Passion and 3D printers reinvent STEM learning

A 3D printer in action. (Credit: Keith Kissel,

A 3D printer in action. (Credit: Keith Kissel, released under CC BY 2.0)

Do the words “science class” evoke unhappy memories of struggling to memorize arcane facts unrelated to anything in the world you cared about? Did your teacher’s mastery of the science only accentuate how little you knew? If so, take heart.

The future of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education may depend far less on traditional teacher-student hierarchies than on supportive communities of people who have diverse, complementary knowledge and enthusiasms. Knowing how to look up information and to tap into others’ specialties could become the real keys to STEM success. And the hands-on, do-it-yourself culture of the Maker Movement, along with the 3D printers and other tools that animate it, might play a singularly important role in reinventing libraries and schools to work this way.

Those insights and others emerged June 27 during a breakfast panel discussion on improving STEM education during the American Library Association (ALA) annual meeting in Las Vegas. McGraw-Hill Education’s AccessScience organized and hosted the event and I had the pleasure to moderate it for our two energetic and visionary panelists, Linda W. Braun, youth services manager for the Seattle Public Library, and Mark Hatch, co-founder and CEO of TechShop. (Disclosure: I am the editorial director of AccessScience.)

Unrecognized passions for science

Growth in STEM occupationsAs I noted in my introductory remarks, the critical need for strong STEM education has never been more imperative or self-evident. We live in an era of unparalleled scientific progress, and every moment of our lives as consumers, as workers, as patients, and as citizens brings us into contact with the fruits of science and technology. Scientists, engineers and the like make up only 5 percent of the U.S. workforce but STEM fields are commonly credited with 50 percent or more of the  U.S. economic expansion over the past half century. Job opportunities in STEM fields are expected to grow more quickly than in the economy as a whole. Moreover, a Brookings Institution study in 2013 found that a high level of STEM competence was crucial to roughly 20 percent of all workers (among them, nurses, electricians, carpenters, and auto mechanics). Thus, the significance of STEM to the economy is inescapably huge.

Linda W. Braun“If anyone had told me 30-something years ago in library school that I would be here today talking about STEM, I would have said no way,” admitted Linda Braun, a past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association and a co-author of the association’s report The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action, published earlier this year. “I had no interest in science, technology, or engineering. And math? I’ve been told my whole life that I’m awful at math.”

But over her years of working with educational institutions, she came to realize that the value of STEM in education had less to do with teaching accumulated scientific knowledge and more to do with fostering skills for problem solving—and how much those skills could help a broad spectrum of youth, adults, and whole families. That mindset can help people of all ages overcome obstacles in every part of their lives, not just on the job. “It’s the critical thinking, problem solving, and troubleshooting that I think are really at the core of what we in libraries need to support in STEM,” Linda said.

To help students and others get past their fear or dislike for science, Linda strongly favored a connected learning approach. Connected learning encourages people to identify the relevance of STEM topics to things about which they are already personally passionate. In that context, STEM can seem more meaningful and directly valuable, so individuals will be more motivated to learn the associated science. Seen through that lens, everyone has an organic connection to STEM, Linda argued. She cited as an example the subject of a recent profile in The New York Times: a 15-year-old boy outside Los Angeles who has become a celebrated professional chef. “Think of the science, the math, and the technology that go into cooking,” she said. “His STEM skills must be amazing!”

Linda’s comments about the advantages of the connected learning approach struck a chord with me. I mentioned that perhaps because of my family history—my father had been a Navy test pilot and my mother a nurse, and I had grown up surrounded by science books—I had always had the benefit of seeing science and technology as naturally integrated into the rest of life. “I think one of the best gifts we can give young people is the opportunity to see how knowing the science behind the world around us just makes life more wonderful,” I said.

Making a creative connection

This approach to STEM built around personal enthusiasms dovetails with another trend, the rising interest in the Maker Movement—and in equipping libraries to become community centers for Maker activity. The Maker Movement is an extension of traditional DIY hobby craft culture that embraces digital technologies such as 3D printing and robotics. In recent years, some public and school libraries have begun to recast themselves as centers for Maker activity—witness the exhibitors offering Maker products and services that were much in evidence at this year’s ALA. Linda acknowledged that many libraries justify their new Maker facilities by saying they have always done crafts. “But that’s not quite it,” she said, because these activities can be more than a creative outlet and source of recreation: they offer a practical way to connect serious STEM education to users’ passions.

