The Value of STEM?

Just some disorganized thoughts on this one. So we have this concept called STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education – where the US falls short according to many measures (though, interestingly, our national report card has yet to include engineering until recently). People invoke it as a kind of mandate frequently, and to what purpose matters quite a bit:

  • If the question is should we be doing things like trying to get more socially excluded populations into engineering – I’d say absolutely yes. This has as much to do with how we broadly socialize women and people of color to participate in society as it does how they experience education (yes, this too is part of socialization, I realize).
  • If the question is if we should emphasize STEM activities more in schooling – I’d say maybe. I wonder what STEM is in opposition to (or an advancement over).

Step 1

First off, what are we missing if we break it down by basic subjects?

The humanities, social sciences, languages and the arts.

Scratch that, we’ve got STEAM, advocates who take the position that design is what makes innovation in any STEM field possible – I’d agree on all accounts, except for say, math.

And, actually, there’s an interesting similarity between Art and Math – they both gain considerably more value when embedded in application. Math for Math’s sake is about as relevant or job-related as Art for Art’s sake, I think. Graphic design to communicate ideas or make interfaces more usable – or – statistics and predictive algorithms to make experiments possible or to solve problems – these seem to ring more true to innovation and “usefulness” for me.

Update: Er, scratch that too – according to the NSF “Science” here includes the social sciences. I think many people aren’t including these when they refer to STEM, however. Anyway, continuing…

So, generally, do I think we have too much emphasis on the social sciences, languages and humanities in schooling?

  • Well, at the K-12 level I’m not sure we actually have any significant social science. I mean sure there’s geography and social studies (which is history, really) but generally I don’t see a lot of psychology, sociology, anthropology and political science in high school – and I think actually it would be great to have more of those. In high schools like mine the tests we were being taught for (ACT/SAT sure but also more importantly AP tests) didn’t include those, they included emphasis on base subjects like math or English.
  • Languages, I think offer another similar dimension. Sure learning French or German is probably less useful and a sign of privilege or specialization. But you had better bet Spanish, Portuguese, Russian or Chinese would help you greatly in the future economy and job landscape.
  • And then we land on the humanities. Generally I’d say that we teach the same American-centric history too many times and that English focuses far too much on making sense of written texts instead of the grand entourage of media we engage with today. These issues aren’t an unsolvable problem, though, we could just focus more on contemporary history and on cultural studies that think of “text” in a multimodal kind of way. And both of these areas help to emphasize important subset skills – perspective taking, critical inquiry and rhetoric – or the effective expression of ideas.

So, really, I’m not ready to say we should deemphasize them. I would, however, be ready to suggest that we replace Math class at the high school level with Engineering class – where advanced math would be taught but always in application to something – integrated into practice where possible.

Step 2

Second, what are these disciplines (or subjects) really about? I feel like we’d be better off to think about it in terms of literacies or skills. What kinds of competencies do we want our students to have coming out of an education system. STEM, to me, suggests the following:

  • Science – Experimentation, causality and empiricism, internally consistent truth
  • Technology – Well, for me this is digital literacy, and I’ll get to in a second
  • Engineering – Problem-solving in an applied context, most often with physical objects or systems
  • Math – Problem-solving and algorithms in an abstract context

So, really, I’d agree that we might not be focusing enough on some of these skills, but I’d also say that they’re not any more important than others that might be cultivated by the humanities and social sciences – critical and creative thinking, expression and perspective-taking and so on.

Digital literacy is hard to really reconcile in all of this – I see it as a composite of skills and perspectives – but on another level you could think about just pure competency in being able to manipulate tools as a fundamental. That is, everyone should know how to type, use a mouse and find information on the internet. In my dream world I’d rather say everyone should know how to question the black box, reverse engineer, remix, program, control a 3D interface, draw with a mouse, present stories on the internet and so much more. As you can see my categories already branch into any number of the skills and areas mentioned above.

Step 3

So, in other words what’s this really about?

I think it’s about an assumption of mapping schooling to jobs. We have great demand for jobs in STEM (and STEAM, really) but not so many in the humanities like history, English and cultural studies or social sciences like sociology, anthropology and political science. And, really, that wouldn’t be a problem if the humanities were like aviation or sculpture, where only a few people go in, make it out and land jobs, but instead we have situations like UIUC, where our highest enrollment major is Psychology (1150 students in 2013), but there is probably not that much demand for people in psychology-related careers. Similarly we have a rather high count of people in communications (742), political science (552), and animal sciences + vet med (applied but probably not that many jobs – 923). Engineering, science and business majors dominate the majority of enrollment, comparatively. The other “useless” majors aren’t actually as populated as you might expect – English (323), history (217), sociology (207), anthropology (126), global studies (195), recreation (163) and so on. Though you do see interesting things like 300 PhD’s in computer science or 90 PhD’s in English but that’s a different issue.

