A Week of Wonder – A Wonderful Week With AAUW TechTrek

IMG_1499Sixty rising 8th grade girls descended on New Mexico Tech last Saturday to spend a week exploring STEM at Tech Trek New Mexico, a free week-long residential camp supported by the AAUW.      For many of these girls, it was their first extended stay away from home.   For all of them, it was their first opportunity to attend a STEM camp.   They all seemed to be filled with a mixture of equal parts nervous anticipation and excitement.  I would have to say those feelings were shared by the all-female faculty and staff who greeted them.

I was one of the core class teachers for the camp.    I have taught engineering classes at summer camps for about five years, but this was my first chance to do so for a group that was entirely female.    It was something I have always wanted to do   As  a high school student, I had attended several STEM camps and had really great experiences but the camps had always included both males and females.   It was inevitable in those environments that things surrounding gender stereotypes would always arise.   I was curious to see how things would change when the room was completely filled with women and girls.

Core Classes 

Each day, the girls spent the morning in a core-class.   The girls were sorted into core-classes based on their stated preferences before camp started and then spent the entire week exploring a central theme in that class.

  • Stellar Explorations – The students in this class explored stellar systems by creating models and engaging in simulations.
  • Cyber Security – The students in this class learned how information is translated into a binary system, how to encode/decode information using a Caesar Cypher, and about safe internet use practices.   They also created Women in White Hats – a group of young women who hack for good.   They learned how to evaluate cyber security on a web site.
  • App Invention – The students in this class used a platform developed by MIT to create a functioning app for an android device.
  • Motorized Toys – The students in this class responded to an RFP for a motorized toy.   They built an understanding of gear ratios, measured/analyzed the performance of motorized simple and compound gear trains speed and rim force),  measured/analyzed rim force on different sized gears, calculated torque, and determined what type of gear ratios will yield different performance results.   They then designed/built a motorized toy to meet the criteria outlined in the RFP.   After completing a testing cycle to ensure performance criteria were met, they presented their proposals.
  • Robotics – Students in this class learned how to build and program a robot that would track a line.   Next, they added an arm to the robot that would carry a ping pong ball.   They were challenged to program their robot to track a course and conclude by depositing the ping pong ball in a box.


Students spent their afternoons attending workshops.   Each workshop was an hour and a half, enabling them to attend two different workshops each afternoon.   They had workshops on a wide array of topics. Each of these workshops was taught/facilitated by a female technical professional.

  • Photonic Cooking
  • Science Writing
  • Weather
  • Optics
  • Ozobotswi
  • Nanotechnology
  • Physiology
  • Electricity & Magnetism
  • Music with Raspberry Pi
  • Water
  • Rocks & Fossils
  • The social life of pennies


Evenings were filled with fun and further exploration.   Monday, the girls had a pool party.   Those girls who did not want to swim stayed at the dorm and played board games.   Tuesday, the girls split into two groups.   Half of them went to the Mineral Museum and half of them  learned about Ham Radios.   Wednesday, the girls attended a dinner with professional women in STEM and had the opportunity to talk to them about their work.   Thursday was a repeat of Tuesday with the girls switching to the activity they did not attend earlier in the week.   Friday was movie night.

A Week of Wonder

Everywhere I turned, all week long, I was filled with wonder at so many young women actively engaged in STEM.

  •   Girls were solving problems, analyzing things, creating things.    They were thinking at the highest levels  on Bloom’s Taxonomy.
  • Girls were building knowledge and experience that will help to level the playing field with their male counterparts in the future.


  • Girls were demonstrating extraordinary competence in STEM.    In my motorized toy class, two of the groups demonstrated the most innovative solutions to the challenge I have seen among students  in the last five years with this project.  One of those groups created an axle by stringing together wire in order to create a three-wheeled vehicle to reduce weight and improve performance.    They are the only group that has ever been able to create a toy that would travel 3 m in 3 s, climb a 1 meter course at a 15 degree slope in less than 2 s, and also climb a 20 degree slope.


  • Girls were defying stereotypical thinking  about girls in STEM and building a foundation of self-efficacy that will serve them well.
  • Girls  were actively engaging with female role-models, making it a little easier to see themselves in roles usually held by men.

