Engaging Girls in Technology: Anyone, anyone?

by Kristina Alexanderson
Photo by Kristina Alexanderson

What can we do at our schools, in our communities and across the province to promote change and get girls more involved in technology? Feel free to start the conversation below or with a tweet @learnquebec.

I had the pleasure of attending an information and round table session with Anne Shillolo at Bring IT Together 2014. Anne is the Coordinator of Educational Technology, and eLearning Contact, at the Near North District School Board in Ontario. During Anne’s workshop, By Design: Engaging Girls in Tech, I learned a number of interesting facts about the role of women in the history of technology, specifically modern computing. For example: Did you know that Hedy Lamarr (yes, the 1940’s Hollywood starlet!) is the inventor of the frequency-hopping spread spectrum technology used as a foundation for modern Wifi, Bluetooth and GPS? I also found out some surprising and disheartening truths. Did you know that the wage gap for women not only persists but gets wider as one’s level of education goes up? Did you know that the percentage of female computer science grads has declined dramatically since the mid 80’s? All the while, thousands of highly paid programming jobs go unfilled each year. According to Anne (and others), one possible solution to these problems is to engage girls in technology as early and as often as possible in order to encourage the prospects of a career in ICT.

But how?

In the fall, I participated in a McGill/Learn seminar with esteemed developmental psychologist Howard Gardner. During the final Q&A, he was asked by a teacher in the audience what essential skill or knowledge should we be teaching our students in order to equip them for the world of tomorrow. His response: coding. My colleague, Susan van Gelder, an early adopter and teacher of technology, wrote an excellent piece last year about the importance of getting our youngest students interested in coding. In To Code: Forward 2014, Susan shares how her students were empowered by their Logo experience and learned “procedural thinking, problem-solving and debugging”.

If you need more proof that programming is something that all students should be learning, perhaps Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg can convince you in this short video, What Most Schools Don’t Teach:

So, we definitely have ideas in terms of how to get kids excited and engaged with technology at an early age. However, one of the major obstacles in the implementation of school-wide computing programs, as pointed out by Anne’s research, is that there is simply a shortage of teachers able to teach these courses. Currently, in Ontario, only three faculties of education offer Computer Science qualifications and one of them (Queen’s) is in the process of phasing it out. Not surprisingly, fewer than one third of Ontario High schools offer even a single computer science course.

Thankfully, some institutions are mandating that their teachers complete training in programming in order to teach it. And, then there are the brave individuals who are taking it upon themselves to learn to code. You can read all about teacher Audrey McLaren’s foray into the world of coding and her participation in National Ladies Learn to Code Day in A Teacher Learns to Code.

Personally, I think computing has always had a serious image problem, particularly for girls. I remember my computer science class circa 1985. The classroom was tucked away, in the nether regions of a sprawling Toronto high school. Dark and unfriendly, the room was littered with towers, wires and computer guts. Frankly, the learning space itself did not speak to my design sensibilities and make me want to get creative … it made me want to run away! Add to that a complete lack of awareness on my part in terms of the possibilities of a career in computer science, and the fact that the Internet was not even on my radar, and well, I couldn’t see the importance or relevance and simply wasn’t interested.

Thirty years later and there are so many more sub-areas of computer science, like graphics, human-computer interaction and computational biology, and as educators we need to get the word out. Computing should not be seen as a solitary, boring, dare-I-say geeky endeavour, but as a way to solve real-world problems in collaboration with others.

What do you think?


Here are some great sites and organizations that Anne highlighted during her workshop that promote women in technology, educate and inspire:

You can follow Anne @anneshillolo.






Curiosity in the (Science) Classroom

Photo by Damon Styer

How do you foster true curiosity in your students? Tell us below or by tweeting @learnquebec.

In a recent professional development session, our team of online teachers were learning about and discussing inquiry-based learning. One of the characteristics of an inquiry-based activity is that it begins with the curiosity of the learner. As a group, we spent some time that day discussing this characteristic: how to effectively engage the interest of our students and the challenges of balancing student curiosity with the realities of covering the curriculum.