Mark Hatch“I like to say that the largest untapped resource on the planet is not natural gas or solar. It’s the creative potential of the human mind,” said Mark Hatch, author of The Maker Movement Manifesto: Rules for Innovation in the World of Crafters, Hackers, and Tinkerers (published by McGraw-Hill Education). His company TechShop establishes centers where people can get the training and access to tools and software they need to realize their Maker dreams. (On June 17 when President Obama made a public statement about his administration’s support for STEM, he did it in the Pittsburgh TechShop.)

Maker technologies are easier to learn and use than they have ever been, Mark argued, so in principle it should be possible to introduce them at younger ages and get more people involved with STEM. “It’s very inspiring when you’re a kid to be able to turn an idea in your head into a real, working thing you can show to your friends, “ he said. Hands-on explorations are particularly good for the third of the population that learns best by doing, not just studying. The practical skills that students acquire would be relevant both to those headed to college and to trade schools. And thanks to the Internet, he added, it has never been easier for novices to find the expertise they need in online communities of those with shared interests.

The catch is that too many people disqualify themselves early from STEM careers because they don’t think they have science or math skills or don’t see the relevance to their interests. Mark cited the statistic that according to a recent national survey, only about 13 percent of engineers in the U.S. are women (National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators, page 3-5). “That is an absolute, unmitigated disaster,” he said. “We can’t leave those brains on the sidelines and expect to solve the problems of the future.”

Beyond STEM education curricula

I asked whether there was any empirical proof that involvement with Maker activities translates into greater academic achievement or involvement with STEM vocations. Mark and Linda acknowledged that such evidence may still be hard to come by (partly because the Maker movement might be too young for a clear trend to have yet emerged). Anecdotes abound, however, about students and others inexperienced in design, inventing, or handicrafts using 3D printers, Arduino programming kits, and computerized cutting tools as springboards to new careers.

One noteworthy case was a team of students at Stanford University who in 2007 developed the prototype for a low-cost baby-warming cocoon to fight hypothermia in premature babies, who cannot adequately maintain their body temperature. Among the 20 million low-birth weight born each year, hypothermia is a leading cause of death, particularly in the developing world where access to incubators is typically poor. (See, for example, this PLOS ONE paper on the management of neonatal hypothermia in Zambia.) The Stanford students conceived of a tiny sleeping bag that self-regulates its temperature through polymer chemistry to keep a swaddled baby safely and consistently warm. After graduation, the students further developed the invention and launched the organization Embrace to manufacture and distribute it. Their Infant Warmer is already credited with saving 60,000 lives, Mark said, and Embrace co-founders Jane Chen and Rahul Panicker were hailed by the World Economic Forum in Davos as Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2013.

Mark also pointed to the GE Garages program, through which GE sponsors traveling exhibits and workshops that introduce laser cutting, 3D printing, welding, and other manufacturing technologies to tens of thousands of children. Seeing the tools in action is often enough to win converts. He described laser cutters, which can now be controlled by software developed for first graders, as “easy to use, amazingly powerful, and incredibly addictive.” He added, “If we were to introduce more kids to laser cutters and 3D printers, trust me, we would have a lot more engineers coming out the other end.”

In the schools and libraries where passion-driven connected learning and Maker activities are already being offered, they seem mostly to be supplemental, informal learning opportunities. As inspiring as these were, I noted, building them into formalized curricula that would work reliably within a school calendar might be tricky. “Yes, this is all enrichment now,” Linda agreed, but said that many educators were working on trying to make it more mainstream. She cited the example of a math teacher who is trying to get a class on programming with Scratch (a simple multimedia authoring tool) accepted for his school’s math requirement, since it offers a connected way of showing how mathematics can be used.

The problem that he was encountering, she said, was that the push for Common Core national education standards was making it hard to innovate. Linda’s comments elicited a sympathetic response from the panel’s audience, some of whom volunteered that they, too, had seen their schools’ industrial arts and home economics programs (and the associated tool resources) displaced in favor of a more focused Common Core emphasis on English and math.

Self-doubt and letting go

Yet an even more immediately limiting problem might be that, as Linda observed, many librarians lack confidence in their ability to support STEM learning that is less structured and more individualized. Helping librarians become more comfortable with it, and with the more diverse range of library users who would seek to benefit from it, has become a central focus of her own work.

STEM panel

The STEM education panel, with me at left. (Photo: Steve Chapman)

I asked her how she coaches educators past this self-doubt. To start, she said, most of them needed to reimagine what their job entails: they do not need to be proxy experts on every subject. Librarians should recognize that their own knowledge (or ignorance) of science and technology matters far less than their understanding of how and where to look for relevant STEM answers. She suggested that public libraries might consider seeking out partnerships with academic institutions that have experienced science librarians and specialists who could mentor their public library colleagues about unfamiliar STEM resources and ways to use them.

