Tag Archives: STEM

ASQ Asks: What Can We Do to Encourage STEM? I Say: STEAM

zome-2In his March 2015 post, ASQ CEO Paul Borawski asks “What can we do to encourage the next generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professionals?” My answer will be short today because I’ve been actively working on that for the past several months with a senior capstone project team (Cassidy Moellers, Dylan Chance, and Robert Spinoza) at James Madison University – we’re getting ready to finalize the project in the next couple of weeks, and submit an academic paper to the STEAM Journal about how you can use art to catalyze interest and engagement in STEM. [Postscript: Check out our published paper in the STEAM Journal — Radziwill, N. M., Benton, M. C., & Moellers, C. (2015). From STEM to STEAM: Reframing what it means to learn. The STEAM Journal2(1), 3.]

So much innovation in STEM is fueled by imagination and exploration, and in my opinion, we don’t communicate that very well to younger people. A great gateway drug for this purpose is art. There’s even a movement underway to expand out vision of STEM, and more tightly and more essentially integrate aesthetics, form, design, and fun into what we do via STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math).

STEAM doesn’t advocate just doing the arts alongside more traditional science and engineering. It actually requires that we look towards how we can use STEAM to create meaning for ourselves and our communities. In other words, it can help us get our mind off of science and engineering to understand and control the world around us – and focus more on how beautiful and intriguing things are that we can learn in those domains.

The picture above is the interactive zonohedral dome (or “zome”) that our students created specifically to engage others in the fun of integrated science and engineering. Here’s how they summarize their project:

As our communities expand rapidly, both physically and digitally, we can lose our sense of connection and togetherness. Interactive and participatory art interventions cultivate community by provoking engagement in unexpected areas. In this project, the prototype for an interactive zonohedral dome (or “zome”) was constructed as a proof of concept for an art intervention to engage students in collaborative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math ) learning, by creating feelings of connection with the technology and with each other. Consequently, it demonstrates the values of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) movement in education. Design elements (and an assessment approach) were selected based on a comprehensive literature review which focused on the aspects of engagement that would boost participants’ interest in and proficiency with STEM subjects.
A zome is a structure that supports itself solely due to its geometry. No nails or glue are used in the construction. The interactive nature of the structure emerges from sensors that detect occupancy, with music and lights automatically responding to the pattern of people entering and leaving the zome. Many technologies were combined to create this experience, including SketchUp (to design the components), Makerbot Replicator II (to build the structure), Arduino (to detect occupancy via phototransistors), LightShowPi (to generate Fast Fourier transforms of music files and control the frequency and amplitude of audio communicated via LEDs), and RaspberryPi (a microcomputer to run LightShowPi and translate the signals from the Arduino to play audio at pre-designated decibel levels). 
We’ll post a video of the zome in action very soon. It’s so fun to look at, and play with… and what better way to learn programming than to make a structure respond to the presence and motion of the people around it?

Quality of Art & Design in the Digital Age

doug-mirror(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

In a December article in Wired, John Maeda talks about how the art community’s sensibilities were recently challenged by a decision made by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to include videogames in a new category of art there. Although the examples were acquired on the basis that they demonstrate good interaction design, some art critics claim that videogames are not art – that they do not, as per Jonathon Jones, represent an “act of personal imagination.”

Whereas design is focused on solutions, art (according to Maeda) is focused more on creating questions – “the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way ‘forward’ actually is.So should artifacts like video games be accepted into an art collection? The answer, according to Maeda, comes down to how the institution defines quality:

When I was invited to a MoMA Board meeting a couple of years ago to field questions about the future of art with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, we were asked about how MoMA should make acquisitions in the digital age. Schmidt answered, Graduate-style, with just one word: “quality.”

And that answer has stuck with me even today, because he was absolutely right – quality trumps all, whatever the medium and tools are: paints or pixels, canvas or console.

The problem is that what “quality” represents in the digital age hasn’t been identified much further than heuristic-metrics like company IPOs and the market share of well-designed technology products. It’s even more difficult to describe quality when it comes to something as non-quantitative – and almost entirely qualitative – as art and design.

Last month, I shared what I’ve discovered over the past 7 years, as I’ve aimed to answer the question What is Quality? By applying the ISO 9000/Mitra perspective that I described, the MoMA dilemma (and others like it) may be easier to resolve. My approach centers around the ISO 9000 definition that quality is the “totality of characteristics of an entity that bears upon its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs.”

These stated and implied needs translate into quality attributes.

For art, the object of art is the entity. If that art is functional or interactive, then there are stated needs that relate to its ability to function within a given context or towards a given purpose. These may relate to quality attributes like conformance, reliability, or durability. (If the piece is not functional or interactive, then there are quite possibly no stated needs to meet). However, there will always be implied needs which relate to the meaning and purpose of the art; does the object help achieve the goals of art in general, or of the individual interacting with or observing the art?

