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Sports of the Mind, Dr. Ken Berry

May 3, 2015

What is engineering? Ask an audience of adults and kids and the responses are varied and many: “Problem solving”, “math application”, “building things”, “programming”, “robotics”, “technology”, to name a few. In celebration of Engineering Week, CGA invited Dr. Ken Berry from UTD and CJ Kanelakos from NASA to give us a realistic idea of what engineering looks like now and what to expect in the future.


Dr. Ken Berry, Assistant Director of the Science and Engineering Education Center (“SEEC”) at UTD, challenges some myths of STEM education and engineering careers.

Myth: STEM education is fulfilled by simply offering courses in math and science.

Dr. Berry describes the ideal STEM education in terms of the blending of course strengths — not as different classes that stand alone. According to Dr. Berry, STEM is science, math, technology and engineering. “These are all seen together. They serve each other.” In his view, STEM education should be a conglomeration of each of these underlying skills:

  • Science = study of nature
  • Math = prediction/precision with numbers
  • Technology = provides the numbers through data gathering
  • Engineering = using all of the above to make the world a better place

STEM curriculum should look a lot like what you currently see in a Performing Arts class, says Dr. Berry. Performing Arts classes have 2 core elements: students use professional tools (ie. instruments, theatre stage and props, artistic medium) to mimic what professionals do.

“STEM needs to incorporate professional tools and professional experiences to engage and challenge students.” – Dr. Ken Berry

Myth: STEM should be taught in a traditional classroom method.

The traditional classroom method, according to Dr. Berry, is where knowledge is delivered from the teacher to the student. In many classrooms, “the information tends to be spoon fed” leading to passive learning by the students, and the focus is merely on “competence, not excellence.” Instead, STEM instruction should focus on thinking, instead of memorization, by providing hands-on projects with open-ended results. The necessary hands-on approach to understanding is not unique to academia. Dr. Berry draws from the sports model where motivation is inherent because the activity is challenging, social, and relevant.

Sports Model STEM
Challenging * hard physical workouts,
goal: excellence
* hard mental workouts,
goal: excellence
Social * team/school/community * team/school/community
Relevant * feedback immediate & meaningful * feedback immediate & meaningful

Also in line with the sports model, Dr. Berry distinguishes between group work and teamwork. Typical group work is where a group of students are given an assignment without individual accountability and skill development. The typical result is that one person in the group tends to do all the work because the focus is on the end result and not the process. On the other hand, according to Dr. Berry, teamwork is a more successful model for learning because each participant has “an area of expertise and an individual focus.” It is the combination of each student’s contributions that leads to team success. The team’s work becomes more than just the addition of the parts.

Dr. Berry highlights the STEM program at Coppell High School (and some other districts in the metroplex) as having figured out how to offer a solid STEM curriculum that is project-based and cross-curricular. For more information on the program at CHS, please click here.

Myth: Only people who love math and science should become engineers.

In engineering, there is no requirement for students to love math and science according to Dr. Berry. “Math and science are the calisthenics for explorers, entreupenures, and engineers,” according to Dr. Berry, “these classes are not ends by themselves. An engineer is a person who applies math and science to do something really cool.”

Myth: There are limited opportunities for students to apply STEM knowledge.

The growing number of robotics competitions around the country epitomize the movement to making STEM classes into performing arts classes. There are opportunities for students of all ages to participate in robotics competitions. In fact, over 300,000 students participated in robotics events last year. Some examples are:

“Competition is probably the answer to making science and math fun and immediately relevant for students,” asserts Dr. Berry. He refers to these events as Sports of the Mind and points out that engineering events have all of the appeal of athletic activities (excellence, leadership, communications, community), and are also available to students of different skills, backgrounds and abilities. “Everyone can compete on an equal playing field” as there are no physical requirements. Girls and boys compete together with the physically impaired. In addition, Sports of the Mind develop 21st century work skills that include design, project planning, and technology application.

“With Sports of the Mind, anyone can go pro and have a professional career that lasts a lifetime.” — Dr. Ken Berry

Summer enrichment opportunities at UTD (click here for more information):

  • Robotics
  • Solar Car
  • Quadcopters
  • Rockets
  • Weather Balloons
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