A great example of student-centered and project-based learning.
A great example of student-centered and project-based learning.
But now, math and science professionals are beginning to question how helpful current high school calculus courses really are for advanced science fields. The ubiquitous use of data in everything from physics and finance to politics and education is helping to build momentum for a new path in high school math—one emphasizing statistics and data literacy over calculus.
“We increasingly understand the world around us through data: gene expression, identifying new planets in distant solar systems, and everything in between,” said Randy Kochevar, a senior research scientist at the Education Development Center, an international nonprofit that works with education officials. Statistics and data analysis, he said, “is fundamental to many of the things we do routinely, not just as scientists but as professionals.”
He and other experts are still debating the best way to integrate a new approach in an already crowded high school curriculum. One of the most difficult philosophical challenges: how to prevent a statistics path from replicating the severe tracking and equity problems that have long existed in classical mathematics.
“There’s a sense that calculus is up here and statistics is a step below,” said Dan Chase, a secondary mathematics teacher at Carolina Day School in North Carolina, adding that he often struggles to suggest to students that, “if you are interested in engineering, that might be a good reason to go to calculus, but if you are interested in business or the humanities or social sciences, there are different paths you might go, even if you are a top-achieving math student.”
On face value, new expectations for students already seem to be moving toward statistics. Both the Common Core State Standards, on which many states’ math requirements are based, and the Next Generation Science Standards call for teaching data analysis and statistics, both on their own and in the process of learning other concepts.
But Kochevar warned: “There’s a huge disconnect; if you look closely at the science standards, they are expecting students to have tremendous faculty with using data by middle school, but if you look at the courses, it’s really not clear where those skills are supposed to be filled.”
Both sets of standards need more integration of data and statistics, he and others argue, because they were developed in the early years of the big data boom. Studies tracking data worldwide through the years have found people produced 1.5 exabytes of new data in 1999—or roughly 250 megabytes of data for every person alive—but by 2011, when states were adopting and implementing the math standards, people produced more than 14 exabytes a year. Today, people worldwide produce 2.5 exabytes of data every day, and the total data have doubled every two years.
Ironically, the rapid expansion of big data and statistics use in the broader society and economy comes at the same time American students seem to be struggling with those concepts. From 2007 to 2017, 4th and 8th students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics fell significantly on problems related to data analysis, statistics, and probability—a decline that helped drive overall dips on the math test in 2017.
In part, experts say, that’s because statistics and data analysis have traditionally taken a back seat to calculus in high school math, and most students already have difficulty completing the classical path.
“The idea that statistics is hard is grounded in that fact that if you took statistics 10 years ago, you had to take calculus first, and the statistics used formal probability … with theorems that built on calculus,” said Uri Treisman, a mathematics professor and the executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s been working with K-12 and university systems to develop a statistics pathway as an alternative to classical calculus.
It’s an idea that others have pushed back on, by situating a high school statistics pathway as either advanced material only suitable for students who have already passed calculus—or a less-rigorous path for students who can’t hack it in classical math.
“Any time you have multiple pathways, the advantaged will capitalize on one and that will become the ‘real’ one,” Treisman said. “If we are going to create data science pathways, they had better be anchored in things that lead to upward social mobility and have a rigor to them. We have to make sure new pathways have at least equal status as the traditional one—and ensure everyone has access to them. If we allow [statistics and data] to be the easy or weaker path, we relinquish the commitment to equity we started with.”
For a picture of how severe that inequity can get, one only has to look at calculus.
Until about 1980, calculus was seen as a higher education course, primarily for those interested in mathematics, physics, or other hard sciences, and only about 30,000 high school students took the course. That began to change when school reformers glommed onto calculus as an early example of a rigorous, college-preparatory course, said David Bressoud, a mathematics professor at Macalester College and a former president of the Mathematical Association of America, who has examined the evolution of calculus studies.
“The more schools did this, the greater the expectation that they would do it” from parents, and district leaders—and in particular from colleges and universities, Bressoud said. “It’s not just math majors or engineering majors; this has become an accepted requirement for admission to top universities. You are not going to get into Duke if you haven’t taken calculus, even if you plan to major in French literature.”