To motivate librarians to cultivate this approach to STEM, personal passions might be the key, just as it is for students. Find subjects that excite individual librarians and introduce the accessibility of STEM in that context, Linda advised: “You need to give them that opportunity to make it their own.”

Overcoming that initial reluctance is similarly a challenge for the introduction of 3D printers, laser-cutting tools, design software, and other tools, all of which can come with significant, ongoing maintenance requirements. Mark emphasized, however, that librarians need not know how to use the tools expertly themselves: instead, they can open up that role to the community. “Bring in volunteers who would love to use and help others use this stuff,” he said. “Don’t try to do it all yourself.”

Linda and Mark’s comments stimulated a vigorous dialogue with the audience. I was particularly struck by the story of one librarian from Arizona whose library served a population of 6,000, of whom almost 40 percent were below the poverty line. The library had brought in LEGO project kits and a 3D printer and put them into the hands of the children. One in particular had applied herself to learning about the printer, started running workshops for the other children, and had recently started a business based on it.

Listening to such stories, I had an epiphany on the dais. Schools and libraries constantly run inventories on their physical assets, I said, “but nobody ever inventories their assets to include the intellectual resources and enthusiasms of the audience they serve.” It only showed how deeply engrained the factory model for education was, in which students are treated as materials to be molded by the system, as opposed to a more communal model where students were encouraged to enrich the teachers and schools, too.

That new social model for library services—one built on shared community know-how and peer-to-peer mentoring, with librarians acting as facilitators of the conversation rather than experts—may be the most revolutionary (and unsettling) aspect of these changes for most library professionals. Yet in principle, it may not be so great a departure from librarians’ traditional mission. “I talk about librarians as connectors, which we have always been,” Linda said. “But we have to work with library schools to get more people thinking about this the way we are here.”

Category: Education | 1 Comment

Jeffrey Sachs: On climate, more ‘now’ and ‘how’ is needed

To hear Jeffrey D. Sachs tell it, if humanity manages to avert catastrophic warming from manmade greenhouse gases, it won’t be because of an astonishing technological breakthrough that suddenly saved the day. It will be because policymakers mustered the will to start acting today rather than later, and focused on how to transform global energy systems before squabbling about who should pay for it.

Unfortunately, that has not happened yet. “What we have is mostly a debate about what’s fair and unfair, but very little understanding about what to do,” he says.

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs, director, Earth Institute, Columbia University. (Credit: Eiwebnyc; CC-BY, via Wikipedia)

Sachs, renowned as an economist and advocate for sustainable development, is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and special adviser on the Millennium Development Goals to U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon. He is also a coauthor, with climatologist James Hansen and a multidisciplinary team of other specialists, of a recent report in the journal PLOS ONE that made a plea for 1 degree Celsius, not 2 degrees, as the appropriate ceiling for permissible warming in the future.

To get his impressions of the report’s content and of its policy implications, I spoke with Sachs a few days before the paper’s publication. What follows is a summary of that conversation.

Continue reading »

Category: Climate, Economics, Energy, Environment, Politics, Technology | 4 Comments

Q&A with James Hansen

While working for NASA back in 1988, James Hansen became one of the first climatologists to sound the alarm about global warming and industrially-driven climate change. A quarter century later, his affiliation has changed—he is now an adjunct senior research scientist at the Earth Institute of Columbia University and an adjunct professor of earth and environmental science—but he is still one of the most prominent and outspoken advocates for climate reform.

Hansen is the lead author on a paper  published today by PLOS ONE, “Assessing Dangerous Climate Change: Required Reductions of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature” (doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081648). The study makes unsettling arguments about the need to keep the maximum amount of warming below 2 °C. and about how rapidly fossil fuel use must decrease to prevent disastrous warming. More about the study can be read here and here.

I spoke with Hansen in November before the paper’s publication. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity.

John Rennie:  When I take a look at the paper, the big message that jumps out at me is, if we take the dangers of future global warming seriously, then nothing seems to be more important than to immediately begin significant annual reductions in CO2 emissions through a switch away from the fossil fuels to non-carbon energy sources.  Does that seem like a fair summary?