I think one of the girls summed it up best when she responded to the question of what she liked best.   She said, “getting to be with other girls who are just like me.”   Being a girl who likes math and science can sometimes be a lonely place.   This week, the world got a little bigger for each of these girls and that is a wonderful thing.

As I reflect on the week, I see so many ways that the camp worked to address the variables for women’s success in engineering and computing.   In the AAUW report,Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing the research speaks to the need to combat stereotypes and biases, the need to emphasize social relevance,  and the need to cultivate a sense of belonging.   It also addresses what needs to be done by the various stakeholders.    I think the section for educators is particularly relevant.

  • Emphasize that engineering and computing skills are learned, rather than innate.   Practicing and developing skills are part of the process, as is persistence.
  • Adversity is a common experience to everyone.   It should not signal to a student that she does not belong.
  • Students should be taught about the effects of stereotype threat in order to reduce their effects.  (Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, a Stanford professor addresses the impacts of stereotype on academic performance – it impacts high achievers the most-and should be a must read for every educator).
  • Give a broad range of students exposure to computer science.
  • Highlight the broad applications of computer science and engineering.
  • Highlight the ways in which engineering and computer science help people.  (Many young women are drawn to the idea of making the world a better place).
  • Provide opportunities for girls to interact with women and men with whom they can identify in engineering/computing.
  • Create a welcoming environment for girls in math, science, and engineering.
  • Provide opportunities for girls to tinker and build confidence and interest in design and computing.

One Regret…

Roughly one fourth of the girls who applied to this camp were admitted.   The applicants who were not accepted were well-qualified, but only a certain number could be accommodated.   The AAUW and other sponsors were incredibly generous in their support of the camp.   I am thankful for all that they did to support STEM education for girls. I just wish that every girl could have this kind of experience.


I Will Not Let You Define Me – But I Can’t Escape the Impact of Your Definition

Research has shown that high-achieving, mathematically talented young women underperform in advanced mathematics compared to their male counterparts.   The reason isn’t what you would expect, though.   It has nothing to do with genetics or biological abilities.   It has nothing to do with motivation.   It has everything to do with bigger, harder questions.

Claude Steele hypothesized that their underperformance was tied to what he calls “stigmatization pressure”.    To explain “stigmatization pressure”, he refers to a well-known experiment that was conducted in an elementary class shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.  This experiment was then repeated for a documentary.   In the experiment, students in the class are grouped into two groups.   Blue-eyed children are treated well.   Brown-eyed children are stigmatized – they are forced to wear special collars, are socially isolated, and academically down-trodden.   Not surprisingly, the academic performance of the brown-eyed children falls.   On the second day, roles are reversed.   The academic performance of the brown-eyed children rises and that of the blue-eyed children falls.   The stigmatization of being of perceived as of lesser ability, of lesser value directly impacted the students ability to perform academically.

Dr Steele examined data comparing the mathematical performance of males and females in advanced mathematics.    He compared students who fell within the same SAT score band upon admission to University of Michigan.   He found that the women underperformed their male counterparts.   He hypothesized that this was a result of “stigmatization pressure”.   The women, whether they believed it or not, were aware of the stereotype that women are not as good at math as men.   This knowledge created a pressure to not confirm that stereotype.   When women took a test, they carried additional pressure that men did not carry because they did not face the same stereotype.    The stigmatization pressure negatively impacted their academic performance.   He conducted experiments to confirm his hypothesis.   (The details are in his book Whistling Vivaldi – How Stereotypes affect us and What We Can Do). 

“..the results were dramatic.   They gave us a clear answer.   Among participants who were told the test did show gender differences, where the women could still feel the threat of stigma confirmation, women did worse than equally skilled men, just as in the earlier experiment.   But among participants who were told the test did not show gender differences, where the women were free of confirming anything about being a woman, women performed at the same  high level as equally skilled men.   Their underperformance was gone. ” 

For me, this is personal.   Deeply personal.   I was that young woman in advanced math and engineering classes.   I know that pressure.    I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I felt constant pressure to be perfect.   On my first day of Intro to Electrical Engineering, a male peer made a comment about women not belonging in the class.   In my junior year, my electronic professor made a comment that is seared into my brain.   “Oh, good.   We have one girl for each lab section, that way we can all have a good laugh.”   It should have cost him his job.   It certainly intimidated me.   I had no prior knowledge and was going to be expected to use a bunch of equipment that I had never even seen before.   And, there was no way I was going to do anything but defy his opinion about me just because I was female.   I had to be perfect.   I don’t know if I underperformed.   I did well and went on  to a great graduate program and a great job as an  electrical engineer.   I do know what stigmatization pressure is, though, and it is not pretty.  I can refuse to let someone else define me, but I can’t escape their definition because I have to expend an awful lot of energy  defying that stereotype.