Researchers from the University of California recently conducted experiments to discover what curiosity does to our brain activity.   They found that “people are better at learning information that they are curious about” and “memory for incidental material presented during curious states was also enhanced”.

For me, this does not come as a huge surprise.  I have seen firsthand that piquing students’ interest about a subject before teaching them something new will make them more ready to learn, will allow them to learn more deeply, and will help to engage their prior knowledge. However, it is not always easy to do this. Not all students are naturally curious. Some students get very anxious when there is a high level of uncertainty. As well, we are given a fairly rigorous curriculum to follow and it can sometimes be difficult to find the time to build students’ curiosity about particular material.

Since the PD session, I have done some reflecting on my own teaching practice to see where I’m encouraging student curiosity and what I can do to further expand on it. Here are three things I have realized through my reflections:

In order for students to ask questions, teachers need to create an environment where they feel safe to do so.

In Fostering Curiosity in Your Students, Marilyn P. Arnone suggests: “Create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable about raising questions and where they can test their own hypotheses through discussion and brainstorming. (Not only does this foster curiosity, but it also helps to build confidence.) “

At the beginning of the year, I find that many students are hesitant to ask questions. They are concerned about how their peers will react and they are worried that I will get upset that they are asking questions that could derail the discussion. My classes are online, so fortunately my students have the ability to send me private messages (which are only visible to me and that student). Through this feature, I am able to address student concerns in a private manner or talk about them to the class without identifying who raised the question. As time goes on and we have established a culture of questioning, I find that students are more confident to ask questions publicly. Sometimes we are able to investigate the question further as a class and sometimes we set that aside for offline interest.

Essential questions get students thinking about how what they already know fits into the main ideas for a unit of study.

Last year, I started using essential questions at the beginning of a unit to pique students’ curiosity right away. Essential questions “provide the fundamental organizing principles that bound an inquiry and guide the development of meaningful, authentic tasks”. Such questions help to identify common misconceptions and allow students to engage their prior knowledge.

For example, one essential question that I presented to students when I was starting a Physics unit on motion involving constant acceleration was this: “What automobile controls can cause a change in acceleration?” Most students could already tell me that the gas pedal could cause a car to accelerate; pressing it would cause the car to speed up. Some would also identify that the brakes would cause a deceleration; engaging them would cause the car to slow down. By asking this question, I was able to get students curious about what they didn’t already know about acceleration. As we worked through the unit, students would add the steering wheel to the list of controls that would also cause a change in acceleration (since this caused the car to change direction).

Sometimes, instead of providing students with an essential question at the beginning of a unit, I will give them time to brainstorm their own instead. My Chemistry students, when starting a unit on Reaction Rates, came up with this question: “How does the size of a loaf of bread affect the time that it takes to rise?” Some of them had personal experience with baking and knew that a larger loaf needed more time to rise, but they were eager to learn the “why” behind it.

Allow students to investigate new relationships before learning about them from time-to-time.

As Ken Elliott wrote in last month’s blog post, many traditional science classes involve executing well-defined lab investigations to support material that was previously taught in class. While it can be argued that these experiments were designed to give students a deeper understanding of the content, it certainly takes some of the inquiry part out of the equation.  Students are not curious about the relationship between an unbalanced force, mass, and acceleration if they have already been taught Newton’s Second Law (F=ma). This year, I have made a conscious decision to flip my activities around so that students are doing labs earlier on in the learning cycle, with an emphasis on discovery.

My parting challenge to you:

Have I piqued your curiosity about curiosity? Read one of the articles below to find out more about how it enhances student learning and add a comment to share something you have learned!

Why Curiosity Enhances Learning

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Just Ask: Harnessing the Power of Student Curiosity

Fostering Curiosity in Your Students

Curiosity is critical to academic performance

How curiosity changes the brain to enhance learning

Curiosity: It Helps Us Learn, But Why?