So, at the end of the day – I think I want to go back to just focusing on ways to integrate engineering and other practice/problem-solving based learning into all curriculum for kids and focusing on areas where we have inequalities, such as women enrolled in engineering, or, from a different perspective that’s important to me in particular, men (or extroverts or people of color!) in library science. 🙂

Gets Me Some Tech Skills

I was asked for ideas on how someone who has a very strong humanities and social services background could work on “website making/social media/general tech skills” and this was my reply.
As often stated (probably?), I think website design can be broken down – writing copy, writing code, doing graphics/layout and designing experience (UX; a combination of all). You probably don’t need any more practice with the first but the other three have many avenues. UX is worth your while and severely needed in the nonprofit world, but you’ll have to do some translation for many of those folk. Coders don’t exist there. Developers are a rare pink unicorn in one of those scenes from planet earth with millions of birds. Coders often aren’t socialized to do world-saving work, and they get paid gobs in other fields. Graphic design is handy for all of the things (print, web, identity, making, life) but also kinda hard to learn without specific projects. Luckily you have some of the foundational skills, like the ability to notice details or general concepts like negative space.

SO substantive resources:

  • For coding – you could learn HTML/CSS but I think it might be more helpful to learn an introductory language like PHP (and MySQL for databases to go with it – this is what WordPress is based on). There are many free online resources, start with W3C Schools and go to something more serious from there. More hardcore (application-specific) people may tell you to go for Python or something off of this list ->
  • Graphic design – I have a book that’s trapped in storage in Glen Ellyn right now that has a hundred great design challenge prompts. Tasks like make a mail-order army of robots. I’ve done a few and like it, but I think learning how to operate fancy-pants programs is as much of a challenge as figuring out how to make things look good. One route is to learn to make great looking designs using simple tools, like Powerpoint 2010 or 2013 (better the newer you go) or another is to just start following scripted tutorials for Photoshop or Illustrator. Try learning the pen tool to make paper cutting designs, you can make money better than Kay Wahlgren and help dad retire. I can probably get you any Adobe program you like, or try Inkscape or Gimp (the true we-have-no-money route).
  • User Experience – See if you can get into this class -> Don’t bother with the assignments, just watch them. It’ll teach you concepts behind usability and user testing methods. Or you could try reading The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley. My professor uses this to teach composite design in LIS (an interdisciplinary field that likes people!).
I think ‘social media’ skills are a little overrated. It’s worth learning the capabilities and social norms for each network or medium but I encourage people to pick just a couple and commit investment to those. Generally my impression is that what lies beneath them are good writing for the affordances of each and a sense for audience – things I suspect you already have 🙂 But this might also be that I just feel annoyed by continuously hovering over a monitor watching the endless flow of information stream by, with meager attempts to redirect it amongst the flurry of hyperactive internet squirrels. I’d rather be more selective and intentional with my attention, something I think I’d even call a digital literacy. Yes, thank you Howard Rheingold, but I still think meditation is silly.

I’m not sure what general tech skills might be. You can move a mouse and type pretty darned well, and glean information from different screen formats rapidly in a non-linear fashion. Check.

Anyway I think you nailed it. Pick a project. Shattons of nonprofits need help. I just talked to the Urbana Independent Media Center Python Users Group the other day. The Fab Lab has plenty of things they could work on for us – a better sign in system, automated inventory, an interactive project board or hacking the CCK in our broke-ass Drupal install to be friendly for retirees. Or many groups have crappy looking websites or need better flyers or logos or good looking report designs. Perhaps better than this – you could learn video production and help a group produce their image on YouTube by telling a story about the impacts they make (CI Club example –, a lot don’t have time or knowledge to do this kind of thing. Or many service users whom they have never tested and may have vastly different understandings of computer interfaces than they do. I learned my friend’s mother doesn’t really know how to save and upload photos of her daughter to Facebook to share so she just tags herself in them instead. This is in part an interface design issue – I’m sure the system could be recreated to facilitate this behavior and perception of use.

If you need projects I have plenty here for you, but I suspect you have a network up there that could use the help 🙂 Hope that helps!

Storyography for Lincoln Hall

To be part of this – Overdone. Intentionally.

