National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Radia Perlman delivered a keynote address at STEM Learning Ecosystems’ “2020 Spring Community of Practice Convening” in San Antonio, Texas.
Perlman was inducted into NIHF for developing the Spanning-Tree Protocol (STP), which enabled modern-day internet access by allowing Ethernet technology to create massive networks containing hundreds of thousands of nodes. Her talk focused on the importance of making STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education both exciting and accessible for students of all ages.
“I love figuring out the simplest way to explain something,” Perlman said in her opening remarks. “That’s the way I design things.”
Perlman's talk reflected on the entirety of her career and explained how from an early age, she understood the importance of self-confidence and trying new things.
Perlman’s confidence was tested early on when she took her first computer programming class while in high school and felt intimidated as a beginner, and then again in college when she was asked by a teaching assistant if she wanted to be the programmer for a project he was working on.
Though she didn’t know how to program, the teaching assistant responded that this was preferable, as he had no money to pay her, but he knew she could learn because she was doing so well in class. “Now the only reason I agreed was because I had a boyfriend at the time who knew how to program,” Perlman continued. “So, I figured it was a safe way to learn, and indeed I learned to program, and it’s fun.”
As she continued her speech, Perlman spoke about the importance of attracting many different types of people to STEM fields. She discussed why people usually choose not to pursue STEM, and she explained that for many, it’s because they have preconceived notions about the types of individuals in those careers. “They have this image of what an engineer is and they say, ‘well, that’s not me,’” Perlman said. She called on those in attendance to help students realize that the best ideas often require a different perspective. “What we need in terms of diversity is not necessarily different body shapes and skin colors, but instead people who have different skills – people who can make things beautiful or simple.”
For Perlman, the key to creating a more inviting and collaborative atmosphere in these fields is to embrace the act of asking questions. There should be no shame involved in not knowing something, and whenever someone comes to her with a question, she views the situation as a privilege. “I don’t say, ‘how can you not know that?’ I say, ‘I can't believe that I have the honor of being the first person to explain that to you.’”
Throughout the morning, Perlman challenged those in attendance to cultivate environments that inspire. If students are terrified of making mistakes or do not understand the relevance of what they’re learning, it’s therefore not surprising that their relationship to learning could turn negative. Therefore, creating engaging classrooms is key.
Because the world is a nuanced place, solutions rarely follow the “correct” or “incorrect” dichotomy promoted in traditional school settings. Perlman concluded her remarks by expressing the need to move beyond this way of grading and encouraging the educators in the room to address problems from multiple perspectives.
“I just wish people would know that it’s not a crisp, true or false world and that it’s important to have empathy when searching for what arguments might be on the other side,” Perlman said.
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