Team Through My WindowLook at engineering education through a new window.

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Looking through MY window.

Jan 6, 2014 | By: Lauren Weston

Looking through MY window. thumbnail

I am an undergraduate at Smith College in the engineering sciences department.  My “job” for all intents and purposes is to be a student, learn from my professors, read books, and take tests.  That’s a big part of who I am on a daily basis, but I am also a member of the Through My Window project team.  And this is the part of my college experience that I feel is truly preparing me for the “real world”—whatever that may entail.

When I was initially asked to write a blog for the Team Through My Window website, I had a million ideas about what I wanted to say.  After working on this project for the past ten months, I feel that I truly know the mission of the team and take extreme pride in telling others about our work.  But it wasn’t until a new student member joined our team last week that I realized what I truly felt passionate about and wanted to impress upon anyone interested in our work.

I believe that everyone who uses Through My Window should know a little bit about the team that created it and, believe it or not, a major part of the team is Smith College students, ranging from seniors to first-years (not called “freshmen” at a women’s college).  What is great about working on Team Through My Window is that students across ALL major interests and backgrounds come together to work with professors, writers, faculty, and staff from other colleges, a seemingly unfocused mash up of people that work extremely well together to accomplish their goals.  What’s especially great is that the students do not perform the “grunt” work, as many undergraduate researchers at other schools do.

Our team is extremely unique in that all contributions are given the same weight regardless of who does the work.  By this, I mean that students and faculty, 18 year olds up to “older”, are equally valued on this team.  To use a favorite sports analogy (and, yes, I'm also a college athlete), it’s a level playing field on this team.  The students and “adults” working on the project are balanced, with “adults” being defined as “not undergraduates”; as you can tell from our biographies page, this includes a wide range of professionals from Smith College, STCC, UMass Amherst, and beyond. Everyone’s voice is heard equally.  But this dynamic seems odd to most people.  Aren’t students supposed to learn FROM their professors?  In most academic settings, that traditional power dynamic exists; students are taught to absorb the knowledge that their professors and teachers deem suitable to share with them.

On the Through My Window project, however, there are no right answers.  There is no set, foolproof way of creating an online educational environment centered around middle school students and engineering—that’s the point!  This is truly unexplored territory; there are no models to base our website on, no concrete methods, no “right” way of going about this process.  So the “adults” can’t know more than the students about this project, it’s just not possible.  There is no room for egos, superiority complexes, inferiority complexes, nor unnecessary formalities because everyone is on the same tier.  There is too much to be accomplished on a daily basis to try to delicately step around the hierarchy that typically exists within academia.

As a junior at Smith College, I am playing a role on the Through My Window team that is providing me with leadership skills, independent motivation, new knowledge about previously unknown topics, technological skills, and real world collaborative skills where the end result of my hard work is not a grade, but rather a tool that will affect people’s lives. I never could have anticipated having this level of agency and autonomy in this project, being able to direct my interests to match with some needed aspect of the team’s mission.  On this team, I have found that I am better able to understand the ways in which I learn; I’m at my best when I can put my ideas down and revisit them again later, that’s just the way my brain is programmed.  In our Through My Window learning journeys, we have tried to provide as many different learning tools and devices as possible to potential users so that they too can explore the ways that they are best suited to learn.

Personally, working on this project has educated me arguably more than any of the semester long courses I have taken in college.  Upon graduation, I might not need to know many of the equations I’ve memorized or most of the universal constant values I’ve used (luckily my generation has the internet at our fingertips), but I will need to know how to perform research, digest information, create a final product, and receive feedback throughout the entire process.  This is precisely what I’ve learned in my work on the Through My Window Team. I’ve learned how to interact with supervisors, speak confidently and freely about my ideas, and create something worth creating; I do not just regurgitate information that someone has told me I should know.  Furthermore, I understand the material I am learning in my engineering courses to a greater extent because of my work on the team, ranging from topics like computer science, to engineering design and redesign, to the social implications of engineering work that is often left out of traditional engineering courses.

I believe in Through My Window.  I was not the conventional “tinkering” child who was fascinated by taking household appliances apart and inevitably failing to put them back together.  I was not the stereotypical engineering prodigy that our society has come to expect and label at a young age.  Instead, I had to wait until my senior year of high school in a physics classroom to see that engineering might actually be the career path I wanted to pursue.  I wholeheartedly believe that if I had been exposed to a tool like Through My Window when I was in middle school, I would have seen that engineers come in all forms and the engineering is perhaps the broadest discipline I can be a part of.  There are so many different aspects of engineering that I simply didn’t know about, and this is the heart of what we are trying to present to your students.

We are aiming to provide educators with a tool to get students interested in topics that we are passionate about in a way that we believe will engage them.  But there’s always room for improvement, and we need your feedback, too!  As partners in our project development, we turn to you on the same level playing field; all of your ideas and concerns will help Through My Window become the very best it can be.  Tell us what you think about collaboration and equal say in your classrooms.  How can we show our users that we value their feedback?  Now that you’ve looked through MY window, let us know what you see.  How do you want to be involved?  How can we use your feedback and perspective to develop our vision?  We can always use more teammates!

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1223868 and 1223460.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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