STEM, Girls and The Beastie Boys

UPDATE: Goldiblox has written an open letter and taken the video down.  I’m actually sort of sorry about that, because it was a STEM great video, and even more, has started a real and serious conversation about girls and science, engineering and math. The replaced video, embedded below, shows the same device without the girlpowered lyrics.

So the latest viral Youtube Video features a Rube Goldberg Device and song lyrics sung to the tune of the Beastie Boys Song “Girls” (see Below).  The original lyrics to “Girls”, includes such gems as :

“Girls, to do the dishes,
Girls, to clean up my room,
Girls, to do the laundry,
Girls, and in the bathroom,
Girls, that’s all I really want is girls.”

which I think we can all agree was sexist in its initial incarnation. Goldiblox, the maker of engineering toys (actually, a bit more like Tinker Toys meets Legos in Lady-friendly colors) changed the instrumentation to sound like a kid’s piano and changed the lyrics to include:

“Girls, to build a spaceship
Girls, to code a new app
To grow up knowing
That they can engineer that
Girls, that’s all we really need is girls”

As a result, there’s a legal dustup brewing, with Goldiblox, the video creator and the maker of engineering toys geared towards girls, asking the Court to view their use of the song as falling within the parody and Fair Use exemption, and the Beastie Boys are not happy about any of this.  While this won’t end very well for anyone involved, with people choosing sides about positive messaging for women over sexist band lyrics and marketing based on authorized use of someone else’s intellectual property… the more interesting question to me is the actual toy that’s being promoted.

Goldiblox was developed as a startup by a Stanford Trained woman engineer.  Along with all the push for training more scientists and engineers in the Country, there’s been an equal push to see more women in those roles as well.  The idea of more girl friendly building toys isn’t new, Lego has been doing this for a while now. (In fact, their popularity was well above what was expected.) Goldiblox just takes this same idea to different projects geared around stories for the six year old set, with a set of pieces very much like Tinker Toys in pinks and purples, and other “girly” colors.  Ok, it worked for Legos, what about Goldiblox?
I think you need to see the reviews.  While there are some parents who think that STEM toys for girls are just the “bestest thing ever”, other reviews seem to say that the market is actually for girls much younger than six, and that the six and seven year olds find Goldiblox and the stories that come with it, horribly boring.  As one reviewer put it:

“The first assembly of spools, axles, washers, the band and the lever were fun, and the first project seemed satisfying enough. But she was bored by the second pass at putting the same parts together in different configurations, and never picked up the toy again for several weeks. I held off on this review until I felt she had a fair chance to play with it without the distraction of the birthday party. I opened up the Spinning Machine one day, put it together in a different configuration, and left it out with other toys and puzzles that she often plays with. She was interested enough to take it apart and reassemble it again that day, but that was the last time she has shown any interest in it on her own.

It’s not the surface issues here that we’re all getting so upset about- whether we’re pushing girls into STEM, or trying to co-opt them into it by “pinkwashing” the toy and making it more attractive by adding animals and girly colors.  It’s really that it’s a mediocre engineering toy that’s probably geared towards the wrong age group overall.  No amount of pink and kittens will get your over the problem that the stories are being seen as lame and uninteresting to the target market.

What we have to do, to get kids, boys and girls, more interested in STEM is to show them how really cool science, engineering and math are to everyone.  Let them design jewelry or action figures in AutoCAD and print it out on a 3D printer.  Let them build robots and play with LEGOs of every color, shape and size.  Let’s show kids how you apply the learning in the classroom to real life and real projects, including ones they design themselves.

I’d much rather see kids like Super Awesome Silvia and her Maker Show having a go at helping girls and kids in general try more maker and STEM projects.  Silvia has been doing her show for a long time with her dad and now is apparently working with Make magazine, which is great.    I would much rather see what Silvia is up to than just Goldiblox.

I am a mom of sons, but I was also the girl who learned to play around with low and hires graphics on the first Apple II in our school and built a digitizer for a science fair project back in the early 80′s.  I want women to feel empowered to pursue ANY career, and explore any option, whether that’s tech or fashion design- it doesn’t matter so much to me.  But we do need to show EVERY kid, regardless of their demographics, that STEM and when you involve the arts, STEAM, is fun, period.

You don’t need to make it pink or put flowers on it to make it happen.

It just needs to be engaging, and worth doing in the first place.  Most of all, we shouldn’t be patronizing kids of any age with very controlled and prescribed “kits” and brainwashing their parents into thinking its a great thing because its educational.  Let’s give our kids the most important message- that science is great- without trying to hide it like vegetables in their fruit juice.

