumers can only do so much. Searching for and buying cotton clothing where the cotton fabric is grown in an environmentally sound way (growing cotton takes a lot of water) and then is sewn in a socially responsible way (the fashion industry is accused of being a leading exploiter of workers) leaves little leeway for considering whether one even likes the resulting clothing. Hemp fabric and clothing are arguably more environmentally friendly, but not yet as available, and also more expensive. I used hemp fabric to recover the collar of my partner’s shirt. And this whole paragraph (even the whole post) reeks of privilege: I am lucky enough to be able to implement a self-imposed ban on shopping at Walmart and Amazon because I abhor their social impacts. Buying green is often more expensive. What are real people supposed to do, Jane?

If the choices aren’t offered by the market place, what is a consumer to do? Those “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” strategies are always targeted at consumers; the EPA’s advice omits any reference to the role of manufacturers. On the other hand, pity the manufacturers who produce products that are better for the environment and can’t get people to buy them. So some go back to more sophisticated ways to motivate “the elusive green consumer” and others take on the task of persuading consumers that green products actually do work. An argument can be made that changing the behaviors of the few, extremely wealthy people would have the largest effect on reducing environmental harm.

The situation is, of course, typical of a systems approach: the best strategy is not a single strategy. It’s not “or” but rather “and.” Consumers need to reduce, reuse, and recycle; they need to purchase more wisely when they do, but manufacturers and retailers also need to do their part: stop selling environmentally disastrous products.

What does it mean for you?

The Modern Machine Shop Online article has some advice: think circular, not linear. We cannot continue to dig stuff out of the ground, use it, and throw it back in the ground; we need to reuse the stuff we dig out of the ground. The key to circularity, they argue, is the design phase. Using an example from Steelcase business office furniture, MMSOnline describes how design decisions can support a reduction in material use and an improvement in the ease of recycling. They also point out that additive manufacturing is helping make these redesigns possible. Another of my favorite technology topics, new materials, is also relevant, with panels made from recycled products (for example, ECOR) potentially capable of replacing virgin material in construction.

The circular economy is not a new idea, as this 2014 article from Industry Week makes clear.

Where can you learn more?

Modern Machine Shop Online recommends, and I agree, the resources at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They describe three principles for the circular economy: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. They cite three focus areas for textiles and clothing: new business models that increase clothing use, safe and renewable inputs, and solutions so used clothes are turned into new. They note: “To be able to capture the value of all materials once garments are no longer worn, it is necessary to ensure that design aligns with recycling processes that are available today.” The Ellen MacArthur Foundation supports the initiative Make Fashion Circular.

An article at Forbes expresses skepticism about the potential impact of such changes and, with good reason, advocates for simply less: “In the fight for our future, the fashion has to be circular but first and foremost it has to slow its growth, forecast what shoppers actually want and cut the overproduction.”

The word “circular” or the phrase “circular economy” coupled with the name of your industry sector may uncover helpful resources, as in “circular fashion.”