Today, some 800,000 students nationwide take calculus in high school, about 15 percent of all high schoolers, and nearly 150,000 take the course before 11th grade. Calculus classes have been and remain disproportionately white and Asian, with other student groups less likely to attend schools that offer calculus or the early prerequisites (like middle school algebra) needed to gain access to the course.
For example, in 2015-16, black students were 9 percentage points less likely than their white peers to attend a high school that offered calculus and half as likely to take the class if they attended a school that offered it. And if black students did get into a class, their teachers were also less likely to be certified to teach calculus than those of white students, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal civil rights data.
And despite the rapid growth of calculus as a gold standard, university calculus experts argue it is a much weaker sign that a student is actually prepared for postsecondary math in the science fields than it appears.
In fact, a new report by the Mathematics Association of America and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics found many students who took Advanced Placement Calculus AB still ended up retaking calculus in college—and 250,000 students end up needing to take even lower-level courses, like precalculus or algebra.
In the end, the report found taking calculus in high school was associated with only a 5 percentage point increase on average in calculus scores in college—from 75 percent to 80 percent. Rather, the best predictor of earning a B or better in college calculus was a student earning no less than As in high school Algebra 1 and 2 and geometry.
So if high school calculus isn’t the best indicator of a student prepared for college-level math, what does it signify in college admissions? In a word: Money.
More than half of students who take calculus in high school come from families with a household income above $100,000 a year, according to a study this month in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education. By contrast, only 15 percent of middle-income students and 7 percent of those in the poorest 25 percent of families take the course.
“Math is even more important to upward mobility now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, because … it’s seen as related to your general ability to solve problems quickly,” Treisman said, adding that as a result, “there’s general anxiety and panic about equity issues for anything new, even though the current [calculus] pathway is a burial ground for students of color.”
Statistics and data literacy advocates hope diversifying the field of interesting and rigorous math courses could broaden students’ path to STEM and other careers. As of 2017, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimations showed that jobs that require data literacy and statistics are among the 10 fastest-growing occupations in the country.
“We have two paths forward,” said William Finzer, a senior scientist at the Concord Consortium, which works with school districts to improve their math curricula. “The easier one—like the path computer science took—is to develop a course or a subject area and get schools to give it time. … The problem of that is, it doesn’t spread the opportunity very widely. It becomes concentrated in the small group of kids who elect to take the course—and it’s just one more subject to take.”
EDC’s Oceans of Data Institute is building learning progressions for statistics and data literacy at different grades. Randy Kochevar, who directs the institute, said they are based on the acronym CLIP, meaning students learn how to use:
Complex, multi-variable data (“We’re not just looking at hours of sunlight and heights of bean plants,” he said);
Larger data sets than students need to answer any one question, so they are forced to sort and understand relevance;
Interactively accessed data, rather than sample graphs just written out on paper; and
Professionally collected data that forces students to think about how and why it was collected—and what biases may exist in the samples.
Finzer instead envisions a more holistic approach in which at least one class a year—be it math, biology, or even civics or history—asks students to grapple with making sense of large data sets. Such an approach, he said, “would make a huge difference, because it would mean when you came out of high school, data would not be foreign to you.”
EDC’s Oceans of Data Institute is building learning progressions for statistics and data literacy at different grades. The progression would include concepts in statistics and data literacy, but also computer science—to be able to use common programming and tools used by data professionals—and more philosophical concepts, such as the ethical use of statistics and privacy protections.
If you’re looking to get kids excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), show them the ways that popular media uses — and misuses — the concepts you teach daily. Used as part of a lesson, clips from movies can reinforce topics, spark discussion, and promote new perspectives.
There’s still a great need to introduce kids, and especially girls, to STEM fields like neurobiology, nanotechnology, and civil engineering. Whether it’s a short clip from a Hollywood film to reinforce the concept of gravity or a feature-length documentary that highlights the work of engineers, incorporating movies into your lessons can help kids connect what they’re learning in the classroom to the world at large. And even after the credits roll, you can extend the learning: Create a model, start a debate, or begin a community project that the film — and your teaching — inspires.
Here are 10 film picks that showcase essential STEM skills for school, home, the workplace, and beyond.
