Contexts for engagement

Issue: Volume 94, Number 19

Posted: 27 October 2015
Reference #: 1H9cuy

The engineering member of the STEM (science, engineering, technology, maths) family of subjects is changing as rapidly as the rest, to meet the demands of our century. Readers may remember taking metalwork and woodwork around intermediate age, often collectively known as ‘manual’ or ‘workshop’; there’s likely to be lovingly crafted pencil holders of this era still taking pride of place on desks around the country.

Times have changed, says product design teacher Abbie Dingle, of Diocesan School for Girls, and so should the terminology: while we shouldn’t be throwing out the craftwork baby with the workshop bathwater, there’s no doubt that historic connotations are still powerful in the minds of young people. We need to help kids understand that product design has changed, both at school and in the work force. It’s all about innovative problem solving and creative thinking, says Abbie.

These connotations are often viewed with ambivalence at best by students, says Abbie, and particularly in her classes: there’s no getting away from the fact that – as with the other STEM subjects – there is still a yawning deficit in the number of female engineers out there. Abbie says that she tries to communicate to young women every day that they don’t need to see themselves as subject to any form of anachronistic gender stereotype, which seemingly refuse to go away completely.

“I think that what I’m trying to challenge our girls with is that this subject has got so many options for them. Some of the highest earning women in the workforce are engineers, yet it’s a sad fact that there are so very few; there’s just so much room for so many more.

“I want to move girls away from thinking about workshop, manual, or whatever old-school words we might use; when you use this terminology it conjures up something in their heads.

“When it comes to stereotypes, I hope – no, actually, I am! – blowing that whole thing out of the water to be honest, for the past six years of my career. That’s something that I think I’m allowed to feel pretty good about!”

Ideas become products, not the medium

The reality, says Abbie, of modern product design – a subject that has absorbed the craft and engineering aspects of the old workshop discipline – is that, as the name suggests, it’s as much about the conception as it is manipulating the medium; and that entails far more than dreaming up a pencil holder for the 21st century. These days that means applying a dose of business thinking as well, because the most creatively conceived product in the world is useless if nobody else wants it.

“We teach our students about things like context: looking at a potential market for a product, identifying a gap in a market, looking at needs and opportunities, developing a brief, producing the product itself, and then testing and evaluating the product against specifications.

“That’s what I would call ‘product design’; it encompasses all of those things. If you said ‘workshop’ to me, I would be like ‘ok, so we’re putting aprons on and making a spice rack!’”

Abbie says that this helps segue students into tertiary study of the subject. Parents and students both need to appreciate the range of career opportunities that this broad subject can lead to, from marketing, to design, to pure engineering. Teaching this wide gamut is all part of the ‘whole technology experience’ in her classroom, says Abbie.

Thinking about social, cultural and ethical issues, environmental impact and sustainability are all now important considerations in design.

“It’s the whole of the process, encompassing everything from the beginning to the end. Context, brief development, stakeholder feedback, testing and trialling, ordering materials, thinking about costs, thinking about making, looking at different aspects of making – what’s going to work best, what’s not. Teaching technology is about teaching an entire life cycle-like process, it’s just so cross-curricular. I love it!”

Context is crucial

It’s almost universally recognised among educators these days that context is crucial to engagement, in any subject. Relevance to lives and aspirations is the best way to get the glaze out of students’ eyes. Rather than give students a recipe, and get them to make something by number, it’s all about posing challenges, asking learners to solve problems they recognise; this is a sure-fire way to invoke a bit of creativity and excitement, says Abbie.

“Before this interview, I asked my year 12 girls for their thoughts on engaging contexts in technology. One said, ‘I like it because it’s problem solving’, and that for me is the crux of the whole thing”. The term ‘workshop’ implies application of manual skills, while product design and hard materials technologies are about creating fit-for-purpose outcomes that solve problems.

“The beauty of my subject is that every single kid that’s at senior level is doing a different project with different outcomes. I try to be honest, and sometimes say ‘look, I’ve never made anything like this project before. I can give you a path or a process to follow, and point you in the right direction, get you asking the right questions, but this project is all about you, your creativity, and developing your instinct for problem solving.’”

A broad skill base

Though uptake of materials technology at Diocesan School for Girls has improved steadily, it’s not yet where she would like it to be, says Abbie. She sees several factors behind this that she’s working on.

“There’s two aspects at play here I think. Firstly, I think that – and I’m talking here about both girls and boys – they’ve got it a little bit tough these days. They live in an environment where media is throwing so much stuff at them, at such a rate. Sometimes they struggle to maintain any kind of focus.”

Abbie also believes that sometimes parents may base their perception of technology on their own experiences, which may have included ‘workshop’ or cooking.

“A lot of parents I feel sometimes might mistake the value that technology can offer students.”

Students in technology learn about managing their time to meet deadlines, and build their communication skills – both of which are valuable, future-focused skills that have wide application.

“On open evenings, I try to say things like ‘look, I’ve taught so many girls who’ve gone on to things like engineering, industrial design, graphic design, and this sort of thing’. Others who’ve studied technology at school might go on to do event management. Then parents will hear words like ‘event management’, and they’ll be curious as to how that arises from the study of technology. I’ll say ‘well, think about this: when we start a project in class, I give them a deadline. In between, whether it be two months, four weeks, or whatever, these girls have got to produce something for me, and go through the entire design, testing and implementation regime, but they can’t just do it ‘by the numbers’; I give them guidance, but it’s their project: it’s up to them to dream something up, research a context, examine stakeholder feedback, trialling and testing, cost investigation: in short, they manage their own project. All of these things overlap, and it’s more often than not done within a collaborative environment.”

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:10 am, 27 October 2015

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