Girls outscore boys on engineering test

Eighth-grade girls outperformed boys on the first national test of technological literacy, reports Education Week. The Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) exam, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), was designed to measure problem-solving skills rather than knowledge.

Technology and engineering are stressed at Girls' Middle School, a private school in Palo Alto, CA.

Technology and engineering are stressed at Girls’ Middle School, a private school in Palo Alto, CA.

Overall, 43 percent of students tested as proficient or advanced.

The largest gaps were the familiar ones: Black, Latino, low-income and urban students did significantly worse.

Students were given “a series of virtual scenarios aimed at testing their problem-solving abilities and their ability to use information about technology and engineering to develop solutions,” writes Jackie Zubrzycki.

There was no evidence that the gap in scores was due to girls’ reading ability, said Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

As they take the test, students work through multistep scenarios that range from creating a historically accurate museum exhibit about a drought to developing safe bike lanes in a city. Students are provided with background knowledge about the topics before they are asked to answer questions about them: One of the scenarios included a background video about iguanas before students were asked to design an ideal iguana habitat.

. . . on a task related to designing a bike lane, 76 percent of students successfully identified components of a safe bike lane, the first step; 64 percent were able to identify potential adjustments to a sample set of bike lanes to make them safer by, for instance, expanding the lanes; 45 percent were able to successfully redesign the route using an interactive tool. But a smaller portion, 11 percent, could explain the rationale behind the route that they chose.

NAEP plans similar scenario-based tasks on other exams, starting with social studies or history.

Nearly two-thirds of test-takers said they’d learned about solving problems and fixing things at home rather than at school.

When I grew up, girls weren’t supposed to fix things and my father believed that Jews couldn’t fix things, so I didn’t learn much about how things work. Other than magic! I do have good problem-solving skills — if background knowledge is not required.

Take a look at the TEL task video and see if you think this is a useful way to measure technical and engineering skills.

Bring a clock, go to jail

A high school freshman in Irving, Texas, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was eager to establish his reputation as an inventor. So he brought in a homemade digital clock to show his engineering teacher.  When his English teacher saw it, Ahmed was handcuffed and arrested on charges of bringing a “hoax bomb.”

“He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation,” said James McLellan, a police spokesman. “It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car.”

Which it wasn’t.

Ahmed was suspended for three days, but no charges will be filed.

He’ll miss more school next month to attend Astronomy Night, a celebration of science, at the White House on Oct. 19.

Ahmed's clock

Ahmed’s clock

Ahmed likes to tinker. “A box full of circuit boards sits at the foot of Ahmed’s small bed,” reports the Dallas Morning News. His room looks “like the back room at RadioShack.”

He built the clock — a circuit board and power supply wired to a digital display inside a case — in 20 minutes, he says.

He was pulled out of class to be questioned by four police officers.

“They were like, ‘So you tried to make a bomb?’” Ahmed said.

“I told them no, I was trying to make a clock.”

“He said, ‘It looks like a movie bomb to me.’”

Ahmed’s father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed, is an entrepreneur who’s twice run for president in his native Sudan.

Getting into college — in 8th grade

College admissions won’t be a hurdle for eighth-grade achievers at Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, a Milwaukee charter that enrolls many Hispanic and low-income students.

Starting next year, would-be engineers with good grades will be offered a spot in Marquette’s engineering school — if they earn high grades and SAT scores in high school.

Career awareness starts early at Bruce-Guadalupe School: Third graders tour a construction site in downtown Milwaukee.

Career awareness starts early: Third graders from Bruce-Guadalupe tour a construction site in downtown Milwaukee.

“I definitely want to be an engineer,” said Connor Redding, 12. “It’s one of my dreams to help people out and build stuff that benefits other people.”

Marquette will provide “advising, career exploration, financial assistance for qualifying students, the opportunity to shadow engineering students and professionals, and access to academic and career fairs,” the engineering school promises. Financial aid will be critical.

The K-8 school also has partnered with nearby Carroll University’s health sciences program. This year, 10 eighth-grade achievers interested in medical careers received acceptance letters, reports the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Like the future engineers, students must keep up their academic performance in high school.

Students, many of whom would become the first in their family to attend college, gain exposure to fields in high demand including nursing, exercise physiology, athletic training, physician’s assistant and physical therapy. The program, in turn, offers Carroll the opportunity to diversify its student population, which is 85% white.

The private school hopes to get foundations to help fund scholarships for Preparing and Advancing Students for Opportunities in Science (PASOS) students.

In addition, Alverno College, a Catholic women’s school, is offering early admissions to young female students.

Updating the Magic School Bus

Has The Magic School Bus reached the end of the road? asks Alexandra Ossola in The Atlantic. After all, the popular science series requires kids to read.  That’s so 20th century.