This hilarious save-the-world tale appeals to the builder in all of us; creative engineering solutions abound as the heroes embark on their block-building journey.
Teacher tips: Have students identify the engineering design process at work in the movie. Bring some Lego bricks into the classroom (or use Minecraft) and have students develop solutions to common problems, creating prototypes, testing designs, and iterating on their own designs. Students can document their findings and share the highs and lows of the creative process.
Discussion questions: Which of the movie’s creations was your favorite, and why? How might real-life engineers change the design process when they have to make quick decisions? How do the characters in the film demonstrate teamwork, and why is this important for engineers?
In this Disney adaptation of a comic with the same name, a 14-year-old genius invents special microbots to join his brother’s university robotics program. After tragedy ensues, a group of heroes unites and uses their strengths in chemistry and engineering to overtake a crafty villain.
Teacher tips: Try some of the experiments provided by the film’s producers. From there, ask students to choose a problem in their school or community and work together in teams to brainstorm, design, and build solutions using their own unique talents.
Discussion questions: How can engineering solutions and inventions help — and sometimes hurt — humankind? What skills do you have that might help a team overcome an obstacle? Which events or traits fuel each character’s creativity in the movie? Is creativity always positive?
This documentary highlights engineers from various backgrounds — many of whom are women — and the projects they’re designing, from earthquake-proof structures to footbridges in developing countries.
Teacher tips: Use the powerful stories about engineering and robotics clubs in schools to inspire your students to join (or create) their own. Have students research other engineering projects from around the world that are currently in the works, and discuss what kind of global impact they might have. Also be sure to check out the film’s education guide.
Discussion questions: How does engineering affect our everyday lives? How might engineers adapt as technology becomes more prevalent? Why do you think the movie highlights so many women engineers? Why is this type of diversity important?
This inspiring true story of African American women at NASA in the 1950s and ’60s helps shine a light on the need for humans even as technology continues to automate.
Teacher tips: Build off the film’s education guide: Have students construct and solve their own mathematical equations to describe the orbits of planets, or use computer simulations to model Newton’s second law of motion. Talk about how technology makes these calculations easier.
Discussion questions: What are the positive and negative implications of technology taking over roles humans once held? What role did gender play in STEM fields in the 1950s and ’60s? How much have those roles changed today?
An underdog tale, this documentary tells the story of a robotics team from a lower-income high school that took on university teams — including MIT — in an underwater robotics competition.
Teacher tips: Introduce students to robots they can build and code like Sphero, littleBits Invent, and Cue. Have students work in teams to focus on the design process and complete challenges. And while you’re at it, why not start or promote a robotics club at your school?
Discussion questions: What is it about the kids on this team that made them able to overcome such huge obstacles? What makes underwater robotics such a challenging problem to tackle? Besides through robotics clubs, what are some other ways to do STEM activities outside the classroom?
A classic and powerful take on the story of the doomed NASA spacecraft, this film highlights the technical issues astronauts faced (along with some of the do-it-yourself solutions they inspired) to land Apollo 13 on the moon.
Teacher tips: Use the rocket launch and reentry scenes to model physics concepts. Have students build or code their own rockets and create journals to document the kinds of small adjustments and iterations needed to create a successful launch. Tip: Pairs well with a game like Kerbal Space Program.
Discussion questions: How has technology changed since the 1960s? Where should NASA focus its efforts in space exploration today? What does the film say about the role of engineers and their ability to use common items to fix highly technical problems?
While some of the film’s ideas veer into science fiction, there’s enough real science in this edge-of-your-seat thriller to make the heroes’ search for habitable planets worth your time.
Teacher tips: After taking a look at the educator’s guide and some TED-Ed lessons, have students talk about misconceptions and analyze the accuracy of some of the film’s scientific questions. Students can hold a debate around what’s a fact, what may be possible, and what’s simply unattainable.
Discussion questions: What technological issues are holding humans back from interstellar travel? If you were building your own robot companion for space travel, what qualities would you deem most important? What are some ways viewers can separate fact from fantasy in science fiction movies?
This sci-fi space thriller follows an astronaut who’s stuck on Mars and must problem-solve his way to safety using real scientific principles.