Back during my time as an undergraduate I belonged a registered student organization known at Positive Event Chain. The goal of the group, loosely defined, was to take part in events that would spread good Karma, the notion that doing something nice for someone else would prompt them to help other strangers and so on. Functionally this resulted in our group running activities like giving out free hugs on the quad (before this was cool to do) or delivering people hand-written comments like handing out fliers.One such event was our yearly Secret Santa Spoof. We would always meet in Lincoln Hall (because it was almost always open and I later had a key as a sociology graduate student) and over the years observed that one of the girls Acappella groups would have a gift exchange leaving nice wrapping paper in the trash bins. So our event became a deviant re-use activity, of an odd kind. Each person would pull a name out of a hat and that person would become their giftee. They would then venture out into the depths and nooks of the building in search of odd gifts found in corners and beneath piles. We could go out for an hour and gather derelicts like old tires, trophies belonging to clubs from the 1970’s, theater props or costumes, misshapen hunks of wood, ancient cassette tapes and any other strange relics of the past we could find in the basement, attic or wherever else in the building. We’d then wrap the gift, invent a story, and give them to each other in the room as jokes. Nobody ever actually wanted these gifts, of course, so they’d end up back where they were found, but we had the understanding that they wouldn’t be given again the next year. This event went on for about three years and brought some good laughs until the lot of us graduated.

I snuck in to Lincoln while the construction was nearing completion and revisited some of the depths of the basement that we were never able to get into. I never realized just how large it was! It was a little sad, however, seeing how the spaces that once could have worked as exemplar horror movie sets (my friend even made a flash video using them) had been painted white, freshly lit and replaced with pristine, sparkling parts. No more piles of random junk, low-hanging pipes, graffiti and dangerous jagged metal.

So instead I think I’ll stick with my memory – an echo of a Secret Santa parody that encouraged people to do good deeds and relinquish the beauty held in moments.

Questioning Equality

You’ll notice the red equal signs all over Facebook today. An example of resistance (as opposed to reform):

“Against Equality is an online archive, publishing, and arts collective focused on critiquing mainstream gay and lesbian politics. As queer thinkers, writers and artists, we are committed to dislodging the centrality of equality rhetoric and challenging the demand for inclusion in the institution of marriage, the US military, and the prison industrial complex via hate crimes legislation.”

I’m somewhat with it because I’m really pretty ‘meh’ about the necessity and value of marriage. But on the other hand I do think that if we’re going to have the idea/institution we ought to present it with at least a semblance of equality of opportunity. The other two issues seem similar – yes, we should reduce (or in some views eliminate) the military and drastically alter the prison system – but if we do not have the power to take these actions (because we must compromise in a democracy that includes the radical right) we ought at least strive for equality of opportunity. Maybe it’s just the name I have a problem with – against equality – instead of considering, questioning, critiquing and understanding society in our efforts to achieve equality of opportunity.

A more sexy approach

I watched this TED talk the other day:

Generally I thought this talk was good. She gives easily-identifiable examples and lands on next steps at the end, something many cultural studies people don’t do so well. I thought one of her suggestions was unreasonable, but we’ll come back to this. What inspired this post is that I made the mistake of looking at the comments below the video. One user, likely a young man, had been going back and forth with the other contributors. I’ll examine one comment of his:

“I agree somewhat – at least in the importance of being direct. It’s such a shame, then, that people like this C. Heldman would tell men that such behavior is ‘objectifying women’. She instead denies male sexuality and pushes this ‘nice guy’ attitude which doesn’t do anyone any good.

Men judge women on appearance, then we look at other things. That’s? not bad, it’s just the way we were built. Men should not be shamed into acting unnaturally just because it makes some women uncomfortable. IMO”

I’m not really clear what he’s talking about in the first part of the statement, but I think the second part is worth unpacking a bit. My first reaction is to disagree with him – not all men judge all women based on their appearance, but certainly many people get first impressions of one another. I’ve sometimes felt a little shameful in how I’ll spot physically attractive women out of the corner of my eye in a crowd and won’t pay the slightest bit of attention to others. I know this is primarily a socialized recognition but at times it feels almost instinctual – how fast and with how little information my mind manages to make these evaluations. It’s perhaps well-practiced. I can’t say I can subscribe to any notion of human nature (if anything it’s our “nature” to create our own ways of being to shape the world around us) but it’s not surprising he chooses to rely on this false discourse – “it’s just the way we were built” – by who? What evidence do we have that all men are ‘built’ in a way that makes them “judge women on appearance” ? I do assume he’s referring to primordial or carnal instincts and urges, not the assemblage of experiences and learned behaviors from which our identities are built. Suggesting that some biology controls us mostly or entirely alleviates any responsibility he might have for his own actions.