I recently came across a copy of a relic from my childhood: The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body. In it, Ms. Frizzle, the “strangest teacher in the school,” shrinks down her class (and their bus) so they can travel through the human body. They see the digestive system hard at work, blood cells up close, and muscles in action, with quips from characters in the comic book format.

School Bus, which debuted in the mid-1980s, made it to video in the ’90s.

Despite the shift to digital devices, “the heart of science communication still hinges on narrative,” argues Ossola. But the story may be told through video games, movies and websites.

Girls in particular are captivated by stories, including those that involve science. . . . By integrating STEM and narrative literature, educators hope that more girls will stick in those fields.

This year, I gave GoldieBlox engineering kits to my six-year-old niece and five-year-old step-granddaughter. Each kit comes with a story about how Goldie and her friends design and build something to solve a problem.


Major decisions: What graduates earn

College pays a lot more to the numerate than to the nice. Graduates in engineering, computer science and other quantitative fields will earn a lot more than people who major in early childhood education, family sciences (home economics), theology, fine arts, social work, and elementary education. Over a working lifetime, a chemical engineer can expect to earn more than $2 million. The average graduate with a four-year degree in early childhood education can expect $800,000.

Dollars for degrees: Engineering pays

North Carolina is making it easier for students to predict the dollar value of college degrees. A new state web site will provide median earnings and employment by major, degree and campus.

All the top-paying two- and four-year degrees are in engineering and technology. A four-year graduate in nuclear engineering can expect to earn nearly $90,000 in five years, while the median income for theater graduates is $10,400 after five years.

Pretty or smart?

Verizon’s viral Inspire Her Mind ad is based on dubious facts and the dubious idea that girliness is the enemy of “pretty brilliant” in math, science and engineering, says Christina Hoff Sommers, the Factual Feminist.

That dad telling his daughter not to handle a starfish may know that 61 percent of marine biology majors are female. Maybe he wants her to consider a unisex field, such as chemistry.

The gender gap is TEM-only

Here’s the percentage of Bachelor’s degrees conferred to women, by major (1970-2012) courtesy of Randal S. Olson.


More than 80 percent of degrees in health and public administration are earned by women, he notes. Nearly 80 percent of education and psychology degrees also go to women. In biology, women earn 58 percent of degrees.

Even in math, statistics and physical sciences, women earn more than 40 percent of degrees. Business is close to 50-50.

He flips the chart to show that men are lagging in everything but engineering, computer science, physical science, math and statistics. Women are close to parity in everything but engineering and computer science.

‘Brain Busters’ win First Lego

A tornado, hurricane or earthquake has devastated a town and wiped out communications. Where can people go for help? Look for the giant balloon.

The Brain Busters — a team of six boys from Sherborne, Massachusetts — has won FIRST LEGO League’s global innovation award for their idea: After a natural disaster, suspend a large sign from a helium balloon that can be seen at long distances.

The Brain Busters’ “love math, computer programming, engineering, and problem solving,” they write. “We built a full scale (100’ high!), working model that we have deployed in high winds, snow storms, and extreme cold.”

State emergency management officials hope to put the idea into use.

More than 500 FIRST LEGO League teams submitted their ideas.

Runners up were the Robotic Raiders of Williamsburg, Iowa, who devised the Cyclone Survivor board game to teach how to prepare for, survive and recover from a tornado, and RobotTec of Santiago, Chile, who designed the Tsunami Evacuation System, which uses retro-reflectors and three-color LED lights on major streets.

‘College premium’ is inflated

The “college premium” has been exaggerated by high-profile studies, write Andrew G. Biggs and Abigail Haddad in The Atlantic. So has the payoff for majoring in a STEM field.

Smarter people are more likely to earn a college degree and to major in engineering, science and math, they write.

Only 58 percent of new college students who began in 2004 had graduated six years later, according to federal data. “Dropout rates are even higher at less selective colleges, whose students are presumably most on the margin between attending college following high school and entering the workforce.”

Calculating returns to education only for those who attend college and graduate is like measuring stock returns for Google while ignoring those for General Motors.

High school students who go on to college are quite different from those go directly to the workforce, they write.

(The collegebound) took a more rigorous high school curriculum, scored better on tests of reading and math, came from higher-income families, were in better physical and mental health, and were less likely to have been arrested. These are all correlated with higher earnings regardless of whether a person attends college . . .

Controlling for “both the risk of not graduating from college and differing personal characteristics” cuts the “earnings boost attributable to college attendance” in half, write Biggs and Haddad.

Graduates in technical fields earn significantly more than graduates in “softer” majors, studies have shown. “High school graduates aiming for high-earning majors such as engineering enter college with higher average SAT scores, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, while those aiming for lower-paying majors have lower average SAT scores,” write Biggs and Haddad. “High-paying jobs also entail longer work hours.”