Teacher tips: Let students know it’s a movie about risk-taking and creativity and that, although the story is fictional, it’s rooted in scientific fact. Have students take a look at some of the main character’s creations in the movie: a sextant for navigation, his potato farm, or the water he makes from rocket fuel. Next, design a lesson where students are given a limited set of tools, a goal, and some constraints, then see what sort of innovative DIY projects they can launch.
Discussion questions: What is the hexadecimal system, and why is language so important in science and math? How important was it for the film’s main character to keep a log? Why do we not yet have the technology to go to Mars?
Want to show students that they have the talent and ability to make a difference? Then check out this documentary that follows 10 high school students who design and build a new farmer’s market for their rural community.
Teacher tips: Kids will be inspired not only by the students’ abilities but by their actions. Harness that sentiment to get kids out into their own communities. Have your students interview neighbors, collect data, and embark on a cross-curricular project-based learning assignment to solve an issue. Teach your students the necessary skills to build something, and then set them free to create.
Discussion questions: Which engineering processes did you notice throughout the movie? Were some more successful than others? What obstacles might you face if you were to promote a change at your school?
Cryptologists and mathematicians are front and center in this historical drama about the British government’s attempt to crack the German Enigma code during WWII.
Teacher tips: There’s a lack of Hollywood movies that incorporate math in meaningful ways. Take advantage of kids’ interest in this movie to host a code-breaking challenge event. Or, use cryptograms as an introduction to a matrix unit. If you provide Genius Hour time, let students dig in and explore a topic of their interest. You could also have kids research other examples where STEM skills have helped shape significant historical events.
Discussion questions: Would computers today be able to pass Turing’s test to determine intelligence? Why do we typically see more movies and stories about biologists or engineers instead of mathematicians?
For more than three decades, Mitch Resnick has immersed himself in educational technology and innovative learning models. Now a professor at the MIT Media Lab, and a co-creator of the popular Scratch programming language, Resnick remains a tireless advocate for student-centered education, collaborative learning environments, and the idea that coding is a form of literacy.
His new book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, is a look at our current educational moment. “Roughly two-thirds of grade school students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet,” Resnick contends, hinting at the emerging worlds of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and “smart” houses. How do we prepare today’s students to meet that challenge?
We talked with Resnick about the importance of coding in our school system, his thoughts on the changing roles of teachers, and new ways to engage students—and assess their work.
EDUTOPIA: You moved from journalism—writing about computers and business—to the field of educational technology and learning in the 1980s. What inspired that move?
MITCH RESNICK: The most important shift for me in thinking about computers and learning was actually the spring of 1982, the West Coast Computer Faire—which is like an early form of Maker Faire—and Seymour Papert was giving a keynote address. When I heard Seymour talk, it gave me new vision of what role computers might play in people’s lives: They weren’t just machines to get a job done—they could enable people to express themselves in new ways, and change the way people thought about themselves and thought about the world. That was very exciting to me.
EDUTOPIA: Are we still struggling with Papert’s early insight—almost astonishing at the time—that the computer isn’t just a processor of information but a platform for constructing human knowledge?
RESNICK: Yes I think so, and it mirrors a struggle in the education system that has nothing to do with technology. Many people think of learning and education as a process of delivering information or delivering instruction. Other people see learning and education as student-centered—learning is about exploring, experimenting, creating. Those are very different visions that predate the computer, but of course the computer can fit into either of those two models. It’s a wonderful device for delivering information, but it can also be a wonderful device for creating, exploring, and experimenting.
EDUTOPIA: There are influential people, like Apple CEO Tim Cook, saying, “What we need to do is get coding into every single public school. It needs to be a requirement in public schools across the board.” Is that right?
RESNICK: If it were up to me, I would introduce it. But I want to be careful because I don’t want to embrace it for the same reason that some people might. The first question I would ask is: “Why should we learn coding at all?” Many people embrace coding in schools as a pathway to jobs as computer programmers and computer scientists, and of course they’re right that those opportunities are expanding rapidly. But that’s not a great reason for everyone to learn how to code.
Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others—of organizing your thoughts and expressing your ideas. I think the reasons for learning to code are the same as the reasons for learning to write. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium.