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10 Holiday Spending Truths and the No Duh Moment

I was flipping through the news today, and came across an article entitled “Americans Not Willing To Spend Without Deals.”  My first thought was “You’re surprised by this? ” and then “And whose fault is that?”

Retailers are starting Christmas earlier and earlier every year- this year, it seemed to back right up on Back to School Shopping. (Lewis Black rant included below- beware- it’s not safe for work- with the key phrase here being “How long does it take you people to shop?!?!?!?!?”)  I’m all for the holiday spirit, but around Thanksgiving works for me, not the middle of September.  I’m not going to magically open my wallet just because you want me to- I need a good compelling reason to part with my cash sooner rather than later.

The retail sector has also trained us for an all out shopping Armageddon of “blockbuster deals” for the day after Thanksgiving, and now retailers are doing the same thing on Thanksgiving itself.  Still others are trying to start their “specials” early in November, trying to entice us to buy ever more, as early as possible.  I don’t know about you, but Christmas ads in October just make me angry, not any more inclined to start the Season of Acquisition and Procurement.

As a result, what have customers learned?  I would argue we have learned the following:

1.  Your “Best deal of the season” is just a tease.  If no one is buying enough, there will always be one better deal to come, and sometimes, we can even wait until right after Christmas to score.  I have NO confidence that your Early Bird Special Pricing is true, because you keep changing the offer so frequently, I almost don’t care any more, because I can no loner remember what the “real” price should be.

2.  We don’t always need to shop more.  In fact, many of us have figured out we have to shop better, or even less, so it’s more about things we will use, and less about filling the need to have some sort of box under a tree.  Quality is outpacing quantity, and with quality easier to research than ever before, there’s little incentive for going for the quantity approach for anyone over the age of seven or so.

3.  I even have more and more friends deciding that experience is better than stuff, so we’ll go out to lunch, make each other something, or otherwise spend time versus money on each other- and we’re much happier for it.

4.  I’m tired of everything in my life having pricing and value that fluctuates as much as the price of airline tickets.  The thing will always be more or less, every day, taking predictability out of the equation.  Unless it’s a super big ticket item where I know how much I want to spend, and I’m watching the prices carefully, I’ve given up on the “best deal” in favor of getting what I need, when I need it.

5.  You have trained us all year long to know your pricing is dynamic and there’s always another sale just around the corner.  Therefore, there’s always going to be some coupon or deal available, so why should I pay retail price?  JC Penny had trained its customers to the coupon so well, that when they went to “everyday low pricing”, their customers still thought a coupon would be coming to get a deal.  They got us addicted to the deal, even if the end price wasn’t any different, with or without the coupon.  So no coupon means no customers…. and they only have themselves to blame.

6.  I am just about sick to death of watching people go crazy for a retail experience on Thanksgiving, and seeing people almost trample others in search of “The Spirit of Giving.”  This is a level of crazy you won’t see me participate in- I’ll be at the movies with my family and getting chinese food.

7.  With “Cyber Monday” and Amazon willing to deliver on Sundays, why should I risk the Mall during the holidays at all?  It’s all available online, often with free shipping.  Sloth will rule the day.

8.  I really have the same number of people to shop for each year, not too many more or less.  The tastes of my kids have changed, so I’m no longer beholden to whatever Toys R Us has in stock, and I tend to start looking for the “cool stuff” on sites like Think Geek, well in advance of the holidays.  But that doesn’t mean you should start pushing holiday spending in July- it means you should have great stuff all year long.  And by making Christmas merely a seasonal excuse for excess, you are actually sucking the joy out of the whole experience of shopping in the first place.

9.  Someone has to stop the madness.  I will not only be trying to “shop local” more this year, but do whatever I can to minimize the spend with places like Walmart that encourage the “Trample Your Community for a Deal” mentality.  (It also doesn’t help that more than one friend has had an experience where those “early bird deals” are actually a “Bait and Switch” to get you to buy something with a higher profit margin for the retailer, making me skeptical of the deal value to begin with.)  I’m also more likely to actually send gifts to distant relatives along the lines of Lobster-gram or packages- at least this sort of gift is a real surprise.

10.  Yes, retailers, you can get my attention on every media channel alive, but think about how and why you’re spending your ad dollars.  If I am a loyal customer, treat me like a loyal customer.  Discounts are okay, but if I love you, I’m ready to pay what you ask because the value is clear to me.  How about making the experience of shopping more peaceful?  Add Service?  Treat me well all year long, not just at the holidays?  - that would make me a much happier customer, and more likely to do business with you more than once a year.

