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Eric Iversen

Eric Iversen

Vice-President for Learning and Communications
Start Engineering
Washington, DC

2016 Blogger Badge

Eric has worked in education for over 25 years, in different kinds of organizations and positions. At Start Engineering, he writes a blog looking at the "E" in STEM from all kinds of angles, including teaching and learning, diversity, policy, and its generally underappreciated relevance to our daily lives. He also speaks widely on the topic at meetings, manages the company's social media profile, and conducts independent and collaborative research on the place of engineering in formal and informal K-12 learning environments. With only two-and-a-half staff members, Start Engineering offers many learning opportunities in and of itself.

He has launched and led varied learning enterprises, including both online and in-person activities. These programs have included everything from integrated, cross-platform, Internet-based education programs to projects involving contributors from multiple organizations to classroom-style education and outreach activities. He taught college-level English for seven years, including both literature and writing courses.

He has a partially concealed past in lobbying at state and federal levels for educational organizations, too, but he's waiting for the right time to talk more about that.

The story of the year in afterschool STEM learning just might have come out this week in Washington, DC. At the National Press Club, people from all corners of the afterschool STEM world gathered to learn about STEM Ready America, a new report on afterschool STEM that effectively defines the national paradigm for activities in the field. Program leaders and policy thinkers, corporate and non-profit executives and funders, STEM educators and researchers from all levels discussed, reviewed, and enthused about the rich combination of research, examples from the field, and recommendations for action.

Stem Iverson

Funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, STEM Ready America is a project of STEM Next, a national leader in studying and promoting informal and out-of-school STEM learning housed at the University of California, San Diego. Researchers at Harvard University and Texas Tech University collaborated on the work, which involved over 1,600 participating students and 160 programs in 11 states.

Findings from STEM Ready America might mean exciting things for the learning and life prospects of students going through afterschool STEM programs.

critical thinking Iverson1

  • 72 percent of students reported an increase in their perseverance and critical thinking skills.
  • 73 percent reported an increase in their personal belief that they can succeed at science.
  • 78 percent reported a positive change in their interest in science.
  • 80 percent reported a positive gain in their science career knowledge.

The report features articles taking three general angles of approach to afterschool STEM learning: the evidence for what happens, how to create a constructive environment, and examples of effective programs.

The section about evidence documents the benefits and accomplishments of afterschool and summer STEM programs. Articles look at how and what kind of research is conducted, what the results say about effects of afterschool STEM programs, and implications for policy and funding decisions. Highlights include a discussion of how Next Generation Science Standards relate to out-of-school STEM curricula and learning and how informal STEM education positively influences students' opinions and achievement in their formal STEM classwork.

Different states and localities take different paths to afterschool STEM success. Surveying work in Oregon, Indiana, Nebraska, and New York, articles in the section on afterschool STEM learning environments highlight effective, large-scale approaches. Cross-sector partnerships are key, for example, in Oregon and Indiana, while Nebraska has focused more on community-based efforts. And "STEM ecosystems" have grown from California roots to a national phenomenon, demonstrating how important it is to ground programs in local needs and resources.

girls in stem Iverson

Exemplary programs show how adaptable and effective afterschool STEM programs can be. In descriptive, narrative, and analytical terms, these pieces showcase the variety of successful approaches educators have taken. From technology to girls in STEM to minorities and low-income groups to career guidance to STEM and the arts, these programs demonstrate the rich bounty of programming that is possible to deploy within afterschool STEM efforts.

As the report makes clear, STEM learning is a natural fit for out-of-school programs. Kids can get out of class and into real-world settings, whether natural or designed, where up-close encounters with STEM activities make them see the relevance of what they're learning. With lower stakes attached, kids can try far-out, unfamiliar tasks without fearing dire consequences for failure. And exercising their brains (and bodies) in summer STEM programs reduces the learning loss that can take place between school years.

minorities in Stem Iverson

These are all things people have seen and studied in local settings, but STEM Ready America amasses the evidence – quantitative and qualitative – to support these arguments in any afterschool context.

Take a look for yourself. You're sure to find something that speaks directly to your long-held hopes or actual efforts in informal STEM learning.

For breakfast today, I finished my daughter's bowl of multi-grain Cheerios and banana with peanut butter, then moved on to a bagel with cream cheese and the usual two cups of coffee.