Similarly, since art is in many ways a personal experience, does the object help the individual by inspiring, connecting, engaging, encouraging, illuminating, clarifying, catalyzing, transforming, encouraging, or revealing aspects of the self and/or the environment? Does the object stimulate an emotional experience? (Any of these aspects might indicate that the object of art is meeting quality attributes that are related to implied needs.)

A subset of Mitra’s model is relevant to examining the quality of art and design. Note that to assess the quality of an example of art, such as a videogame, we might focus more on the objective quality and the consequences of quality, because the antecedents will be more useful if we are attempting to improve quality over time:

Antecedents of Quality (conditions that must be in place to quality to be achieved): contextual factors (e.g. whether the environment/culture – or enough people within it – are ready to recognize the piece as art), quality improvement process (what mechanisms are in place to continually improve the ability of the artist/team to deliver high quality work, e.g. practice or evaluating other artwork), and capabilities (whether the artist has the skill to create and share the art).

Objective/Product Quality: This asks “how well does the entity meet the stated and implied needs?” Does it meet all of them, or just some of them, and to what degree or extent?

Consequences of Quality: This is the combined effect of the quality perception process (whether the piece meets each individual’s standards for value) and the broader impacts that the piece has on individuals and/or society in general. Quality perception is, necessarily, an individual process – whereas broader impacts involves factors such as how many people did this piece impact, and to what extent.

So, are videogames art? First, we have to check to make sure they meet their stated needs – and since they were produced and successfully distributed by companies to people who played and enjoyed those games, we can assume that the stated needs were met. So, what are the implied needs of videogames as art? This depends, like many things, on how you select and define those stated needs. Ultimately, you want to take into account the emotional and transformative impact of the piece on one person, and then across individual and demographic designations to see the impact of the piece within and between social groups.

IMHO, I was personally inspired to learn more about computer programming before I turned 10 by playing lots and lots of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. I was an empowered fighter in a world of power pellets, ghosts, strawberries, and bananas, and so were lots of my friends. We connected with one another, and with the era in history that is the 1980’s, as we do today whenever someone reflects on those games or the arcades in which they were played. Because the games inspired in me an emotional experience, that today is tinged with nostalgia, I’d say that videogames are just as much art as the beautiful cars of the 1950’s that catalyzed the same feelings in people of that generation.

Kudos to MoMA for casting their net wider.

What do you all think? How can we effectively assess the quality of art and design?

Adding a Little STEAM: On Risk, Failure, and the Quality of Higher Education

doug-fullsteamahead(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

On Thursday, Morgan and I attended the first meeting of the Congressional STEAM Caucus on Capitol Hill… “a briefing on changing the vocabulary of education to include both art and science – and their intersections – to prepare our next generation of innovators to lead the 21st century economy.” STEAM seeks to promote creativity and innovation as key elements of Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) education. The “A” in STEAM reflects the growing awareness that art and design can be effective enablers, catalyzing the kind of creative thinking and openness to risk-taking that is critical for success in STEM. Although initially conceived by John Maeda of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the idea is catching on, and there are now many supporters scattered across the country.

Why is STEAM gaining steam? As expressed by the panelists at the Caucus, many now recognize that students just aren’t being prepared by our educational system to be creative, independent thinkers who are willing to take risks and experiment. On View from the Q this month, ASQ CEO Paul Borawski raised the same issue, citing the recent ASQ STEM careers survey of young adults: students know that you have to experiment (and sometimes fail) to be successful in STEM, and yet they admit that they’re afraid to take those risks.

Paul asks:

I want to know how you— the quality professional — handle failure in the workplace. Do you try again until you find a solution? Are you penalized for failure? Or do you avoid it altogether? How much risk are you willing to take to find solutions to quality challenges?

One of the reasons Morgan and I started the Burning Mind Project is that we wanted our students to feel comfortable taking risks, and accept full personal responsibility for the evolution of their own learning process. We use techniques like “choose your own grade” and “grading by accumulation” to encourage risk taking, eliminate penalties for “traditional failure,” and shift the focus to understanding and embracing quality standards on a personal and visceral level. We like what STEAM represents because the approach embraces divergent thinking, and thus innately supports the development of positivity and emotional alignment in an educational setting, which (a la Fredrickson) broadens the ability of students to see new opportunities and possibilities

That is, to invent (and ultimately – by understanding how to create value for others – innovate).

Your weaknesses may actually be the keys that reveal your secret strengths. As educators, it’s up to us to help facilitate this process of discovery, not to fail our students for engaging in it. As business leaders, this can be more difficult because many of us have convinced ourselves that we should only have to pay for those things that “pay off.” However, the lessons learned from traditional failure are often the most empowering, even though our ability to honor them may be weak.

A Quality-Based Prescription for Stimulating STEM – Part I – Rethink the Educational System

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

In his February post, ASQ CEO Paul Borawski writes about the importance of encouraging today’s youth to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In particular, he asks what we can do to help young people get more interested. This first post is part of a three-part series that I’ll present in February to explain some of my thoughts on how to do this: I) Rethink the Educational System, II) Get Rid of Grades, and III) Develop Better Gateway Drugs.