Thank you for reading this rant- back to your regularly scheduled blog posts later this week.


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The Personal User’s Manual

I was reading a great blog post over on Edutopia about writing a Student’s User Guide. The title was a bit dull, but on reading it, a teacher talks about developing a “personal User’s Guide” not only for herself, but having each of her students do the same thing. I think this is about the best idea I have heard of recently.

We all know those people who have their own quirks and things that work best with handling them.  Lord knows just about every family relationship has an element of  this built in, as we categorize people’s likes and dislikes and how to talk to them so they will listen.  For example, here’s one of my favorite clips from The Big Bang Theory, where Howard informs Penny Sheldon came with a manual…

Now think how much better your business relationships would be, or students in a classroom, for that matter, if you gave them a brief user’s manual to you.  Instead of guessing how best to communicate, people could get it right from the very beginning.  For example, I try to tell clients up front what to expect from us and timetables of work.  This might work much better as a “manual” or document rather than a passing email.  I tell clients that I will keep them informed at least once a week by email about progress on the work, and then will schedule calls or meetings at regular intervals so we can talk and exchange information as needed.  While we can certainly talk informally in between, the regularly scheduled calls give everyone assurances about the progress and where things stand, rather than worrying about completion, etc.

Why shouldn’t I just reduce this to a Manual/Operating System guide for working with us?  While each client has individual needs, I work in a pretty predictable way, and this might give them added confidence in knowing how to “work my system” without getting needlessly frustrated along the way.  The “User’s Guide” idea could work even at the outset of presentations, letting everyone know that I’d like them to ask questions and participate along the way, rather than waiting until the end, if that’s appropriate.

This is such a simple and elegant idea. and it’s particularly brilliant for teachers.  I can’t tell you how many times as a student I asked other kids for tips on teachers- in fact, most colleges have guides to classes that sometimes give these sort of tips.  But why should it be underground whispers, rather than overt?  I can’t count how many times I’ve had conversations with my kids about how to “figure out” what the teacher wants, or what questions to ask to clarify assignments, when we’re all just guessing and the true source is the teacher themselves.

Now I understand we all like to be mysterious, but how much more learning could get done if we stopped spending so much time in trying to guess what everyone else wanted or needed, but instead, had them give us a hint, even if it resembles a Christmas List more than a User’s Manual?  What would happen if a teacher really knew what a student was sensitive about, or what their passions were and could use that to help engage the students better in class?

There are often small attempts made at this with “get to know you” sessions, but having a written User’s Guide, even with bullet points would be fantastic, in school or in business.

How would you use this idea to make your business or personal relationships work better?  I know I’m excited to give it a whirl, and leave less to perception and guessing.  I’ll let you know how it goes, if you can do the same!

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Project versus Problem Based Learning

I’m really excited to be part of the group facilitators over at Edutopia.  This week. we’re having an interesting discussion about cross-curricular project based learning which, in my mind, is about trying to get teachers in different subject areas to collaborate and create  projects that cross over between subject areas to help kids see the connection between english, social studies, science and math.

One person brought up an important point, that I think needs to be addressed when we shorten this kind of thing to PBL.  Project based learning and Problem based learning are often used interchangeably and I think it causes confusion.  For example, project based learning may be thought of as any long term learning project in the classroom that ends up with a diorama or poster or classroom presentation, at least by parents.  However, in education there’s a deeper meaning, where project and problem based learning are really about getting to essential questions and authentic questions that need asking and answering.

I initially came to this discussion thinking about project based learning as being more like what Sally Smith developed at The Lab School in Washington DC.  At the end of the day, students in the same grade/level belong to a theme based club.  In that club, they may be studying the rainforest, or the renaissance or other themes that fit into their academic classroom work.  However, in the club, kids may  use their math skills while constructing models of different layers of the rainforest, or grow plants while noting their daily changes, using their writing and scientific observation skills,  or work together to research and portray a specific scientist or part of the rainforest community through role play based on research and writing skills.  This sort of Project based learning is designed to use and consolidate skills kids are learning in core academic subjects, rather than necessarily answering a novel question.