Curiosity Prepares the Brain for Better Learning






Is “The Scientific Method” Good Enough for Today’s Science Classroom?

Municipal Archives of Trondheim

Do you think The Scientific Method is too linear or too rigid for the science classroom? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.

I had the privilege of attending a talk given by Dr. Joe Schwartz at the recent Teachers’ Convention in Montreal. He decried the lack of scientific process in the anti-scientific claims of the pseudo scientists who make enormous profits from non-traditional medicines like homeopathy or use scare tactics to promote opposition to vaccinations for young children. His position is that when these fake sciences are put through a rigorous scientific process (if ever), they fail to produce the results to back up their claims and are in fact fraudulent. So what is the role of science teachers in helping students navigate the claims of scientists and non-scientists that are out there?

Most science and technology teachers are very conscientious about making sure that their students have ample opportunities to do “hands-on” science activities whether in their classrooms or in specially-equipped science labs. This requires them to prepare lab experiments for their students involving extensive amounts of time developing procedures, gathering materials and instructing their students on the expectations. In my discussions with them, they make it clear that students’ understanding of the process of science is as important as their knowledge of the scientific “facts”.  In fact, science educators are conscious of the fact that it is their role to help their students become scientifically literate, in order to better understand the scientific processes that allow society to discriminate between science and superstition, between medicine and quackery, between truth and fraud.

At the heart of science education in most people’s minds lies The Scientific Method (TSM). But is it enough to help scaffold the kind of critical thinking required today? Most teachers will tell you that TSM involves certain set steps. Shown here is the traditional model of TSM which I followed as a high school student in the 60s, and is still common in today’s science classrooms. This is copied from Windschitl (2004):


Critics say that, as it is used in the classroom, TSM is too linear a process and that it does not mimic the way scientists really work. The way it is applied in schools may be too simplistic and may not promote inquiry. For example, the statement of the problem is often too clean and simple, not the messy reality of true science. Hypotheses are often done for the sake of having one and are often unrelated to existing models. Derek Hodson in a 1996 article in the Journal of Curriculum Studies points out that scientific processes must be carried out within “a substantial measure of theoretical knowledge” otherwise predictions are only guesses. “In reality, doing science is an untidy, unpredictable activity that requires each scientist to devise her or his own course of action. In that sense, Science has no one method, no set of rules or sequence of steps that can and should be applied in all situations.” All too often in our classrooms, procedures and conclusions are too simple. The steps are all listed clearly and the results are the expected ones. Inquiry-based learning requires much more.

I had a recent discussion with a friend and science consultant. She pointed me to an article by Mark Windschitl and colleagues in a 2008 article in the journal Science Education saying that schools need to present scientific inquiry in a much more realistic way than TSM. In their Model-Based Inquiry (MBI) paradigm, they talk about 4 conversations to take the place of TSM.

  1. Organizing what we know and what we want to know. This involves exploring what is already known – establishing a model of this.
  2. Generating testable hypotheses: This means thinking more deeply about what might happen and why. Understanding that there can be competing explanations and methods of attack. Don’t just guess!
  3. Seeking evidence. This involves using data from different sources, establishing models and deciding how to represent the data.
  4. Constructing an argument: Deciding how the original model is affected by the data; explaining the data

Below is a diagram (again copied from Windschitl (2004)) of Windschitl’s Model- Based Inquiry. If you start at the top and go counter clockwise, you will see that the process of formulating a hypothesis takes into account the existing understandings and current theories and observations. As the investigation is carried out and the data analysed, the original question(s) and model(s) are revisited and adjusted with the new findings and conclusions in mind. These revisions happen at any stage of the process – unlike the TSM linear process.


So if TSM isn’t producing the scientifically literate students we want, then what should teachers do in the classroom? As science educators, we know that we need to not only interest and challenge our students in science with good inquiry-based hands-on activities. Activities need to be as diverse as the real-life science they mirror, and include reading about science, presentations of science phenomena, debating, demonstrations, videos, thought experiments, etc. MBI can provide the methodology for those good classroom lab activities.