EDUTOPIA: What does that look like in the school system? Does coding sit alongside math and reading? Is it integrated in some way?
RESNICK: These days I talk about our approach in terms of these four words that begin with the letter p: projects, passion, peers, and play. So that’s the approach I would take with coding, but also with any other learning: getting students to work on projects, based on their passion, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit. And each of those p’s is important. I think work on projects gives you an understanding of the creative process, how to start with just the inkling of an idea and then to build a prototype, share it with people, experiment with it, and continue to modify and improve it.
We know that kids are going to work longer and make deeper connections to the content when they are passionate about the ideas—when they care—and when they’re learning with and being inspired by peers. And I’d want to have kids experience coding in the same way.
EDUTOPIA: You’re describing a high-choice learning environment rooted in student passion and project work. Where’s the teacher in that mix?
RESNICK: The teacher still plays an incredibly important role, but in this approach it’s not so much about delivering instruction. One role the teacher is playing is the role of connector—connecting peers with one another to work together on solving problems. Teachers also act as catalysts by asking provocative questions: “What do you think will happen if…?” or “That surprised me, why do you think that happened?”
They’re consultants, too, and it’s not just about consulting on technical skills, but also about things like how you continue to work on something even when you are frustrated, or suggesting strategies for working with diverse groups of people. Finally, the teacher can be a collaborator, working together with kids on projects—because kids should see teachers as learners too.
EDUTOPIA: It sounds like a more democratic, open system, which seems to imply breaking down a lot of barriers?
RESNICK: I think breaking down barriers is a good way to think about it. When I think about the type of things that I might change in schools—and I know none of it is easy—a lot of it is about breaking down barriers. Break down the barriers between class periods, because 50-minute chunks are too constraining if you want to work on projects. Break down the barriers between disciplines, because meaningful projects almost always cut across disciplines. Break down the barriers between ages and have older kids work with younger kids—both groups benefit. And break down the barriers between inside of school and outside of school—have kids work on projects that are meaningful to their communities and bring people from the communities into the schools to support the teachers.
That’s one way of dealing with the challenge of a single teacher committed to 30 or more kids. It doesn’t have to be that way. Older kids can be helping younger kids, people from the community can be helping.
EDUTOPIA: A fair question—and a common criticism—is: How do you figure out whether kids are learning anything? How do you assess it?
RESNICK: I would take a portfolio-like approach, looking at what kids create. That’s what we do in our Scratch online community. You can see that a kid has created several dozen digital projects, and you can look through their projects and see their progression. For example, you might see the gradual adoption of new strategies—new types of artwork, but also new and improved programming structures.
I acknowledge that it’s difficult to arrive at quantitative measures, but I also think we each don’t necessarily need to. I sometimes make the analogy to the way I’ve been evaluated here at MIT. There are actually no quantitative measures in the process. Basically, they look at my portfolio: They see what I’ve created, they look at the trajectory and the progress over time, and they ask other people’s opinions about it. You’ll sometimes hear, “Well that’s not serious, we need quantitative measures to be serious.” Are they making the claim that MIT is not serious? I understand the criticism that it’s inefficient, but I think those are things we are going to need to deal with.
Again, it’s a big change and I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do think we need to move in that direction.
Just last year, Kiowa Kavovit, then 6, became the youngest to pitch her invention—a liquid bandage called Boo Boo Goo—on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
In the United States, there is no age requirement for filing a patent.
Alexis Lewis, a 15-year-old inventor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wants children across the country to know that an inventor isn’t something you have to be when you grow up; they can be one now. Lewis holds a patent for a wheeled travois—a triangular load-carrying device with a bamboo frame and a bed of netting that she designed to serve Somali refugees, who need to transport their children many miles to camps and hospitals. Her patent-pending emergency mask pod is a football-shaped canister with protective gear that firefighters and first responders can throw through a window of a smoke-filled building to those trapped inside.
The two-time winner of the ePals-Smithsonian Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, a competition for young inventors age 5 to 18, is a vocal advocate for “Inventing 101” courses to be a part of middle school curriculums.
Why should more people invent?