(The first theme is general, and applies to both STEM and non-STEM disciplines; the third one will be particularly fun, but you’re going to have to wait until the end of the month to find out what I mean by this!)

This post, Part I, is about rethinking the educational system. I know that I’m not the first person to do this, nor the last, and my goal here is not to be comprehensive or justify my opinions – but to give you a sense of how I feel as a STEM educator at the college level.

I’d like to do this from the quality perspective. So first, it’s important to recognize that there is a difference between perceived quality and perceived value (according to Mitra’s Model). Here’s the difference:

  • Perceived quality is your assessment of how well a product, service or experience will satisfy your expectations before you buy, adopt, or experience it.
  • Perceived value depends on how well the product, service or experience meets your expectations after you buy, adopt or experience it.
  • Perceived quality and perceived value are moderated by your expectations. Your expectations can (and often do!) change after you buy, adopt or experience something. Perceived value is NOT invariant, nor is it independent – your perception of value can change after you buy, adopt or experience similar products or participate in similar activities, because then you have a more rich basis for comparison. Perceived value can also change over time.
  • Actual quality is the totality of characteristics of the product, service or experience that enable it to meet the stated and implied needs of all stakeholders (ISO 9000: para 3.1.5).

If the perceived value of your higher education remains strong over time (e.g. 10, 20 or 30 years after you graduate), this is a good indication that the quality of the program was high – that it enabled you to meet your needs, the needs of your employers as stakeholders, and/or the needs of your communities and society in general. Even if one of these three classifications of needs is satisfied, perceived value will be preserved over time. If we improve the quality of the educational system now, our personal perceived value of our own educations should be high – and remain high – over the course of our careers and lives. So that’s what I think we should aim for. But how? Here are some ideas:

#1 Institute a Kanban Educational System. You don’t actually learn something – like really learn something – until you need to use it. As educators, we need to change our “push” system of education to a “pull” system, where students can signal for new knowledge and resources as the problems demand. Quality Bob’s recommendation of combining Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge with statistical thinking (http://roberthmitchell.blogspot.com/2012/02/stem-and-quality-statistical-thinking.html) would be helpful here. So would a more widespread adoption of team-based learning, which has become established as a pedagogy.

#2 Abolish “Throughput” as the Key System Performance Metric. Granted, it’s more difficult to set up Socratic exercises (like those that would be required to drive a “pull” educational system) that will lead students to discover the principles and techniques that drive solutions. It’s not difficult, however, to set up the kind of environment that you might encounter in any office: we have a project that needs to be done, and someone’s going to have to sit down and figure out how to do it. But even this approach takes time, effort, and a lot of interaction between the students and their educators, and between the students and other students – it does not align with the dynamic duo of performance metrics, the production of student credit-hours and the number of degrees granted.

Higher education has become more commoditized over the past few decades, which (I believe) is eroding the overall quality of the institution itself. But “getting rid of the urge to push people through” is a tricky suggestion, because it also implies that we may have to reconsider the notion of higher education as a profit center. I would love to keep students in my class until they achieve a minimum level of competence, even if it takes years. But that’s not necessarily practical, and as I think back on my own experience as a STEM undergraduate, there are plenty of things I didn’t “get” until years later when I NEEDED them to get my job done. Refer to point #1 above.

#3 Admit that the Customer is Not Always Right. A recent study indicated that increasing patient satisfaction in hospitals raises healthcare costs and leads to more patient deaths.

What the patients think is best, and what makes them the happiest as consumers of the healthcare system, is not what keeps them alive. And so it is with students in higher education. Students have a financial and emotional incentive to just get through a class. Particularly since they’ve been conditioned to speculate vacuously about how ANY of the stuff they learn could POSSIBLY be useful once they get out of school, it will be difficult for them to anticipate – let alone appreciate – the value of what they are (in many cases) being forced to think about. Some students, as well, will not be satisfied unless they get an easy A without having to do any work. So I advocate tempering the notion of student satisfaction as a measure of how well we’re doing as educators.

#4 Abandon Grades. One of Deming’s Seven Deadly Diseases was the practice of performance appraisals, and grading in academia is no different than what he was rallying about decades ago. There are tons of reasons why grading is not an appropriate – or even an adequate – practice for assuring credentials or credibility. My friend Mary Pat has more to say about this, in particular, because she advocates standardized testing as a “minimum hurdle” that we should expect students to be able to accomplish (or else, not give them the “magic piece of paper”).

Some teachers are hard, some teachers are easy. An A in my class is not the same as an A in another professor’s class. Furthermore, how can I say that what I allocated the most points to on that last exam was really the most important thing my students needed to know? For STEM courses, the recent ASQ survey indicated that there is a perception that way too much work is required, and it would be hard to get the grades that would lead to a good job. This “perception of difficulty” leads many to steer clear of STEM fields, and is entirely rooted in the whole grading nightmare.

More on this particular can-o-worms in Part II.