The story of the year in afterschool STEM learning just might have come out this week in Washington, DC. At the National Press Club, people from all corners of the afterschool STEM world gathered to learn about STEM Ready America, a new report on afterschool STEM that effectively defines the national paradigm for activities in the field. Program leaders and policy thinkers, corporate and non-profit executives and funders, STEM educators and researchers from all levels discussed, reviewed, and enthused about the rich combination of research, examples from the field, and recommendations for action.

stem afterschool

Funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, STEM Ready America is a project of STEM Next, a national leader in studying and promoting informal and out-of-school STEM learning housed at the University of California, San Diego. Researchers at Harvard University and Texas Tech University collaborated on the work, which involved over 1,600 participating students and 160 programs in 11 states.

Findings from STEM Ready America might mean exciting things for the learning and life prospects of students going through afterschool STEM programs.

  • 72 percent of students reported an increase in their perseverance and critical thinking skills.
  • 73 percent reported an increase in their personal belief that they can succeed at science.
  • 78 percent reported a positive change in their interest in science.
  • 80 percent reported a positive gain in their science career knowledge.

The report features articles taking three general angles of approach to afterschool STEM learning: the evidence for what happens, how to create a constructive environment, and examples of effective programs.

stem afterschool1

The section about evidence documents the benefits and accomplishments of afterschool and summer STEM programs. Articles look at how and what kind of research is conducted, what the results say about effects of afterschool STEM programs, and implications for policy and funding decisions. Highlights include a discussion of how Next Generation Science Standards relate to out-of-school STEM curricula and learning and how informal STEM education positively influences students' opinions and achievement in their formal STEM classwork.

Different states and localities take different paths to afterschool STEM success. Surveying work in Oregon, Indiana, Nebraska, and New York, articles in the section on afterschool STEM learning environments highlight effective, large-scale approaches. Cross-sector partnerships are key, for example, in Oregon and Indiana, while Nebraska has focused more on community-based efforts. And "STEM ecosystems" have grown from California roots to a national phenomenon, demonstrating how important it is to ground programs in local needs and resources.

Exemplary programs show how adaptable and effective afterschool STEM programs can be. In descriptive, narrative, and analytical terms, these pieces showcase the variety of successful approaches educators have taken. From technology to girls in STEM to minorities and low-income groups to career guidance to STEM and the arts, these programs demonstrate the rich bounty of programming that is possible to deploy within afterschool STEM efforts.

nano-technology-students-bucky-balls

As the report makes clear, STEM learning is a natural fit for out-of-school programs. Kids can get out of class and into real-world settings, whether natural or designed, where up-close encounters with STEM activities make them see the relevance of what they're learning. With lower stakes attached, kids can try far-out, unfamiliar tasks without fearing dire consequences for failure. And exercising their brains (and bodies) in summer STEM programs reduces the learning loss that can take place between school years.

These are all things people have seen and studied in local settings, but STEM Ready America amasses the evidence – quantitative and qualitative – to support these arguments in any afterschool context.

Take a look for yourself. You're sure to find something that speaks directly to your long-held hopes or actual efforts in informal STEM learning.


For breakfast today, I finished my daughter's bowl of multi-grain Cheerios and banana with peanut butter, then moved on to a bagel with cream cheese and the usual two cups of coffee.

In the face of strong headwinds…

In Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive. In Lebanon, sexual harassment is legal. And even in the United Arab Emirates – relatively advanced on gender issues among predominantly Muslim countries – men can physically discipline their wives. Across all 22 states in the Arab world, women face legal and cultural obstacles unfamiliar to women in the United States.

Arab Women Push Ahead

One area, though, in which Arab women in fact face lesser obstacles and achieve at a higher rate than their U.S. counterparts is engineering. At a time when the rate of American women graduating from engineering programs has been stalled out at 20 percent for more than 10 years, Arab women have been flocking to the field.

What can burgeoning numbers of Arab women in engineering teach us about problems in the U.S. getting and keeping women in engineering programs? How does this phenomenon shed light on the reasons U.S. women make study and career choices that lead them away from engineering?

arab women post

The Numbers

For reasons as diverse as the countries themselves, Arab women exceed their U.S. counterparts in enrolling and completing engineering degrees, and it’s not even really close.