The personal element of this conversation influences much of what I do in my classroom.   I can’t protect my girls from that stereotype outside the walls of my room.   I  can give them an environment in which they are celebrated.   I can give them an environment in which they gain some real hands-on exposure to engineering so that they won’t find that lab experience quite so intimidating.   I can tell them that I think they would make incredible engineers.    I can try to give them such a strong sense of themselves that they will defy the stereotypes they face.   Is it enough, though?   How do you fight someone else’s idea?

I haven’t finished the book yet, so I don’t know what Dr Steele has to say about what I can or should do for my girls.   I am compelled to find answers, answers about how to help my girls and other under-represented minorities meet their full potential.

Summer Reading – Understanding & Defying Stereotypes

Summer is dancing just around the corner.    I have 3 1/2 hours left of this academic year.    Somehow, it seems too much and not nearly enough all at the same time.  I feel this way every year.   I am tired and in need of rest but will miss seeing these kids every day.

As I contemplate the luxury of a swath of unscheduled time for the first time in six years, I have a long list of things I want to do.   High on that list is catching up on some reading.   Two of the books I really want to tackle this summer are Whistling Vivaldi and Lab Girl.



Whistling Vivaldi explores how stereotypes affect us and what we can do.   I am hoping I will gain insights that will help me better understand myself and my students.





Lab Girl is a memoir about a female scientist.   I am hoping for a nice diversion and perhaps a book that I can share with my students to break some of those stereotypes.


Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention – #ILookLikeAnEngineer

Necessity is the mother of invention.   Unfortunately, the “necessity” can be all too easily forgotten as an essential component in education.    I teach what I teach, in part, out of necessity but it is my necessity not that of my students.   I need to teach the curriculum that I teach because it aligns with the standards set forth by the state but it is not a burning necessity for my students no matter how many times I tell them the essential questions and how they will use it in the future.   Knowing something only becomes a burning necessity in the mind of an eleven year old when they see a need to know it so they can do something they want right now.

So how do we create that need to know?   I think we give kids real problems that they really want to solve.   It’s not something that I can do every day, but I try really hard to find time and space to do it every year.   To do this, I  compact lessons and I accelerate where I can.   This year, I managed to squeeze out almost a month at the end of the year to do an engineering project with my students.

Request For Proposal

Students were presented with a Request For Proposal (RFP) from a fake toy company.    The proposal indicated that this fake toy company was seeking to expand market share to include more girls in their customer base for motorized toys.    The toy company wanted those bidding on the contract to conduct market research and build a toy to meet that need.    The toy company indicated that the toy must meet one of three different criteria:  travel 3 m in 3 s, climb 1 m at a 15 degree slope in 2 s, or climb 1 m at a 30 degree slope.

Creating a Team and Conducting Market Research

Students were assigned teams and formed mini-companies that would bid on the RFP.   They created a team name, logo, and slogan.   Then, they conducted customer surveys with both adults and children in the target age range.    They analyzed the data and determined the type of toy the customer was seeking.

Building Technical Knowledge

ChJmkKSUkAEA9Q-During the same time-frame, students built knowledge of how gear trains work.   They began by building gears on a frame and exploring relationships between the rotations of the gears and the number of teeth on the gears (gear ratios, teeth ratios).   Next, they added a motor and wheels so that they could calculate the rate on a 3 m course and measure the rim force on the wheel.   They repeated this process with gear ratios ranging from 1:3 up to 225:1.   As they did this, they were building important skill in construction as well as an understanding of the different kinds of performance they might expect from different kinds of gear ratios.    From there, they measured rim force on the tooth of a gear connected to the motor.    They did so for different sized gears and then learned how to calculate torque.    With this knowledge, they could explain why certain gear ratios would not move and why certain gear ratios would be well-suited to climbing.   At this point, they had built sufficient knowledge to answer the first stages of that burning question of how to build a toy that would meet each of the criteria.

