Meet Matt, a STEM Coaching Nerd
Interview by Terra Olsen
You’re a self-proclaimed STEM coach nerd. Can you explain to our readers, what is a STEM coach?
Right now I’m teaching an after-school “Engineering & Design” class for 24 elementary students. But I say “coach” rather than “teacher” for a few reasons. First, I’m just a volunteer, and not a trained teacher. I get to come in for an hour or two a week, show kids cool stuff, answer their questions, and then be on my way. Teaching’s a lot harder, and they have to help those kids all week long. I’m like a grandparent who comes to play with the kids, then leaves the parents to do the real work. Second, it’s important that the kids discover concepts themselves, by doing things, rather than relying on lectures. So I’m guiding and showing connections more than I’m “instructing”.
I very strongly feel kids ought to start early with creating their own ideas, to become creators instead of just consumers. But although there are all these awesome tools available these days, there are barriers for kids who could use them. There are learning barriers, like how things physically work, how to use a program, how to use additional programs needed to get data or images ready, and how/when/where to backup your own files. But there are also permission barriers: access to computers, cameras, scanners, email, purchasing extra software, etc. I try to facilitate all of that, giving them tools and clearing roadblocks. I’m the Producer to their Directors.
For example, I noticed that the web-based CAD service Tinkercad was reaching out to schools with a grant program. We applied for the grant in time, got it, and now the school has access to all these features above the free level, features the school didn’t have any budget for. Part of the fun is keeping an eye out for opportunities like that.
How did you get involved in STEM coaching?
I started volunteering as a coach of a robotics team, in FIRST Lego League. After that season ended, I showed the kids how to do various other geeky, maker-type projects; 3D design and printing, and laser cutting. Besides volunteering with kids, I’ve done lots of geeky projects with my own young kids. I just helped my son finish his sci-fi/comedy short film, “Growth Ray”. He’s submitted it to NFFTY.org, an awesome film festival for young people.
How did STEM coaching spark the nerd in you?
It’s fun thinking of ways to boil down technical explanations for these kids. There’s so much stuff I’d love to show them, but there’s barely enough time each week for them to do their own projects, leaving little time for me to take them on tangents. What I’ve done so far is to have them use web-hosted tools like Tinkercad, so they can do more work from home, freeing up a bit of class time. In that brief class time, I can flip through a bunch of slides and points quickly, because I’ve rehearsed it down to the length of a commercial.
For example, with these new kids in the Engineering & Design class, they’re using 3D CAD and drawing programs for the first time. I was pretty surprised that they’ve never used structured/vector/object programs before, just painting programs. So while I thought we would be getting into lots of engineering concepts, they’re actually learning a lot just in composing objects into hierarchies. It’s spatial logic, and they’ve never really done it before. As they get more comfortable with it, I’ll point out the parallels to other structured ways of looking at the world. A 3D model, a complex Inkscape drawing, an Amazon search, a family tree, a parsed sentence, a computer program, a scene in “Avengers’, a Venn diagram; they’re all elements composed into hierarchies, with operations (add/group, subtract/mask, rotate, scale, etc). Next week I’m going to blast them with some of those parallels.
How have coaching and this program impacted your life?
It’s been great! The kids have been really excited to get a chance to “do stuff”. And many of their parents have said the same thing, that the projects have really engaged their kids. I’m also glad that a full third of the class is girls. None of these kids should have limits on them, and it just feels good to help open up avenues for them.
Where do you want to take STEM coaching in the future?
Two things come to mind for the near future. First, I’m suggesting a new acronym, STICK, to go along with STEM. STICK stands for some of the nitty-gritty of how to get the Engineering done: Simplicity, Tradeoffs, Iteration, Constraints, and Keep-moving-forward. I think if teachers and students can remember that mnemonic, students will have an engineer’s toolkit in their heads, even if they never learn Calculus and all that.
Second, for the Engineering & Design class, I’m creating a design notebook for them. A small, spiral-bound notebook with decent drawing paper, graph paper, and in the back, a bunch of reference pages about engineering, design, architecture, maker tools, how-to’s, and great stories about design and engineering. I’m really into the tangible benefits of paper, and I think these kids need to know they can work on ideas anywhere and anyhow, not just in the computer lab during class time. I’ll get feedback from the Winter Session kids about it, and prepare a better iteration for the Spring Session kids. And in doing that continually, the kids will see the design process going into the notebook itself, too.
Favorite memory/moment involving coaching?
Last year, one of our projects was to build a complicated LEGO robot model we found on the Internet. It’s a Rubik’s Cube-solving robot by David Gilday. Well, the kids built it, but it wouldn’t work. And unlike, say, a paper airplane, which can “kinda fly good”, a Rubik’s Cube is either solved or not solved. Well, they really analyzed it like engineers, finding loose pieces and making other adjustments. After two hours of tweaking, it solved the whole cube. They screamed out loud and did a Conga line around the library. It was totally awesome.
Matt Jensen is a software engineer, and lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids. His interests include machine learning and statistics, and he was a pioneer in the commercialization of neural networks and genetic algorithms. Matt currently works at Wizards of the Coast, the game company, and makes special effects for his kids’ crazy movies.
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