I think not only is it important to tell people that they can invent but it’s important also to tell them that they should be [inventing] because they have their own unique perspective on the world. Everybody has lived a different life, everybody has seen it [the world] slightly differently and I think everybody has a slightly different take on each problem. And I think if we all work together we can solve a tremendous number of problems.
What motivates you to invent?
My inventions are motivated by one of two things usually. One, it’s a humanitarian issue, basically people who aren’t getting the help they need, people who are dying unnecessarily when they could be saved. Another reason that I often invent is that I’ll get myself absolutely buried in a piece of physics, just learning about it obsessively. Then, I start to realize that there are little things that can be done to make technologies revolving around it a little bit more efficient here, a little bit more effective there.
Can you tell us a little bit about the environment you grew up in and how that’s impacted you as an inventor?
My mom would always read to the family about various world issues. When Hurricane Katrina hit [Alexis was 5 years old], we learned all about that—what a hurricane was, how it worked, the effects of Hurricane Katrina itself, what they were doing to help clear out floodwaters, all sorts of fascinating stuff. Being homeschooled, I had a lot of free time in which I was encouraged to basically go and do and build almost anything I wanted. I had access to videos on any subject, so I got to learn about the science of everything, and I read voraciously. I think having those channels of knowledge open to me was completely invaluable.
Do you think you have some advantages as an inventor given the fact that you’ve started young?
I don’t mean to put adults down, but when you’ve grown up and you’ve seen the world for a long time, you think its one way. I’d say that starting young has had an advantage in that I have the ability to look at something and not think, “oh this is a problem that can’t be solved,” but instead think maybe we’ve been looking at it just a little bit wrong. Kids, since they haven’t been told this is something that would never work over and over, have the have the ability to do that.
What is Inventing 101? Where did the idea come from, and why is it important to you?
It’s a class I hope to have administered to middle school students across the country that would basically tell them that they are capable of inventing. It would show them kids who have already invented. If people aren’t told when they’re young that they can invent, it’s going to be much harder to convince them that they can.
I had this idea when I was looking back at the stuff I had done, at my inventions and realizing that these are some simple [designs.] It’s not going to necessarily be the collapsible travois with custom made specially fabricated joints, it’s going to be the simple bamboo one that anybody can make. It’s not necessarily going to be the $700 grenade launcher, it’s going to be a little football-shaped pod that costs all of $4. People are stunned when they hear what I’ve done. But these are things that I know for a fact a lot of people can do. So I thought there’s got to be some way to awaken that self-confidence in people to enable them to do that.
How does your Emergency Mask Pod (EMP) work?
The emergency mask pod is basically a two-part football canister that holds a smoke mask made by Xcaper Industries, a pair of goggles and a little light-emitting device, most likely a LED light strip in the final version. The goggles allow people to concentrate more fully on getting out without having to worry about their eyes burning. The mask gives people the ability to breathe without dealing with the toxic effects of the smoke, and the light strip allows people to more easily locate the pod when it flies into a dark smoky room.
Designing the EMP pod was a process of trial and error. I’m a kid. I like things that go boom and shoot, and so my first thought was let’s just launch it up there. I did a whole bunch of research, and I was looking at a couple of different launcher mechanisms. I had the mascot of a local sports team fire a pneumatic cannon, basically a t-shirt cannon, into an open window from a very close distance, and accuracy was pretty abysmal. I went from a pneumatic cannon, which didn’t work at all, to a couple of so-so throwable devices, and ended up finally with a throwable canister with an accuracy of over 75 percent.
People think that the inventors of the world are the crazy mad scientists and white lab coats working long hours developing crazy new technologies. But that’s not the case. It’s not something reserved for Edison, Graham Bell, all the greats. Inventors are basically anybody and everybody who’s ever tried to solve a problem.
The conventional wisdom about 21st century skills holds that students need to master the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — and learn to code as well because that’s where the jobs are. It turns out that is a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do, and some proof for that comes from a surprising source: Google.
This post explains what Google learned about its employees, and what that means for students across the country. It was written by Cathy N. Davidson, founding director of the Futures Initiative and a professor in the doctoral program in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of the new book, “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.” She also serves on the Mozilla Foundation board of directors, and was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Humanities.
By Cathy N. Davidson
All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready. But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it? After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.