Among rich countries:

Developing countries do well, too:

Pathways

For Arab women, the pathways into engineering are, in some ways, more defined and clearer than for American women.

Over three-quarters of Arab governments have taken steps towards developing knowledge-based economies, emphasizing STEM learning at elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels.

Same-sex schooling, common in Arab countries, means girls study STEM topics in environments that often promote their achievement and satisfaction in these areas.

Test results often drive admissions to college, especially in public institutions. When girls test well in STEM areas, they move more reliably into post-secondary STEM studies than in the U.S., where more diverse areas of study are open to girls.

Engineering’s Appeal

For those girls with engineering aptitude, both cultural attitudes and the prospect of material rewards make the field more attractive to them than it is in the U.S.

Notes Tod Laursen, president of Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi and former Duke University faculty member, “The engineering profession in general holds a lot of prestige in the UAE and we find that the families of our female students are very highly supportive and proud of their daughters, wives, siblings studying these subjects.”

And especially in poorer Arab countries, engineering offers more career stability and better earning power than other paths open to women, such as teaching or public administration jobs. As consumer economies develop more fully at all levels of the Arab socioeconomic landscape, these calculations come to outweigh traditional views of women that would otherwise keep them at home.

engineering rings

How Engineering Works for Arab Women

In the workplace, Arab women can find meaningful opportunities in engineering and technology fields.

Making the Best of It

Of course, exactly Sa’d’s requirement to work from home points up one of the reasons that engineering and technology fields can work for Arab women. Women are still expected to run households and take care of children, parents, and husbands. As one Arab woman entrepreneur noted, “Well-educated women in Saudi Arabia want to work, but their family often objects … running an Internet start-up from home is the perfect compromise.”

Indeed, comparable professional paths can be shut off to women. Law and medicine, for example, remain overwhelmingly male because of gender-based prohibitions that preclude women from arguing cases against men in court or treating male patients.

The success of Arab women in engineering shows a few things:

  • Girls have all the natural ability they need to succeed in STEM fields.
  • Inclusive, supportive STEM pathways can help increase the numbers of girls entering engineering and technology fields.
  • Pay and career opportunity matter to women’s professional decisions and identities.

arab women post 2

Why Engineering Works More for Women in the Middle East than in the U.S.

It really seems to come down to the values and rewards attached to engineering. Terms like “geeky,” “nerdy,” “uncool,” and, crucially, “for boys only” do not attach themselves to the profession, as they do in the U.S.

Instead, engineering is seen as open, materially rewarding, and socially useful. As a result, Arab women are not departing from gender norms or broader cultural values when they study STEM fields in secondary school, opt into engineering and technology studies, and go to work in a technical field.

Rather, they accrue material and social capital for succeeding in a challenging field that is understood to reflect credit on their abilities, meet a family’s economic needs, and serve a country’s broader, shared interests. And, crucially, engineering offers them opportunities that other, comparable professions do not.

The Takeaway

The culture and meaning of engineering in the U.S. must change.

Bias in engineering is shown to motivate U.S. women to choose other fields or leave early. The field needs to become more inclusive from the inside and appealing from the outside before the rate of women’s participation in the U.S. can break out of its currently stagnant levels.

The example of Arab women’s enthusiastic response to an engineering field constructed to be inclusive, rewarding, and meaningful – even in the face of all the cultural and legal obstacles they face – suggests the ceiling for U.S. women in engineering should be as high as we want it to be. 

In at least two ways, out-of-school programs are little different from their school-day counterparts.

For one, STEM education is popular and widely available. Nearly 70 percent of out-of-school programs offer some kind of STEM content.

For another, engineering, the "E" in STEM, is the least developed part of the picture. As with K-12 schools, out-of-school programs focus far more on science and math. Engineering, the driving force behind all the tools and technologies that make our lives easier, safer, healthier, more productive, and even more enjoyable, is largely absent.

Such does not have to be the case. Engineering, especially through the lens of design thinking, can be accessible and fun for students and teachers alike. And since we live our lives in an engineered, designed world much more than in the natural world, an acquaintance with engineering can be seen as a basic, even necessary, part of living fully in the modern world.

For many reasons, out-of-school programs lend themselves especially well to STEM learning.

