3 Questions: Joe Steinmeyer on guiding students into the world of STEM
Source: Dora P. Gonzalez
Joe Steinmeyer is a principal lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at MIT. His work includes the study of the intersection of biology and neuroscience with EECS, focusing on automation and control; and more recently, research in instrumentation and on novel ways to improve student learning. Steinmeyer SM ’10, PhD ’14 joined the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP) instructional staff in 2009 and since then has taught more than 400 students in the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES), MIT Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community (MOSTEC), Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy, and E2 programs. He is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and holds a bachelor’s degree in EECS from the University of Michigan in addition to his MIT degrees in EECS.
Q: What inspired you to become an OEOP instructor, and what keeps you coming back?
A: Coming out of undergrad, I was choosing between teaching as a career and engineering. I applied to PhD programs, but I also applied to Teach for America and almost went down that road. I got in MIT for grad school and decided to do research, but I wanted to keep teaching. The year after I got to MIT, around 2009, they were looking for an electronics instructor for MITES, and I was really excited because I have always liked the OEOP’s mission. Boston abounds with teaching opportunities, but few have a mission like the OEOP.
I also liked that I could teach concepts I liked, so that’s how I got involved.
Since I became a lecturer at MIT I’ve done more education-focused research, including some papers on the MITES curriculum, and devices we are using to teach EECS. For the past couple of years, I’ve also been trying to develop ways to analyze what students are doing in hardware when we are working from different locations, like with MOSTEC. You can analyze students’ programming capabilities through the internet, but how do you actually help them or give them a similar level of guidance in debugging a circuit, which is decoupled from a computer, when you’re not looking over their shoulder like you could in MITES and SEED? That has been an ongoing research project for me.
I stay engaged because I like the mission of preparing students to be in a good position for college. OEOP programs are unique in that way, and there is also a lot of freedom with what we can teach students. It’s fun to teach them electronics because there is no one way to do programming, it’s an evolving field.
I believe students benefit from a programming-focused curriculum, because that is one of the great have/have-not situations in education today. The schools with more resources will have programming curricula, where schools with less resources would not.
Q: How do you help students gain confidence to pursue a career in STEM?
A: First by having sort of a judgement-free zone. Every student comes in with different background experiences, and I’ve learned to adjust curricula for the individual person. When I first started as an instructor, I had this vision that everyone would have to do the same kind of project. But a student that comes in with no experience may not end up moving as far along as someone who came in with lots of previous experience, so having a rough idea of what you want everyone to do, and tailoring that for people, works best.
I am also a big fan of letting students develop projects that they come up with, so they have a vested interest in their work. I see computation as an essential skill in every modern STEM field. Programming is used in every engineering field now, which also allows students to apply EECS concepts to something they already are interested in or care about. A couple of years ago we had a student who was really into dance, so we did a dance-focused project. Other students are interested in medical-leaning applications. We also do a lot of traditional EECS-themed projects like games, because those can be done in a short period of time.
STEM education for those who want to self-learn can be extremely daunting and scary. If you go on any of the common forums where people can learn how to program, people can be very harsh and mean, and a student who goes on for the first time can feel discouraged and think programming isn’t for them. So I let students learn about the environment, but also try to ‘bumper bowl’ or guide the experience a little bit.
Q: What is the most challenging part of the OEOP instructor experience? And the most rewarding?
A: The vast differences in educational backgrounds of the students is a challenge, but it’s not one that I don’t like; I find that actually rewarding. It requires you to find what’s the right mix of challenging students but not breaking them down.
The most rewarding part is seeing students a few years down the line, where they end up or what they are doing, it’s really fulfilling. I have been an instructor for MITES for 10 years so I have a couple early MITES kids who are in PhD programs now. It has been really nice to see students’ journeys.
I had a student who came from East LA [Los Angeles, California], who was extremely smart, but had a lot of confidence issues. She worked really hard in the MITES electronics class, and at the time, they had to do individual presentations of their work, and she was really nervous about explaining her project but she did really well. She went through the college application process and got into Harvard and Brown. After visiting Brown she decided that was her college, and throughout her undergrad years she was a teaching assistant for MITES. She invited me to go to her graduation at Brown and it was a really fulfilling moment for me. It was neat to see her evolve into this really confident young woman. She then got into Harvard for her PhD and is doing very interesting hearing/ear research. Stories like this motivate me.
Programming moves so fast and transforms so fast that there are no more books to learn from, it’s sort of like going out on to the web and scraping information from people. I find it rewarding to see how students go from not knowing that they can teach themselves from the internet, to learning how to look up information that’s out there, loosely organized, and use it to solve a problem with their final projects. It’s also nice to see how much students mature once they are in college. At the end they are a well-seasoned person who can have their pick of what they want to do with life, that’s my goal. I don’t want to see anyone get forced into a certain career path, it doesn’t have to be EECS, if they can get to a spot and they can make a choice, and they’re not forced into it, it’s success.