Enriching the Teaching of STEM Subjects and Improving Diversity

Tech magazine, Silicon Republic, has an in-depth piece on the experience of Dr. Cornelia Connoly, a lecturer at the School of Education at NUI Galway and does a lot of research in education design, computer science education and educational technology. As you can see, she is deeply passionate about finding ways to make the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects easier and better. In this article, we will go through the main highlights of Silicon Republic’s fascinating discussion with Dr. Connoly

Dr. Connoly is particularly interested in the T in STEM. Technology has long been a source of wonder for her. She has worked actively in developing programs and her research areas -discovering along the way that diversity and equality are very important-. One of her earliest experiences with issues of diversity came about when she discovered that she was the only female postgraduate in the University of Warwick’s engineering department, where she was working on her masters. This made her very keen on finding ways to improve diversity on STEM. Her answer was to improve access to STEM and that led to her focus on education. She firmly believes that in order to improve diversity in STEM, you have to create a supportive environment for underrepresented people. Creating and designing such an environment is something she spends a lot of her time thinking about.

One of the things that stood out from the interview is that even though she is not a practising engineer, despite a masters in the subject, she is enthralled by the idea of using technology to improve how students are taught. She knows from experience in college that it can be very satisfying to build something from scratch, either alone or as part of a group. Even in high school, STEM subjects are often taught hands-on, because that tactile approach allows children to gain a deeper understanding of the subject. Whether you’re coding software, building a model volcano or experimenting with a frog, projects, and experiments are not only effective means of teaching, they give children a deep sense of fulfilment. In her own work, she has found deep satisfaction and pleasure. 

Dr. Connoly discusses her research with Silicon Republic, and explains that STEM education is important because it places children in the role of active creators of computer systems and applications, rather than that of passive users. She believes that by understanding how STEM subjects are taught and how students respond to various pedagogies, we can improve the teaching of STEM subjects, and thereby design richer and more effective integrated computer science and STEM experiences. In the twenty-first century, STEM-literacy opens so many doors. It teaches computational thinking, problem-solving, creativity and other invaluable skills that are much sought-after. 

As we said above, Dr. Connoly is passionate about improving diversity in STEM education. In many areas of our lives, diversity has dramatically improved over the last few decades. Yet, in software design, diversity is still a massive problem, especially in the computing and technology sectors. In 2017, just 11% of the boards of the average tech company were female and that number was decreasing, not rising. Author, Emily Chang, believes that not only is sexism tolerated in Silicon Valley, women are actively marginalised. Ellen Pao believes that sexism is rife in Silicon Valley, but that change is coming. Racial diversity is just as bad in Silicon Valley, with many tech firms showing very low levels of racial diversity. As with gender diversity, the problem begins in schools, and getting more women and students of color enrolled in STEM programs. For instance, according to a 2015 survey of elite U.S. and canadian universities, just 4.1% of computer science bachelor’s degrees were earned by Black people. Unfortunately, racial bias still seems to play a role because only two percent of hires at tech for that year were made up of Blacks. Dr. Connoly’s work certainly highlights one aspect of the crisis of diversity. There is an economic cost to the lack of diversity: diversity brings with it a wider pool of ideas and a better understanding of underrepresented groups. C-suite leaders believe that the lack of diversity is costing the economy $1.05 trillion

On average, computing and automation work fabulously well. However, in atypical cases, the lack of diversity leads to suboptimal outcomes. In fact, the lack of diversity shows up in discriminatory judgments passed by seemingly objective artificial intelligence. As one author has phrased it: “discriminatory data in, discriminatory data out”. So it’s really important to create an ecosystem that begins with education, and nurtures diversity. Dr. Connoly believes that we need interventions in our culture and in practices to ensure that the kind of equitable and fair computer science education ecosystems that she is trying to develop, succeed. 

She is a believer in a research-driven approach and backs teachers who embrace “teacher research”, using it to enrich their pedagogy. Throughout the pandemic, we have learned that blending different models of educational technologies can help teachers in instruction and assessment of pupils. Teachers can learn a lot from looking at the research on these blended models to become better teachers. Whether it is in an after school program, or a high school class, research-driven teaching can play a critical role in nurturing supportive ecosystems. 

Dr. Connoly sees some commercial applications for her work. Her research is largely focused on making computer science education and STEM education more accessible and more effective. The immediate applications for her work are in the public education system, but it can also be applied to help in the development of more open (in terms of diversity) educational technologies in healthcare and industry, for instance. 

Dr. Connoly named diversity and the creation of a sustainable education future as the biggest challenges she faces as an education researcher. 

There is, for example, a digital divide and beyond that, a digital-se divide. In other words, although there are many people who do not have access to the digital world, there are also those who have access but do not use digital technologies or the internet. Access does not equate to usage, and the education field, that means that even if we can improve access, that will not necessarily improve participation. 

Understanding what drives this divide and finding ways to eliminate it, are very important things for education researchers to achieve. Overall, the interview with Dr. Connoly is highly informative and shows a person committed to improving her field and increasing diversity.