Stay tuned as I continue to look at inquiry-based science teaching and learning in upcoming posts.



Hodson, D. (January 01, 1996). Laboratory work as scientific method: three decades of confusion and distortion. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 28, 2, 115-136.

Windschitl, M. (2004), Folk theories of “inquiry:” How preservice teachers reproduce the discourse and practices of an atheoretical scientific method. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 41: 481–512.

Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., & Braaten, M. (September 01, 2008). Beyond the Scientific Method: Model-Based Inquiry as a New Paradigm of Preference for School Science Investigations. Science Education, 92, 5, 941-967.

Make this the Year of the RAT: level up your use of technology

Photo by: Geoff R under a CC license
Photo by: Geoff R under a CC license

How are you using technology with your students? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.

A new year – I like taking time to take stock of where I am in life. Have I accomplished previous goals? Do I need to tweak them? Establish new goals? Now is a good time to reflect on how best to reach your students (though I am sure it does not take a new year for you to do that; it is a constant for teachers).

An area of interest for me has always been the use of technology in the classroom. How are you using technology with your students? The answer to this question often depends on the availability of technology  and often, how comfortable you are with technology.

Using technology is not about jumping on a bandwagon. Nor is it about using technology just to say you use technology.  It is about seeing ways that technology can enhance the teaching / learning experience. Pedagogy always comes first! There are several models that can help you think about technology use: TPACK and SAMR are two that are used a lot.  SAMR stands for


At the substitution level, technology is used for a task that could be done without it. An example would be writing with a word processor instead of on paper or printing out a quiz from the computer and then filling it in). The task remains the same. There is no added benefit to using technology.  Tasks are often driven by the teacher.

At the augmentation level, there is an added benefit. A student uses the tools in the word processor to check spelling or grammar. The teacher prepares a quiz with Google Forms so the student can get fast feedback regarding their understanding of a concept. These are still tasks that are generally done in a classroom

At the modification level, the tasks begin to change with the use of technology. The students are able to do things that would not be possible without technology. An example would be using Google Docs to write. Students could share their document with others and get peer feedback, or they could even collaborate on a project.  These artifacts could be shared via a blog so that they have an authentic audience – they are writing not just for the teacher.

At the redefinition level, the tasks are completely different – students may create documentary videos, collaborate on projects with other students around the world. They use technology to contact experts;

You can learn more about SAMR in this video.

Image from Openclipart by qubodup
Image from Openclipart by qubodup


I recently came across another way of assessing technology use which uses the acronym RAT – it is a simpler version of the SAMR model. I learned about it from the Digital Literacy Blog (well worth a read).

There are just 3 levels:

R :: replacement | redundant | retrograde
A :: augmented | average | acceptable
T :: transformed | terrific | tremendous

The adjectives were added by the author of the Digital Literacy Blog. This is a slightly simpler way of looking at how you are integrating technology.

Image from: http://doverdlc.blogspot.ca/2013/06/the-rat-samr-transformative-technology.html

While one should aim to plan at least some of your classroom activities to be at the transformative level, there are certainly times when the other levels are useful. A quick class quiz using Google docs may be useful. Not all writing can lead to video productions or other complex artifacts; sometimes a word-processor is just what you need. And, as in anything you do, if you find yourself at mainly the substitution or replacement level, don’t feel you have to take a leap to suddenly planning everything at the transformative level. Baby steps are fine!

So here’s to goal-setting and new challenges for 2015. But remember to make them the kind of goals that can actually be realized.


Here are some interesting reads to help you reflect on your teaching and learning with technology:

SAMR Success is not about tech

Curriculum and Learning: Examples from the Classroom

Assessing Technology Integration: The RAT  – Replacement, Amplification and Transformation – Framework by Dr. Joan Hughes, Dr. Ruth Thomas and Cassie Scharber