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Visions of Good Education: talkSTEM Founder and CEO of Dr. Koshi Dhingra

The Visions of Good Education series gets you inside schools, classrooms, and the minds of those making a difference by working with our kids every day. In this series we will highlight the various aspects of what good education looks like for teachers, administrators, leaders, educational product makers, and more. In this edition, Rachel Fuhrman sat down with Dr. Koshi Dhingra, founder and CEO of talkSTEM.

Interview by Rachel Fuhrman

First, can you explain what talkSTEM is and what you wanted to accomplish with its creation?

TalkSTEM is a platform that serves various communities of people interested in learning and thinking about science, technology, engineering, math and I should also include the arts as well. And so that includes teachers, out of school educators, parents, educators in college level and other settings like that. It's very broad in its scope in the sense that there is a bit of an overlap with my definition of STEM as being really connected to pretty much most things that we do. And so, it may seem really big but the purpose is really to first of all, share perspectives that all of us have in our various activities and to broaden participation very explicitly in what is this thing we mean by STEM. That acronym has been around now since the early 2000s but I think like many acronyms sometimes we forget what they’re all about. It was created to try and break down the silos. But I think, unfortunately, it sometimes feels like it's become its own little silo to the notion of, so now you have this feeling of, “Oh that's STEM; I'm not a STEM person or that happened in the stem classroom not in my classroom, etc. And with best of intentions, I think there's the sense of this STEM/non-STEM sort of binary.

So talkSTEM really was founded five years ago by me to try and, in my own small way, bridge some of those gaps. My vision of TalkSTEM was a really inclusive platform that would allow people to share their perspectives that would in turn, engage youth in STEM to persuade them and to encourage them to see themselves as people who could do STEM.

By sharing our perspectives, we are inspiring each other. Maybe when you read a blog post written by a chef about how he sees his whole kitchen as an enterprise, and how he must innovate, you realize that STEM exists outside of the classroom. This particular chef who I'm thinking about who did write a blog post, came up with one of my favorite dishes. He explains how he came up with that recipe and, you know, it's definitely got the whole notion of iteration and reiteration, they're very much part and parcel. So, the idea that we can make delicious things through iteration and reiteration connects STEM to a very natural human activity; we do all the things that we care about in a wide variety of projects and get it doesn't go with this sort of stereotyping that often happens where people think “Oh, I can't do that. I'm not a STEM person”.

I guess I'm trying to encourage everybody that regardless of what your personal experience in high school or college math and science might have been, and I recognize it may not have been the greatest, don't let that be the definer of STEM in your life. That you're doing all of this stuff all the time and you can be a great role model and you can share that you don't need to be an expert. You're an expert in whatever ways you use it.

How has talkSTEM evolved over time?

Originally, it was just going to be a blog and nothing else. And then that kind of evolved over time to what it is today which has got more activities and uses and initiatives than it did when it was founded. It was founded primarily as this communication vehicle for interviews and blog posts. And then three years ago, what really pushed it in a different direction was this initiative called walkSTEM. I invited Dr. Glen Whitney, who's the founder of the Museum of Mathematics in New York City, that found this notion of math walking tours in different neighborhoods super intriguing. So I thought, OK, come over to Dallas let's do this math walking tour here in Dallas. And you know, that'll be the end of that, it'll be a lovely event, hopefully. But what happened was, it didn't end up being just a singular event. We ended up offering these walking tours these walkSTEM tours, every month and I engaged about 70 different educators. They were trained and then they signed up to lead different tours. And so that's really how it morphed into these interesting walking tours, kind of like an art tour but now through the lens of STEM.

And so we just kept doing them and that's how it grew and we now we have a collection of walkSTEM tours in varied settings in Dallas, after about a year of doing that. Then it continued to evolve and we thought, “How cool if teachers and students do their own walkSTEM tour on their own campuses or in their own neighborhoods!” So, I started talking to teachers about that and actually currently now, you know, we have a framework where teachers could have students build and share their STEM walks with kids from other parts of the world on our Youtube channel.

I know that talkSTEM has a focus on empowering women in STEM. Can you tell me more about that?

I think I can only make that happen with partnerships. There's no way I can do any of this on my own. For example here in Texas, I partner with the Young Women's Preparatory Network, which is the country's largest network of girls public schools. I partner with Girls Inc. They have afterschool programming so I partner with them and support the instructors where they ran a create your own walkSTEM project. Girls Scouts of Northeast Texas is another partner. Partnering with these organizations that are already serving girls is important because we don't actually engage directly with students because I don’t have access to a bunch of teachers. So, we focus on professional development, whatever we can do on social media, the website, and then we try and keep everything free much as possible.

Did you want the majority of your resources to focus on math or is that something you are looking to expand in the future?

It started off, obviously because of a partnership with Glen, with a focus on math. I would say it still has a strong foundational focus on math, and it's kind of funny because math was my least favorite subject in school. Yeah, I'm a biology person and did not enjoy math in school, and I always share that with people because for some reason there's this assumption because I'm promoting and sharing this thing that has to do with math that I must just be one of those math wizards and I'm like, the contrary. I think there's so many kids who are like little Koshi out there; I used to think I was horrible at math. Right. I used to kind of hide in the classroom and hope that I could just make it through the period and not get called on. I think one thing that all math learners have in common is that they all live in the real world, so there's some common ground we can use; if we can make explicit connections to the real world, students will understand it better.

I try very hard to include science as well and you'll see if you go to my YouTube channel there's relatively few science videos compared to math because of the constraint of time. The walkSTEM methodology is that it's a walking tour and it should feel like you're going on a walk. I could certainly give you a science lecture on photosynthesis and a tree, for example,but that would not be part of the walkSTEM methodology, which is about it being observation based as much as possible. I have realized that one of the constraints of a walking tour is the time. But that doesn't mean it stays within only math; math truly is a language that describes the world around us, and that involves science, arts, and humanities.

talkSTEM has already grown so much in the past five years. What are your hopes for the future?

I think that I would love to do more professional development for schools who are really interested in this. I think the 21st century is really about being transdisciplinary. So how do you achieve that? Well it's obviously hard because it is much easier to be in a little siloed world, close the doors and do our own things. Even though it's hard, we need to challenge ourselves and do this because our children need to be prepared for a different world. Young people can do so much more than I could when I was younger. You can, if you're interested, at a young age, publish photos, articles, you can change your thinking, you can be cross disciplinary and find places that will be interested in those ideas that you have. Some kids already do this and some kids don't and that gap is something that talkSTEM is committed to bridging and to finding partners to work together in order to to close - the encouragement gap, the gender gap, the opportunity gap.

To learn more, check out the talkSTEM website here! For teachers looking to find out ways to creatively teach STEM topics, click here for access to talkSTEM’s suite of learning resources for educators! Make sure to also follow talkSTEM on instagram so you don’t miss out on any resources or STEM information.

Koshi Dhingra received an undergraduate degree from the National University of Singapore and a Doctorate in Science Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research focused on connecting formal and informal educational opportunities for over 20 years. She has years of experience teaching at the middle and high school levels, and in teacher education programs. She previously served as a director of the Science and Engineering Education Center at the University of Texas at Dallas. Following this, she founded talkSTEM in Spring, 2015.