Story of my Question
You step onto the staircase and feel immediately as if you are headed towards a brilliant destination. It will be higher than where you are now, you tell yourself. You imagine the views will stretch far and wide from the top floor that you're headed towards. Out of breath and feeling defeated you turn around and notice you have only made it up a single flight of stairs despite the hard work you put it. Ahead there are countless stairs left to climb and the top is far beyond your vantage point. The ground is close and familiar and often you consider the easy trek back down to the bottom, but time and again you push on. At each landing you come across new views and new people. You strike up conversations and ultimately you are always left to climb the staircase alone. You're close to the top and suddenly you realize that for the entire hike you have been unknowingly dropping bits of your luggage. You must retrace your steps to collect your belongings. Back at the bottom with hardly enough time, you push forward with a full suitcase yet again. You step up and up following your initial path, but realizing now that you can take the stairs two at a time - a more efficient approach to get you back to where you were. In the end you reach the top landing. The views are beautiful, but the sky is full of clouds. You realize you must stay atop the landing and wait out the weather. In the process you recognize that while the view is stunning it is no fun alone. Ultimately you decide to walk down the stairs and encourage others to take the hike. This adventure is teacher inquiry.
As a young girl my father would constantly encourage me to play with tools and join him in his work as a contractor. He claimed I had the mechanical knack from a young age and he was always eager to grow that excitement. My fondest memories of childhood were when my father would bring me old things to take apart. One time in particular he brought me an old telephone and had me take it apart. I left it all in a pile and when he came back he suggested "put it back together". Eyes wide and jaw dropped open I realized I had left too much of a mess to get it all back together. A few days later he brought me another old phone. He asked me to take it apart again, but this time I lined up the pieces neatly, drew diagrams to help me remember where pieces belonged, and when he asked me to "put it back together" I was ready. Step by step I placed each but and bolt back in its place. I plugged the phone into the wall and it worked! Here I was experiencing a learning based completely in projects and I was the happiest!
Today I teach engineering, but before I began teaching engineering, I studied it. In a school that boasted about its 13% female engineering school I found out quickly that the number was even lower in my specific major of mechanical engineering. Often, I was the only female in class. My male peers would often make comments like “you flirted your way to that A” or “that was a pity grade because you’re the only girl”. Even when I tried to stand tall and repeat the mental mantra of “these men don’t define me” I found myself hurt. After extended periods of time of this treatment I began weaving these comments into my own mind. It wasn’t until I made it to the hands-on project-based engineering classes that I began to feel like my efforts defended themselves.
I found that the completion of a project empowered me and gave me room to access the courses at my own speed and accomplish what I intended to without the critique of others.
Looking back on a year of teaching engineering courses I witnessed similar patterns in my students to those that I had experienced through hands-on work. In particular I noticed that my students that came to class feeling disadvantaged by pieces of their identity or with a previous notion that they were not strong in STEM courses were the students that blossomed the most through projects. Project-Based Learning (PjBL) is a type of learning that is rooted in hands-on projects that require students to manipulate and experience topics. Often projects are completed in groups to encourage collaboration. By implementing consistent PjBL in my classroom I hoped to affect students in ways similar to how I was affected. A researcher, Harris (2015), found that project-based learning allowed students to understand science on a “next level” by incorporating more than just the science content. Yadav et al. (2011) similarly determined empirically that the “learning gains [from project based learning] were twice their gains from traditional lecture”. By making projects the norm in my classroom I aimed to develop the whole student. After facing inequity in my courses due to my gender I aimed to reduce or eliminate gender stereotyping in my engineering classroom. My hope was that PjBL would do that. Education researchers, Han et al. (n.d.). note that gender was found to be one of the critical factors to affect a student’s achievement – specifically finding that gender had the greatest influence on achievement within science evaluations when paired against mathematics, reading and writing. I wanted my students to come to class feeling competent, and I wanted them to feel equal despite their gender. Through this my inquiry question developed into:
"How does gender mediate experience in my project-based engineering classroom?
I rearranged the curriculum to maximize the time that students were working on projects rather than listening to me explain topics. I grouped students to consistently mix up students that may not have previously spent time working together. I questioned students often on their roles within the classroom and asked them to be incredibly reflective in their weekly journals to gain better perspective on what experiences they were having and how they were developing. By focusing on this teaching style as the forefront of my planning I hoped to make it more natural for myself to use these techniques. Similarly, from watching the students learn this way and getting their feedback on what went well and what they struggled with I hoped to better understand how to hone in on the effective portions of this style for my own classroom and myself.