James Hansen: Yes, and that’s because of the lifetime of the carbon in the system.  You know, there’s this notion that we could do some other things more easily, by acting on the non-CO2 forcings and reforestation. But those things work on a shorter time scale, and it doesn’t really matter so much when we do them.  What’s crucial is that we not put stuff in the atmosphere which is going to stay in the climate system forever. For all practical purposes, that’s what it does.

Continue reading »

Category: Climate, Energy, Environment, Technology | 9 Comments

Dangerous Climate Change, Reconsidered

If we take the dangers of future global warming seriously, then nothing is more important for curbing them than to immediately begin significant annual reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. That was my first reaction on reading the new paper by climatologist James Hansen of Columbia University’ Earth Institute and his colleagues being published today by PLOS ONE, “Assessing Dangerous Climate Change: Required Reductions of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature” (doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081648).

The paper, which is very large in scope, sets out to do several things. Its most noteworthy ambition is to make a case, based primarily on paleoclimate data and the Earth’s planetary energy balance, that the 2 degree Celsius target that climate strategists often use as a limit for allowable warming is too high. That much warming would not only be worse than is commonly projected, the authors argue, but would commit the world to catastrophic levels of further warming thereafter. The paper also offers some projections about how rapidly CO2 from burning fossil fuels needs to fall to keep the total amount of global warming below crucial thresholds.

For many readers, however, the great value of this paper may be that it serves as a broad summary of the current state of climate science relevant to the warming challenge. Hansen conceived of the paper as a brief that might be understood by a judge or other authority who needed to understand the rationale for restraining carbon emissions.

I imagine that the report’s focus on developing appropriate plans for the future was why PLOS ONE’s editors chose to publish it in conjunction with the new PLOS Collection “Ecological Impacts of Climate Change” and accompanied it with a call for papers offering constructive responses to climate change.

Its comprehensiveness also offers a good opportunity for examining a number of particular climate change issues and ideas. I am planning to publish a variety of posts in the days ahead that tee off of this paper, but which may not be restricted to what Hansen et al. wrote, including criticisms of the paper’s recommendations and a more considered reflection on my first reaction. To kick off the series, here are a couple of items:

I’ll add more links to this page as new posts appear.


Category: Climate, Economics, Energy, Environment, Politics, Technology | 10 Comments

Standing with DNLee, but not turning on Scientific American

Late last week, along with so many of you, I read Dr. Danielle N. Lee’s honest and horrifying post on The Urban Scientist about the email exchange she had with a website editor who invited her to write posts for free and then called her an “urban whore” when she declined. This side of suffrage, emancipation, the Enlightenment, and the end of the Middle Ages, there’s really only one possible reaction to such a story, which is to be outraged at the inhumanity and unprofessionalism of the editor’s  response. Those words would be cowardly and reprehensible if directed at anyone, but aiming them at one of the too-few women of color in the science blogosphere also drags in racism and sexism.

Then, unfortunately, that original offense was all but eclipsed by Scientific American‘s decision to remove Danielle’s post, citing an unbelievable reason for doing so. Later statements from Mariette DiChristina, the editor in chief, gave a fuller explanation but even that was generally received as incomplete, inconsistent, and at least partly unbelievable.

Continue reading »

Category: Journalism, Media | 1 Comment

Sequencing the Snipe’s Genome, and Other Lab Hazing Rituals

Category: Science Writing | Comments Off on Sequencing the Snipe’s Genome, and Other Lab Hazing Rituals

The cultural challenge to climate science writing

Credit: woodleywonderworks, via Flickr (CC-BY)

Credit: woodleywonderworks, via Flickr (CC-BY)

My previous posts on the inevitable politics of climate science, I was flattered to see, figured into a terrific article this week by David Roberts of Grist about the futility of “just the facts” approaches to explaining that science to the public. Read his whole post for the thoughtfully developed argument, but these paragraphs offer the gist of it:

… [A] democratic public does not want bare facts. It wants meaning. It wants to know why climate science matters and what can be done about it. More fundamentally, it’s not just that people want meaning, it’s that they only absorb facts through meaning. Our identities are how we make sense of information. This is the whole point of cultural cognition research: We seek out information that reinforces our identities.

Scientists, at their best, avoid this kind of blinkered, identity-reinforcing cognition, at least when they’re engaged in scientific work. They struggle to unearth their own assumptions and subject them to testing, to render them falsifiable. It’s a kind of mental self-discipline that requires considerable training. Scientists should not imagine that members of the general public do or could or should share that same self-discipline. If they want the information they convey to be understood and absorbed, they will have to speak as humans speak, from within a cultural identity and a set of values, not hovering above such mortal concerns.