I was ready to dismiss his comment entirely until the very last sentence. “Men should not be shamed into acting unnaturally just because it makes women uncomfortable.” Again I’m not sure that there is such a thing as ‘naturally’ in this case, but let me put my own twist on this. I deal with some measure of guilt in my pursuit of romantic partners. No amount of feminist idealism is going to dramatically alter the hormonal component of attraction. I’ve certainly had the kinds of people I’m attracted to change over the years of my life, but this process has been gradual and not actively guided. The TED speaker may not be asking men to simply switch off the way they’re attracted to women like a light-switch (10:15 mark, her next steps) but I can certainly understand why this (presumably) young man might feel like that’s what she’s asking.

Try as I might I will likely never be attracted to overweight women. I could choose to date one, but I wouldn’t be able to successfully or responsibly have sex with a person who’s overweight (stated crudely, “I couldn’t get it up”). I know this preference is probably hurtful, on some level. But ultimately our social control can only go so far. Trying to rearrange what body types “society” reveres as attractive is just plain difficult – and it’s a process. Pointing out objectification and encouraging women to give up makeup and high heels and the like is absolutely necessary (and I actively push for these kinds of changes), but I’m not convinced it will change what body types most currently existing heterosexual men are attracted to. My children will grow up being encouraged to find women or men of many healthy body appearances attractive but this doesn’t solve the issue for myself or the guy who made this comment. This reality makes the speaker’s pitch feel considerably less satisfying or actionable – and can almost come off as the notion that in order to be feminist and stamp out objectification (hetero) men must stop being attracted to female bodies. Or, alternatively, that they must completely suppress or ignore their hormonal urges and first impressions and determine their attraction based purely on other things, like confidence or talents or power.

These days I’ve reached a sort of compromise – I police myself, trying to give equitable attention to women (and men) of many appearances and clearly never find myself in a relationship with women who don’t have real character and integrity. I’m not ready to advocate that we give up on finding bodies attractive. I think bodies are great, and while I don’t want to constantly objectify them I’m alright with people finding certain forms of them desirable. I doubt very much the speaker would object to suggesting healthy bodies should be recognized and valued. What’s more is that the strict cultural studies approach often grounds us too deeply in the negative. While we do need to point out the negative influences objectification of the female form has I think it’s worth taking other positive actions – complimenting women who don’t bother with high heels or encouraging women to look for and expect value on the basis of their opinions and assertions in the world around them.

In other words, let’s go with more positivity. Don’t tell (hetero) boys not to be attracted hot chicks (or to ignore that they’re hot), tell them to look for and encourage depth in women.

I am an explorer!

So I spent 30 minutes collecting outstanding screen shots in Far Cry 3, including a really cool lost abandoned hotel section that you aren’t supposed to interact with… and then I alt-tabbed and figured out I was doing it wrong and it only saved the first capture. SADFACE. I could write on how this is an interface fail… or install Camtasia… or be a productive citizen/PhD student and not play more computer games.

Anyway I was going to explain how it’s a really amazing looking game and how I wonder if money could be made just creating really impressive-looking fantasy landscapes, minus the violence (Tom Fairbanksonian). This abandoned hotel I found was probably for a level or section that they removed or never finished, but you can wing-suit (yes, you get one of those!) or hang-glide on top of it and find yourself floating in mid-air on top of holes in the roof or balconies. It’s just a glitch, but I found it refreshing to be able to discover something I wasn’t supposed to in a game – often these days they’re so scripted and controlled that sort of thing is really hard to do, usually the kind of activity saved for people who do nothing but mess around in games all day.

SO since I don’t have my own pictures for you I’ve just included some taken by others below. Cheers!

PS – this game teaches you to do a lot of drugs, but if you have sex with the lady who wants you to cheat on/kill your GF you die, so… MORALZ!!

PPS – I played a lot of this game as my dad built furniture watching the Rambo trilogy, and, I must say, this game is much better than those movies in all ways

Unbaby Almost

About a month ago I was tickled to discover, a plugin for Facebook that attempts to detect pictures of babies and replace them with an image feed of your choosing. It’s a neat idea, but the system fails on two accounts:

1) It traces words and phrases like “OMG SO CUTE!!! 🙂 🙂 :)” to determine if a picture is likely a baby. This takes out small furry animals as collateral damage, which I’m actually okay with, and also sometimes pictures of people. Sorry Ashley Bradarich, you’re still a celebrity but I love you for it. Your devil-angel photo is certainly TOO CUTE FOR WORDS HOLY GAWDS!!1!.

2) I set mine to relay the amazing website designs image feed on DeviantArt but since people there don’t understand what categories are I get results like the following:

See, this is my kind of information science. IR can be so much more fun than convoluted math equations.

