Computer Science, Design Thinking, diversity, Education, Engineering, Innovation, STEM

4 Tenets for Diverse PreK-12 Innovation

Today, in Columbus, Ohio, I gave an American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) distinguished lecture on the topic of igniting and sustaining creativity and innovation for diverse PreK – 12, or pre-kindergarten to grade 12, education. As the incoming Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the School of Engineering at the University of Kansas, it was an excellent time for me to summarize four tenets that I developed after reflecting on my years in academia conducting research and outreach in engineering and computer science. Here are my four tenets for diverse PreK-12 innovation:

  1. Everyone has infinite value and potential to learn.
  2. Everyone has innate problem-solving and creative design ability and potential.
  3. Children want to innovate and create solutions for people and things they care about.
  4. Educators must guide and instill this lifelong learning potential in children.

Although these tenets were written for PreK – grade 12 students, I believe they apply to college-age students and beyond as well. These tenets describe the MINDSET that has guided my interaction with students, particularly those underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. I’ll elaborate on each one.

Infinite Value and Learning Potential

Tenet #1: Every child has infinite value and potential to learn. I cannot place a dollar value on a human being. Any amount of money would not be insufficient. When I worked at Apple, a student asked Steve Jobs what he would make if he had all the money in the world. At that time, Apple had several billions of dollars in cash. Essentially Apple had enough money to hire anyone in the world. The limiting factor to a company’s success comes down to the people hired and working on the problem. If you have all the money in the world but don’t have the right talent for the job, then your capital endeavor will be useless. Steve Jobs was concerned with hiring the right people, including black engineers (see my TEDx talk Belonging in Technology: What I learned from Steve Jobs.)

Often people, including teachers and professors, make the mistake of judging a person’s learning potential based on their outward appearance. Sometimes we pre-judge a person’s learning potential based on their household income or the neighborhood they live in. If those pre-judgements were true, I would have never risen to the ranks of a distinguished chair, endowed professor, or associate dean at a major research university. Being from a low-income household was an asset, not a deficit since it allowed me the opportunity to create my own toys, imagine moonshots, build make-believe robots, and go to the public library to read up on the latest science. My Dad and Mom’s bank account was small, but the amount of love and sacrifice they gave me was worth more than having billions. In fact, their love and sacrifice turned into have all six of children earning college degrees including three Ph.D.’s and three Master’s degrees.

Innate Creativity and Problem-Solving Ability

Tenet #2: Every child has innate problem-solving and creative design ability and potential. As a faculty member at Spelman College, I made sure that the students that joined our robotics club, the SpelBots, were reminded that they already had design skills, creativity, and problem-solving skills. If they wanted to apply those abilities and skills to robotics or computer science, they just needed to learn the language, whether it was math or C++. This language would allow them to express abstract thoughts and build concrete artifacts. For example, they could apply their love of dance and music by programming robots to dance (see Jazmine’s humanoid robot dance.)

This tenet was instilled in my SpelBots so that they believed they could solve any problem if they learned the language and investigated any accompanying knowledge they would need. It enabled them to become the first all-female, African American team to compete in RoboCup Osaka 2005 and to tie in a championship match at the RoboCup Japan Open 2009. RoboCup is the university-level “World Cup” of robotics and artificial intelligence held on a different continent each year.

Innovate for Communities

Tenet #3: Children want to innovate and create solutions for people and things they care about. Recently my research team developed a culturally responsive humanoid robotics program and curriculum for underrepresented middle school girls as part of the National Science Foundation’s National Robotics Initiative. Essentially, we allow middle school girls to discover topics of interest that are relevant to themselves and their communities and show them how technology, including robots that can talk and listen to humans, might be used to address those problems. In one of our Co-Robots, or collaborative robots, workshops, a team of middle school Latina girls decided to address the shortage of women working in the STEM fields. They researched sources to prepare a presentation and also programmed a prototype solution. Their solution to this problem involved them creating humanoid robot avatars to act on behalf of the interviewer and the interviewee. They wanted to remove gender bias in a STEM job interview by having the participants answer questions based solely on their knowledge and abilities, not their outward appearance. This is also an example of Tenet #2 at work (i.e. innate creativity and problem-solving ability). Because these students cared about this issue, they were motivated to solve a problem by learning new technology, humanoid robotics programming.

Instill Lifelong Learning

Tenet #4: Educators must guide and instill this lifelong learning potential in children. At the second global grand challenges for engineering summit held in Beijing, China, Dr. Richard Miller, Olin College outlined what he saw as the future of education. The Knowledge Economy was based on what we know and involved the teacher as the “Sage on the Stage”. However, Google helped supplant that model because knowledge content was no longer limited to what we could easily retrieve from our minds. Google made it easy to easily retrieve unlimited knowledge using their search engine.

The Maker Economy moved from what we know to what we could imitate and perfect and having the teacher as the “Guide on the Side”. It’s not just “what you know” but “what you can do”. According to Miller, instead of rows of seats and a blackboard, the learning space is made up of small groups with maker projects.

The Innovation Economy is based on the ideas that students can generate. It’s not just “what you can do” but “what you can conceive. This approach is based on intrinsic motivation and design thinking.

The 2nd Global Grand Challenge Summit highlighted the complex, global multidisciplinary problems our students are facing. These problems require global systems thinking to make sure solutions do not bring about unintended consequences. Students will need to understand diverse cultures along with the coupling of intertwined social, scientific, economic, religious, and political issues. In this context, it is not enough for an engineer to have narrow technical training. An engineer equipped to work in the innovation economy with holistic design thinking skills is needed. These are the types of creative and innovative students we must begin preparing through our PreK – 12 education and beyond.

© 2017 Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D.

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