• Outside the realm of standardized or curricular testing, they allow a space for learning to take shape through experimentation and failure without fear of penalty.
• Taking place in varied settings, out-of-school programs provide ready opportunities for hands-on, experiential learning, connected directly to places and objects relevant to kids' daily lives.
• An open leadership structure allows mentors and role models from the community to participate, especially meaningful to kids from under-represented groups who might not otherwise encounter people in STEM fields who look like them.

engineering building model

As it happens, these attributes of learning programs frequently appear in models suggested for use in pre-college engineering education and outreach. Even so, engineering remains the least-common topic offered in the out-of-school STEM world. The America After 3PM survey presented STEM-related results in "Full STEM Ahead." This report found STEM topics appearing in this order of frequency:

• Math, 60 percent of STEM programs
• Science, 45 percent
• Technology and Engineering, 30 percent

Even the 30 percent figure almost certainly obscures the low profile of engineering in the field. "Technology" programs would presumably include computer-oriented activities, which Google search results suggest are more prevalent than "engineering" programs.

• "Technology after school" generated 15,600 items.
• "Computer after school" generated 15,400.
• "Engineering after school" generated 9,140.
Admittedly imprecise, these results at least suggest the contours of what's available for kids to choose from.

So much the worse for engineering – one of the strengths of STEM out-of-school programming is the appeal to exactly the populations engineering has difficulty reaching.

• Girls participate at a rate almost equal to boys; among students with STEM opportunities, 73 percent of girls and 80 percent boys sign up.
• African-American and Hispanic children participate at 80 percent rates, while white children do so at 77 percent.
• And studies have shown that out-of-school program participation can reduce achievement gaps between students from low-income families and those from high-income families.

engineering excitement

A full analysis of how out-of-school STEM programs can work most effectively appears in the National Academy of Engineering's report, Identifying and Supporting Productive STEM Programs in Out-of-School Settings. This report reviews multiple sources to make the case that out-of-school STEM programs play vital roles in promoting learning, exciting kids about future opportunities, and breaking down barriers that under-represented groups face in formal education settings. Given these opportunities, engineering would be well served indeed by mounting a more robust effort to establish a profile in out-of-school program activities.

However, as noted in "Full STEM Ahead," "the afterschool field often states that it is ideally situated for technology and engineering programs and yet it appears that this potential is far from realized." Why would this be so?

We surveyed the 1,500-some readers of our blog, Start Engineering Now, to find out what they thought the obstacles to out-of-school engineering were. The top three answers, by far, were:

• Program leaders have trouble teaching engineering, 56 percent
• Equipment and supplies are hard or expensive to get, 51 percent
• Instructional materials are not available, 31 percent

These results, in fact, should not discourage. Engineering is primarily about solving problems and improving lives. It is a process for finding solutions by asking questions, imagining answers (even far-fetched), testing out and improving these answers where they come up short, and then delivering a reliable tool for users to deploy in their daily lives. It thrives on innovative thinking, communication and collaboration, persistence, attention to detail, and a focus on people's real needs.

engineering hands on

In higher education or at work, knowledge of math and science is certainly required. In K-12 and out-of-school, though, the engineering design process matters most. And through this angle of approach, engineering sets up nicely as an afterschool activity, readily taught, with materials to implement it cheap or even free.

Help in various forms is available from nearly every college with an engineering program, all the major engineering societies, and any number of local companies in the engineering and technology sector. Our own efforts at Start Engineering are squarely directed at making engineering a viable, low-cost undertaking for educators even with no training in the field. In our blog, for example, we ran a series last fall on failure, design, and relevance in engineering, effectively an introduction to educators starting to think about making the topic part of their teaching and learning work.

For engineering to become a bigger part of out-of-school learning, two things need to happen. Engineering educators have to meet afterschool programs where they live, furnishing appropriate materials and stepping in with expert assistance as needed. Afterschool program leaders can start surveying the engineering learning landscape, looking for suitable points of entry for them and their students. They do exist, and they do not require extensive technical content knowledge.

Neither side in this scenario faces an impossible task. In the true make-it-up-and-make-it-happen spirit of engineering, it's time to get started with this work, see what works and what doesn't, and go on from there.

 

For breakfast, I had a bowl of cereal with strawberries and blueberries, grapefruit juice, and two cups of coffee (well, maybe three...).

Image credit: Start-Engineering Blog

 

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