Project Aristotle, a study released by Google this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.
Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.
Google’s studies concur with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. A recent survey of 260 employers by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers, which includes both small firms and behemoths like Chevron and IBM, also ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters. They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization. Or take billionaire venture capitalist and “Shark Tank” TV personality Mark Cuban: He looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed.
STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today, but technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.
No student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed. Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready.
HERE’S A DEPRESSING number for you: 12. Just 12 percent of engineers in the United States are women. In computing it’s a bit better, where women make up 26 percent of the workforce—but that number has actually fallen from 35 percent in 1990.
The United States has a serious problem with getting women into STEM jobs and keeping them there. Silicon Valley and other employers bear the most responsibility for that: Discrimination, both overt and subtle, works to keep women out of the workforce. But this society of ours also perpetuates gender stereotypes, which parents pass on to their kids. Like the one that says boys enjoy building things more than girls.
There’s no single solution to such a daunting problem, but here’s an unlikely one: robots. Not robots enforcing diversity in the workplace, not robots doing all the work and obviating the concept of gender entirely, but robots getting more girls interested in STEM. Specifically, robot kits for kids—simple yet powerful toys for teaching youngsters how to engineer and code.
Plenty of toys are targeted at getting kids interested in science and engineering, and many these days are gender specific. Roominate, for instance, is a building kit tailored for girls, while the Boolean Box teaches girls to code. “Sometimes there’s this idea that girls need special Legos, or it needs to be pink and purple for girls to get into it, and sometimes that rubs me the wrong way,” says Amanda Sullivan, who works in human development at Tufts University. “If the pink and purple colored tools is what’s going to engage that girl, then that’s great. But I think in general it would be great if there were more tools and books and things that were out there for all children.”
So Sullivan decided to test the effects of a specifically non-gendered robotics kit called Kibo. Kids program the rolling robot by stringing together blocks that denote specific commands. It isn’t marketed specifically to boys or girls using stereotypical markings of maleness or femaleness. It’s a blank slate.
Before playing with Kibo, boys were significantly more likelyto say they’d enjoy being an engineer than the girls did. But after, boys had about the same opinion, while girls were now equally as likely to express an engineering interest as the boys. (In a control group that did not play with Kibo, girls’ opinions did not significantly change.) “I think that robots in general are novel to young children, both boys and girls,” Sullivan says. “So aside from engaging girls specifically, I think robotics kits like Kibo bring an air of excitement and something new to the classroom that gets kids psyched and excited about learning.”
There’s a problem, though. While Sullivan’s research shows that a gender-neutral robotics kit can get girls interested in engineering, that doesn’t mean it will sell. “If you look at sales data, it clearly shows that they’re not being used by girls,” says Sharmi Albrechtsen, CEO and co-founder of SmartGurlz, which makes a programmable doll on a self-balancing scooter. “Even the ones that are considered gender-neutral, if you look at the sales data it clearly shows a bias, and it’s towards boys. That’s the reality of the situation.” Gender sells—at least when it’s the parents doing the buying.
Regardless, companies are designing a new generation of toys in deliberate ways. Take Wonder Workshop and its non-gendered robots Dash and Cue. As they were prototyping, they’d test their designs with boys and girls. “One of the things we heard a lot from girls was this isn’t quite their toy,” says Vikas Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Wonder Workshop. “This is probably what their brother would play with.”
Why? Because they thought it looked like a car or truck. So the team covered up the wheels. “And all of a sudden girls wanted to play with it,” Gupta says. “Our takeaway from that in a big way was that every child brings their preconceived notions to play. So when they see something they map it back to something they’ve already seen.” Though not always. “What we do find actually, funnily enough,” says Albrechtsen of the SmartGurlz scooter doll, “is that a lot of boys actually end up edging in and wanting to play. So we have a lot of brothers who are also playing with the product.”
Whatever gets a child interested, it’s on parents and educators to make sure the spark stays alive. And maybe it’s the increasingly sophisticated, increasingly awesome, and increasingly inexpensive robots that can begin to transform the way America gets girls into science and tech. Short of becoming self aware and taking over the world, the machines certainly couldn’t hurt.