Roberts notes my “morose conclusion” that scientists should advocate for whatever they want because nobody seems to care what they think, then makes the case that by building bridges to cultural groups with whom they can find real affinities, scientists can become more persuasive. (He cites climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe as a success at this.)
Continue reading »

Category: Climate, Environment, Journalism, Media, Politics, Psychology, Science Writing | 8 Comments

A correction on Lomborg and Schneider’s quotation

Bjorn Lomborg. (Credit: Emil Jupin)

Bjorn Lomborg. (Credit: Emil Jupin)

It’s long been my contention that no matter how much the Earth’s climate warms, butter will never melt in the mouth of Bjorn Lomborg. Most people find him personally charming. He’s a highly skillful debater and careful writer who understands the power of well-crafted rhetoric to quietly suggest and persuade. His critics may charge that his book The Skeptical Environmentalist invokes selective readings or slanted analyses of the scientific literature to make its case, but even they would probably agree that Lomborg excels at making those arguments sound reasonable and fair-minded.

He is certainly more careful and fair than I was when writing my recent post on “The inevitable politics of climate science (part 1).” As Lomborg politely pointed out to me, I was entirely wrong to suggest that in The Skeptical Environmentalist and subsequently he had taken an old quotation by climatologist Stephen H. Schneider out of context to make it sound like he thought lying to the public was acceptable. I apologize to Lomborg and you readers for that mistake.

At the time I wrote it, I was sure that was so because I remembered speaking with Schneider about it. But I’ve gone back over the facts and now think I see what happened. And it’s actually been quite interesting to see the history of the poor, abused words by Schneider in the process.
Continue reading »

Category: Climate, Politics, Science Writing | 3 Comments

The inevitable politics of climate science (part 2)

In my previous post, I gave several reasons why a blanket condemnation of climate scientists for publicly staking out positions on climate policies seems unwise. Scientists don’t have all the answers, but they have perspectives that deserve to be aired at least as much as those representing other social, economic, and political concerns. Climate researchers may be wary of getting mixed up too much in politics, but unfortunately, politic significance is so pervasive when it comes to the issue of global warming that avoiding it is all but impossible.

What I promised to address this time was the idea that the climate debate was politicized long before scientists came to it. As evidence, I’ll offer an excerpt from a Storify I compiled last year to recap the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s conference on “Science Writing in the Age of Denial.” At one session, speakers historian Naomi Oreskes, journalist Bill Blakemore, and researchers Nancy Langston and Steve Ackerman traced the the long, deep, political and psychological roots of climate change denial. Here are some of the highlights.

(After the Storify, I have a postscript that may also be worth reading.)
Continue reading »

Category: Climate, Economics, Energy, Environment, Health, Politics, Science Writing | 3 Comments

The inevitable politics of climate science (part 1)


Credit: National Center for Atmospheric Research; Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. DOE

Scandalous, isn’t it? How medical researchers keep saying that we need to develop new treatments for disease, I mean. Or suggesting that people should change their exercise and eating habits to reduce their risks for developing medical problems—that is so out of line. Complex economic, social, and political variables are every bit as relevant to sound healthcare policy as narrowly biomedical ones are, if not more so, and scientists’ expertise does not carry over into those areas. The decision to help people live full, healthy lifespans carries profound consequences and tradeoffs that should not be dismissed lightly. Researchers’ presumptuous advocacy for a healthier population undermines their value as objective evaluators of medical science in the eyes of the public. Thank heavens the pro-disease lobby is here to slap them down for it.

While I’m at it, these astronomers urging the government to build an asteroid-collision defense system ought to hush up, too. Yes, someday a big asteroid will slam into the Earth again, and maybe it would take out a city or worse. But that could be centuries from now, and for astronomers to petition that work on a space defense should begin now shows not only unprofessional bias on the subject but a careless, nay, reckless disregard for all the other priorities facing the government. Astronomers’ proper role is to keep on watching the stars and to announce an impact with Los Angeles or wherever when it is imminent. Our leaders in Washington, D.C., will sort out what to do then in a timely way.

–Forgive the heavy-handedness of the satire, but you take my point. Climate scientists often get criticism, some of it from their own peers, when they speak out about a need to take rising temperatures seriously and to act accordingly. To do so is characterized as unprofessional if not counterproductive. My PLOS BLOGS sibling and climate scientist Tamsin Edwards made that argument herself recently in “Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies,” co-posted on The Guardian’s Political Science blog.
Continue reading »

Category: Climate, Economics, Energy, Environment, Politics, Science Writing | 9 Comments