Becky McDowell and the Innovator’s Mindset
|Website: STEM in Action
|Barrington 220 School District
|Location: Barrington, IL|
If it’s STEM time in a Barrington 220 classroom, you might see a robot inching across a table as a student watches it intently. Or, you might hear the rip of colored duct tape as students construct a cardboard chair strong enough to support a classmate.
Becky McDowell, K-5 STEM leader at Barrington and a Tynker Blue Ribbon educator, leads the way with STEM activities like robotics and engineering processes. As she explains: “New technology is being developed and taking over existing technology at a pace that is hard to keep up with. Developing an innovator’s mindset and cognitive competencies is how we will keep up with new technology and make sustainable, well-informed decisions about our government, healthcare, environment, and education.”
One piece of an innovator’s mindset is engineering design–a way of executing tasks that involves solving problems, discovering multiple solutions, and testing a product more than once. Developing this skill requires that a STEM activity meets at least 3 criteria, according to Becky:
- The task must be problem-based,
- There must be more than one viable solution, and
- There should be opportunities for multiple iterations of the creation, testing, redesigning, and retesting process.
Whether it’s programming a robot or building a chair for a classmate, students practice engineering design through STEM activities at Barrington. In these projects, knowledge about computing or construction isn’t just acquired through a worksheet or theoretical discussions. Certainly there are brainstorming discussions, and using paper and pen to draw out ideas can help, but ultimately those are simply tools–steps along the path to get students to test and re-think their theories.
“Computational thinking skills aren’t just for programming computers.”
Another piece of the innovator’s mindset, computational thinking, is also developed through coding. This skill involves four aspects: decomposition (breaking things down into smaller parts), pattern recognition (looking for similarities), abstraction (ignoring unnecessary information), and algorithms (developing a step-by-step solution to a problem). Computational thinking is a specific problem-solving skill set that helps students approach challenges in an orderly way. According to experts, “[i]dentifying subproblems and describing their relationship to the larger problem allows for targeted work,” one of the key advantages of this approach.
Becky understands that this skill set is helpful as kids are solving coding challenges, but the need for this cognitive process doesn’t stop there: “Computational thinking skills aren’t just for programming computers, they are problem-solving skills students can develop and apply to other situations, such as creating a business or managing a project.”
But at Barrington, there are more key competencies that Becky works to integrate into the STEM education her students are receiving, Empathy and Ethics. To her, having an ethically sound “why” behind creating any piece of technology is just as vital as the “how” of making that product: “With the rapid advancement of technology and robotics, we need people that know how to program as well as make moral judgments to consider whether we should be creating certain types of technology.” And as products are created, it’s important to retain a sense of purpose, that we’re building something for a person to use. That’s why Becky likes projects like having students build chairs out of cardboard for a classmate to sit on–they have to have the user in mind as they innovate.
As Becky is doing the important work of helping kids build these aspects of the innovator’s mindset–engineer thinking, computational thinking, and empathy–she needs tools that will help her stay organized and her students engaged: “I chose to go with Tynker as our coding platform for students in grades 3-5 because of how much content was available and the levels of depth and how we could check student progress on the dashboard.” And students wanted to do more with Tynker beyond the free activities, asking Becky, “Is there more? Can we do more?” Eventually Barrington 220 made the decision to get the premium license from Tynker, encouraging even more learning as teachers can now assign a variety of content.
We’re excited to be part of Becky’s work to help her students develop innovative minds! Barrington 220 students are fortunate to have an educator like Becky who encourages engineering thinking, computational thinking, and empathy–all critical skills for the 21st century!
Learn more about how you can use Tynker to help your students become the next generation of leaders and innovators!