Making a Prototype

Each team began construction of a basic prototype to meet their desired criteria.   This amounted to attaching the motor and the desired gear train along with the wheels on the frame structure.   Students then tested their motorized frame to see if it met the criteria.   Once they had a basic working prototype, they started constructing a body to give the toy the desired aesthetics.    As they constructed the body, they continued to test the toy to make sure the additional weight did not place them out of compliance with the criteria in the RFP.    They repeated tests multiple times and used median values in order to eliminate outlier trials resulting from poor testing technique.

Sealing the Deal – Writing a Written Proposal and Giving an Oral Presentation


When the toy was completed, each team wrote a written report in response to the RFP and prepared an oral presentation.   The final stage of the project required each team to present their toy to a panel of judges representing the fake toy company.   I recruited 3 engineers and a soon-to-be lawyer to represent both the technical and business interests of the company for the panel of judges.   (I am lucky enough to have Sandia National Laboratories nearby and willing to provide this kind of support to encourage excellence in math and science.)   The judges selected a winning team based on the presentation and a demonstration of the toy.   (The winning team members each got a gift card to Cold Stone Creamery).

While this last stage is not “math”, it is very much a part of what engineers do and I wanted my students to appreciate the importance of being able to communicate effectively as an engineer.  Reading, writing, and speaking are just as much essential skills for an engineer as are math and science mastery

Why It Mattered

  • Students got to experience the engineering process, which is so much more powerful than hearing about it.
  • Girls had to learn how to make something and how to make it work.   It’s not that they are any less adept, but many of them are much less experienced.   This results in a certain amount of hesitancy, initially,   Having to make it work pushes them past this hesitancy and they discover just how good they are at it.    Giving girls this experience and confidence is important in leveling the playing field when it comes to engineering.
  • Students used the math that they have learned this year to do something real that mattered to them (finding unit rates, conducting surveys, making data representations, analyzing data to make decisions, finding medians, using equations to calculate torque, measuring radii).
  • Students had to find ways to work together – teams could not shift part way through the month long project.
  • Students who lacked confidence as speakers learned that public speaking is a learned skill and that you get better at it with practice.   (I made each team do a dry run of their presentation in front of their classmates and get feedback the day before the final presentations.  They took the feedback and were so much better the second day.)

Gallery of Toys


The Machine Awakes – Making Connections to Bring Learning to Life

I have always been a math/science person.   In school, my electives generally reflected that.   I used them to squeeze in more math and science classes wherever I could.   The arts were a gaping hole in my education.   I have never taken an art class.   I  play the piano poorly.    It’s not that I don’t appreciate the arts.   I just never felt like I had any particular talent in that area so I didn’t really pursue them.   I had a fixed mindset with regard to the arts long before I knew what a fixed mindset was.    I’m trying to expand my thinking, and have been looking for ways to connect math to the arts.

A few months ago, I approached our band director about the possibility of creating a cross-curricular event focusing on machines.      The music department was “all in”.   The art teacher and a science teacher also agreed to be part of the event.

We held the event last night.    Here is a quick snapshot of the night.


As visitors arrived, they were able to peruse an exhibit of student work relating to machines in the lobby.   Tables displayed instruments created by band students.

Simple machines created by art students were also on display.


The exhibit also displayed roller coasters created by science students.


As visitors perused the exhibit, they were serenaded by various small ensembles from the band.

Video Game Expo

After seeing the exhibits in the lobby, visitors proceeded to the computer labs where they played student-created video games.   These were games that I had my students create in February as part of joint Math-Social Studies project.   For the project, students could work individually or with a partner to create a video game about one of the ancient civilizations about which they had learned in Social Studies.   The game had to include at least three levels:  one level focusing on the civilization’s geography, one level focusing on the civilization’s religion, and one level focusing on the civilization’s history.


Motorized Toys

Visitors could then see demonstrations of student-created motorized toys.   These are toys that I have my students designing, building and testing as part of an engineering project.    This has been a way to introduce students to the engineering process, going from receipt of a Request for Proposal to a final written proposal and oral presentation before a panel of judges.     The project has allowed students to use math in very real ways as they have explored different gear ratios and calculated unit rates to determine if the toy was meeting the speed requirement specified in the RFP.



