Summer Simmered with STEM Issues

The Addicks and Barker (shown here) dams in Houston came within inches of overflowing during Hurricane Harvey, as the storm tested the city’s engineering infrastructure as never before.

The Addicks and Barker (shown here) dams in Houston came within inches of overflowing during Hurricane Harvey, as the storm tested the city’s engineering infrastructure as never before.

The heat was on

We already know that engineering and STEM issues crop up in all different areas of our lives. This summer proved no exception. From a highly flammable internal Google memo to progress on diversity challenges to dramatic natural phenomena in the skies and in the water, STEM questions were big parts of summer news stories.

Google, and the tech industry in general, continued grappling with gender issues this summer.

Google, and the tech industry in general, continued grappling with gender issues this summer.

Gender issues bedevil

In July, Google software engineer James Damore posted a 10-page memo on an internal employee discussion forum that slammed, in his view, well-intentioned but ultimately bogus efforts aimed at closing the company’s gender gap. The memo made its way, via tech-oriented online chats and websites, into wider circulation.

People got angry. And counterarguments took all kinds of forms, from a thorough takedown of the pseudo-scientific reasoning to deconstructing his views of engineering to “really, still this?” eye-rolling.

Change is hard

Damore was fired, and it felt like victory to many. But as they say, killing a mosquito doesn’t help if you live near a swamp.

Numerous studies in recent years have explored the systemic, cultural forces that generate gender gaps in engineering and technology fields, notably Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering from 2012. Firing one Google engineer will do only so much to change things.

A surprising way forward?

Efforts to close the gender gap focus both on changing environmental issues women face as well as persuading young women and girls that they can succeed in technical fields. This study, in fact, suggests the latter effort is backfiring.

The argument, “women can do engineering, too!”, in fact, seems more to reinforce assumptions about the gendered nature of the field, rather than make it seem welcoming to females. Outreach, instead, should focus on the intrinsic value and available rewards of STEM study and work, not lead with an appeal specifically to girls.

CS Principles, for the win!

One demonstration of how this tack might be working could be found in July results announced for the new AP Computer Science Principles course. The new course is designed around real-world problems for students who might otherwise assume computing is not a field for them. Astonishingly high numbers of girls and minorities ended up enrolling and testing, almost 30,000 girls and over 22,000 minorities, up 2 ½ to 3 times over the previous year’s rates.

More scouting in the STEM game

The Girl Scouts, too, rolled out new activities meant to illustrate the fun and substance of STEM topics. Twenty-three new badges are available, with a robust online dimension to make the program as widely available as possible. The specific activities range from math to robotics to environmental conservation to engineering to data science.

After visa challenges almost kept them out of the country, the Afghan girls robotics team made it to the FIRST Global competition and won a silver medal for “courageous achievement.”

After visa challenges almost kept them out of the country, the Afghan girls robotics team made it to the FIRST Global competition and won a silver medal for “courageous achievement.”

Triumph of persistence

The most inspiring story of the summer to do with girls and STEM featured a team of Afghan girls coming to the United States to compete in the FIRST Global robotics competition. Denied visas two times, they were allowed to enter the country only after popular outcries and intervention from the White House. While visa problems bedeviled several other teams, the Afghan girls captured imaginations and became stars among their peers.

Mother Nature will be heard (and seen)

Hurricane Harvey and the solar eclipse afforded wildly divergent insights into how engineering can intersect with natural phenomena to shape our experiences with our world.

Houston weathers the worst?

As Harvey demonstrated, Houston has basically been built up into a huge bowl full of manmade surfaces and structures designed to prevent water from sinking back into the ground. Supposed to prevent this bowl from filling up with floodwaters are the very large Addicks and Barker dams, 11 and 13 miles long, respectively.

But they are almost 80 years old, consisting mostly of big piles of earth, and the Army Corps of Engineers have called them two of the six most critically compromised dams in the country. How they rate in comparison to the “Probable Maximum Flood” levels that dams are supposed to withstand makes for uncomfortable reading.

During Harvey, water rose to within inches of each dam’s highest retention walls. Water engineers performed controlled releases from the reservoirs behind both dams to prevent catastrophic overflows. This tactic limited the flooding to just awful, so there’s that, at least.

Meanwhile, up in the sky

The solar eclipse highlighted engineering at both the high-tech and low-tech ends of the spectrum.

On one end of things, the instrumentation and aircraft that NASA deployed to measure, study, record, and transmit images of the eclipse made the event accessible and visible to numbers of people at a scale never before possible. It was a tremendous display of big engineering making public science possible and exciting for millions of people.

Households across the country put their engineering skills to use making cereal box viewers to safely watch the solar eclipse.

Households across the country put their engineering skills to use making cereal box viewers to safely watch the solar eclipse.

At the other end, countless households, including ours, put home engineering chops to use making eclipse viewers out of cereal boxes. Guided by instructions almost ubiquitously available, kids and parents got to design, test, and improve their eclipse-viewing tools. Engineering, all the way around.

And the eclipse itself comes in for comic treatment as the ultimate example of design under constraint in this interview with a cosmic solar engineer. It’s a comprehensive, expert, and funny review of all the ways in which the solar system is set up JUST right to make a solar eclipse happen. (Full disclosure: the piece ends with a defense of intelligent design, which, suffice to say, we do not endorse.)

What else?

How did engineering or STEM more generally shape your summer? Please let us know with comments below. And we invite you to share these thoughts with any interested colleagues or friends.

 


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

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