Strange social norms

This post was a while back, but I juts now have gotten to it. A fellow PhD student, in an attempt to help us brainstorm more creative ways to recruit new information science students, sent us the following advertisement for reference:

As he explained, it’s a puzzle meant to draw you in:

In this poster, everything is hidden in the binary code (please ignore the girl at the background).

The decipher process can be found at (in Chinese). Here are the steps to get the material in natural language (I skip some trial and reasoning steps):

  1. OCR the binary code from the image.
  2. Save it as a binary file and name it bin.gz (you can get the name of the file by interpreting the binary code).
  3. Unzip the file and get a file called bin. This is a java class (again, tell from the binary code).
  4. Save the file as a java class and run it. You can get the correct name of the class (i.class) from the java error message.
  5. Run the class again and finally you will get an url:

What puzzles me about it is not actually the number cipher, which I imagine is pretty neato, but the the relevance of the woman in the background. Is she supposed to be just a pretty background, like a flower pattern? Are they assuming only heterosexual men apply and that this woman will get their attention? Is this like insurance companies that put naked ladies on billboards, but a subdued version? I’m not yet ready to label it sexist, simply because I don’t understand Japanese culture enough to comprehend the context. Right now I can’t help but see it as comically non-sequitur!

Bing It On

I took a stab at the Bing It On search engine comparison that MS has been pushing lately. I think I’m probably more niche than the average searcher. Here’s what I did:

  • Jeff Ginger – which search engine better presents me? – Google, lower rank of that stupid “Jeff and Ginger” page
  • Pouperi – this word is very difficult to spell (correct version is potpourri, apparently), which search engine gets it right? -Bing
  • How much cafeine is in Mountain Dew – purposefully misspelled caffeine, could either give a number or ratio? -Tie, both could not
  • Kayle LOL guide – how to play a character for a game I play – Google, provided a video guide in the results in addition to text guides
  • This is not a movie torrent – in case I wanted to illegally download this movie 🙂 – Google, gave actual useful torrents, not stupid torrent nexus ad-pits

Sorry Bing, I was willing to consider you, but you don’t work for my advanced needs 🙂

Women and Wikipedia, a rant.

A friend emailed me a link to an interesting visualization on Wikipedia and authorship ( that demonstrates the sheer contributions gaps. I of course freaked out about it:

This has been an issue for a while now :/ I’ve been running into more and more people that are starting their own community wikis because of the higher level restrictions imposed on authors for source citation. It’s sort of a funny backlash, coming from teachers and academics (old farts mostly I think) who think Wikipedia is rubbish, which has in turn created this kind of hostile environment for new editors and people exploring the system, as well as those who think about knowledge differently. “No I don’t have a citation for the meaning of this statue, I have a story about it” isn’t legitimate in some systems of logic. Probably an example of institutionalized sexism built into our construction of knowledge – you don’t get to say “I think it’s this, maybe?” you have to be gruff and shout “it’s fucking this damnit” and then intimidate anyone else who opposes you. Rampant in the dialectic world that surrounds me here, be it humanities or engineering or whatever, sadly.

Or at least that’s my impression of the social dynamic underlying it. The technical aptitude thing is a little different, I think, in that our systems of education suck at teaching people to hack and build with computer systems. Wikipedia’s input method isn’t all that friendly but it’s very simple for anyone who has been taught to program. Generally women are swayed away from learning to create with information interfaces in the same way they’re discouraged from doing math. This is starting to change, though, as many women have adopted and driven social media development and programs in informatics are growing and increasingly diverse while computer science becomes even more white/Asian male dominated. Lately my answer hasn’t been “Oh let’s get more women in CS” it has instead been “Fuck CS and abstract math, let’s get more people of all kinds into interdisciplanary studies that relate computers to real people and real practice.”

A long-winded trip of a response to your frustration. I’m sorry it sucked to try to modify Wikipedia. I’m not sure what the answer might be for you personally, other than maybe making it a project with the hubby or a more tech-experienced female friend, but I know as an instructor I can do something like modifying Wikipedia as an assignment and using the peer-learning/social-support classroom environment to make it more possible. We have at least a couple of professors in LIS that do this (and remember, GSLIS = 85% women, most of them ultra-timid introverts, so this is a big deal).

You landed on a very good question, though -> which professions contribute more to Wikipedia? My money would be on those with more educated people and ones that fit more into that masculine dialectic dynamic I related above. Also people with free time and a computer available. Maybe what we need is a really good cell phone app for Wikipedia.

That’s colored bright pink.