Finally, visitors attended the final band performance of the year.    Their focus piece for the evening was Machines Take Flight.


So would I do this again?   In a heartbeat.   The process was a great experience for students as they tied related ideas together in so many different ways.   It was also a great way to bring our community into our school.

From a strictly math perspective, I think this was incredibly valuable for my students.    They had to take an unframed problem and create a framework for solving it.   They had to apply the things they knew about ratios and rates in a real context.   Some of them had a hard time seeing how to do the ratios or the rates in such an open context.   Forcing them to do so, to figure out what to do and how to do it outside of a math problem was so good for them.   Giving girls the chance to build something real and figure out how to make it work was so powerful.   They went from hesitant to confident.   They will not be as hesitant the next time.



My Favorite Thing -Future #ILookLikeAnEngineer


When I was in high school, my Calculus teacher approached me and told me that I really should take his Physics class.   He said he was pretty sure I would like it.   I had taken several classes with him and really liked them.   I decided to go for it even though I had already taken more science classes than I needed.   Within a week, there was this amazing aha moment.   It was an epiphany.    I had always really liked math but this class connected it to the real world.   This was what I could do with math.   It was the beginning of my path into engineering.

Giving a young woman that moment, that awakening to the possibilities that come with math, is my favorite thing.   (I like to see my boys have that moment, too.   As a female engineer, though, reaching a girl is magic for me.)   I embed engineering in my math instruction wherever I can.   I’m limited by the constraints of squeezing a lot of curriculum into what feels like a little time, but I bring in engineering wherever I can.

  • Electrical Circuits

During our unit on fractions, I introduce my students to some basic electrical circuitry.   I teach them how to build series and parallel circuits on breadboards and how to use a multi-meter to measure current and resistance.   Naturally, they must do the math (which involves fractions) to calculate the expected result before taking the measurement.   Otherwise, they won’t know which scale to use on the multi-meter.   They then compare their measured results to their theoretical results and we talk about why they differ a little bit.      Several months after we did this, I found out that a couple of my girls took their experience home with them.   Not long after the unit, they had a problem with lights in their house.   When their dad got out the multi-meter to figure out what was wrong, those girls were right there with him testing circuits.


  • Video Game Development

The week before winter break, I teach my students how to do some simple coding using SCRATCH (a visual, object-oriented programming language developed by MIT).   I also bring in a guest speaker who is a co-owner of a video game company.    He talks to my students about the process involved in creating a game:   the necessity for a plan,   the importance of perseverance, the need to test the code both for errors and for playability, the importance of balancing reward and challenge for the player.   Last year, he spoke to my students via Skype (the benefits of a technological age).   This year, he happened to be in town, so he spoke to my students in person.   In another week, my students will start to work creating their own video games as a joint project with their social studies class (the game has to relate to a civilization studied in social studies).   I do the upfront work teaching the coding before winter break because it is highly engaging at a time when student engagement levels sometimes go astray.   It also gives them the long winter break to play with the ideas they have learned if they are so inclined.   Later this spring, when the video games are completed (and we have once again regained access to computer labs after testing), we will have a video game expo to showcase their work.

I love this project because learning does not get any more authentic than this.

  • #ILookLikeAnEngineer

Early in January, I host an event in which each one of my girls interview a female technical professional.      Each girl meets 1:1 with a female who works in a STEM career.   The girls interview the women to find out about their work, their interest in math, and advice they might have.   (The interview will later be turned into an essay for their Language Arts class).   After completing their interviews, the girls have lunch with the women who have come for the event.   The lunch provides time for the girls to interact with the women on a less formal level and also provides the opportunity for the girls to talk with several other women and hear about their work/experiences.   I am very intentional in doing this as an event.   I think it is incredibly powerful for these girls to see a room teeming with women who work in STEM.

  • End of Year Project

Every year, I spend the last three to four weeks of school engaging in an engineering project of some kind.   The project varies from year to year.  Sometimes, it is an airplane project where we learn about flight, aspect ratios, and make models that we test.   Sometimes, it is making trebuchets and studying the flight patterns.   Sometimes, it is making a motorized toy.   Sometimes, it is a hydrogen fuel cell powered toy.   The goal is to engage students in some kind of hands-on engineering before I let them go for the summer.

My favorite thing, it goes something like this.