By contrast, in the lingo today, Problem and project based learning is inquiry driven, which means that the students are trying to answer an essential question that drives learning.  For example, most problem based learning starts with a question, often sounding like a debate point, such as “Does Money Buy Better Education?”  or “How can we improve communication in our school?” Ideally, the question is a real, authentic task rather than one isolated to the classroom.  (I think the easiest examples of problem based learning in action are the TV shows, Project Runway or Top Chef.  Each week a new problem or challenge is presented, such as “Design a red carpet look for this specific person” or “Cater a wedding for these people only using 5 ingredients per dish”)

Problem based learning starts with having students explore the issues, listing what they know and don’t know.  They need to develop and write out a problem statement, and then start to list out possible solutions, actions to be taken, and a list of what they need to know.  Research and experimentation will be required to answer the “need to know” portions, and the end is a solution, complete with anything from written work to posters to models that support and/or defend the solution in a convincing way.

Project learning might not start with the essential question at hand, and often, it may not be an authentic task, ie. one that could actually make a difference in the world or the community.  Every project is not project/problem based learning.  So that model of the cell your child has to do for biology is a good project and helps them better visualize a cell and its functions, but it wouldn’t qualify as “project based learning” even though plenty of learning is going on in the process.

This differentiation is more important than it seems, and its easy to get problem and project based learning jumbled up.  In fact, I think many educators use the terms interchangeably, which adds to the confusion.  (For example, this blog refers to problem based learning as project based, as does ASCD  and the Buck Institute for Education, calling for the ‘essential question’ type Project Based Learning.  However, if teachers and parents aren’t clear on the differences, it’s very easy to assume if you are making kids do projects, it’s project based learning, even though it may never enter the realm of authentic, real world problem solving.

Is this a problem with the language being used?  If what Sally Smith has used so successfully with kids who struggle in school with her program is not Project based learning, what is it?  And how do we help teachers understand that project based learning should be problem centered, and not “show and tell” end product centered?

We’re going to have to find a way to clarify this language issue if we really want inquiry based PBL to take hold across classrooms, and we’ll need to help everyone, from parents to teachers to administrators really understand the difference.


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Website Design and Healthcare.Gov- the Silver Lining

The roll out of has been bad.  But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud for folks in the digital space.  We might finally have the best example ever to demonstrate how important User Interface and Experience is to the success or failure of a business.

When I talk to clients about their website, people often get defensive.  It’s been their baby.  They have often sunk a lot of money and time into it.  Just like a paper that comes back from a teacher with red marks all over it, even if they know it could be better, it is depressing to contemplate a re-write or refresh.  But when a website doesn’t work or answer the basic questions people want to know when they get there, it fails in its basic purpose for being.  It frustrates people and the leave.  They are left with a bad initial impression of your product or service, no matter how important or terrific it is.

I heard a great discussion on NPR this morning about the site, and one of the main problems being that there was no gist or browsing capabilities before they required lots of detailed information and creating of accounts.  In the business world, this is like making your website visitor give you their email or sign up for an account, mandatorily rather than optionally, before they can even see your home page.  Some people will opt in, but many won’t.  You lose business before you even had a chance to earn it.  It’s like meeting someone for the first time and requiring a background check before you exchange business cards.  It requires too much effort up front and no flirting before people decide to commit to a sale, an email newsletter, or even a cup of coffee.

This bad first impression is going to be tough for people to overcome.  It means that many of the fantastic things in the healthcare law, such as provisions for people with pre-existing conditions, is being lost in the sea of bad, governmental style, administrative interface crap.  But the upside for me is that this will become the best case study ever when I try to help a business look at their website with new eyes.  The importance of user interface is now front and center.  The public critique of the government site is no different than the critique they should be giving their own site, and how their friends and neighbors interact with their business online.

Digital media and marketers have a great opportunity in the Healthcare debacle, and that’s to help people put good design and useability front and center in a way it’s never been before.  We can point to something and say “Here- look at this vitally important thing- love it or hate it, millions of people have to use it, but bad design and difficulty navigating the system are killing it.  The inability to get the core question of “How much is this gonna cost?” answered or at least ball-parked is causing people to lose faith in the underlying program and product.  What do you think we can do to make sure you’re not in this same boat with your web presence?”

I am so excited to have a big example on how important good designand navigation is to the success of a business, that I’m almost (just a little) glad this has been a problem for the Government.  It pains me that the contractors and IT guys forgot about the real people before the rollout, and apparently did very little “person on the street” testing before it went live.  Working with IT guys from time to time, I totally get it- they are the code guys, not the marketers and designers.  And I will bet you user interface specialists and designers for websites will be getting calls soon like never before, from government and business alike.

We finally have a way to prove to everyone how important a well-designed website and access to information is, versus any old thing that someone’s kid did on the weekend.  There is a new value proposition out there, and we’re just the people who can help.

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