2014 Conference

Six Questions for Dr. Moira Gunn


How are schools treating women in technology disciplines today, versus when you were at Purdue to earn your doctorate?

This is an interesting question. And there are several ways to answer it. First of all, we can all count the numbers. There weren’t many women in the MS Computer Science program, and then I went on to become the first woman to get a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. To my surprise, it was another 17 or so years before there was another female PhD in ME at Purdue.

But even looking at the numbers, what do they mean? Is it only a win if women are 50/50? Let’s be clear. The disciplines of technology, engineering, computer science, etc. have been traditionally male. We know that male brains have been neuroscientifically measured to demonstrate a tendency in left brain processing, including alphabet letters, words, math, analytical processing, etc. And female brains have been measured as having right brain tendencies, including pictures, emotions, empathy, etc. These are tendencies, but let’s not avoid them for political correctness sake. This means that the educational systems for traditionally male fields necessarily reflects the creators – who had male brain tendencies. It is clear to me that the women who do well have sufficient capabilities in left brain capabilities – such as math – to pass the traditional male educational subjects. I did. Without them, you can’t begin to approach the subjects. At the same time, celebrating the right brain capabilities, the tendency to create a picture or a visual concept is a valued capability for any engineer. The ability to sense how people will respond to a design – both positively and negatively – is an undeniable asset for an engineer.

Today Purdue is enjoying the benefits of its second female dean of engineering. In truth, the incorporation of all human capabilities is under way – extending early to such previously unheard of learning objectives as teamwork skills. The inclusion of female deans and faculty will without a doubt evolve the nature of education in the fields of technology and engineering. They will become a place which will include all tendencies, where all aspects of being a human improves the art and science of being an engineer or technologist.

Will it end 50/50? Good question. Once all aspects of being human are incorporated in the educational field of engineering and technology we have done our best. Then we’d have to answer the question: Given all humans, who had the right mix of capabilities to be good engineer? That will answer how many of us humans can/should be engineers, and then — of that mix — how many happen to have which gender?

How well do you think Colleges and Universities are using personal technology today?

Colleges and universities are being pushed by the technical capabilities of their students! There’s no turning back here!

From my experiences as a professor, the mish- mash of technical support capabilities (brand names galore) are a bit of a hassle. I’ve used three different systems now. None shine through. Each have their advantages and disadvantages. Most are restrictive. Still, the ability of students to see how they are doing, and to share their educational experience with each other, is unprecedented and clearly helpful. I must say that the single biggest block to utilizing technologies is the faculty. It is sometimes a generational thing, who don’t understand how to teach with wiki’s, etc. And on the flip side, there are some who use the technology to constantly reduce their presentation time – phoning it in! Today, as has always been the case, teachers who commit themselves to great teaching, and now include the best of the tech given their course frameworks, are the engine which drives inspired, motivated students. That’s the goal, and in general, it’s better than ever.

Is there anyone you’ve been dying to interview on your show that you haven’t been able to land yet?

Tough one. That list has shrunk to nothing. If I think of one, I’ll be sure and mention it at the event.

What was the best lesson you’ve learned about technology and education from someone you’ve interviewed?

I think the best tech-innovation-management interview is a recent one that I did with Ed Catmull, the President & CEO of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation. As for both tech and education together, I’d go with Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. He’s a teacher through and through, and how he made his way from tutoring family members to changing how education is done bears appreciating. Ignore the trappings – how many videos, how many people, etc. His intention to educate each single person is the seed which causes Khan Academy to flower.

DO you believe that personal technology has enhanced or hindered the personal connections we make with others?

In my mind, personal technology has enabled us to make stronger personal connections on every level, as humans have never been before. I find that those who criticize the technology for dehumanizing and depersonalizing human communications … don’t understand the technology and what it is doing. The next time someone is complaining about this – go ahead, ask them if they actually use it …

Are we truly ready for wearable technologies like Google Glass and smart watches?

No, on Google Glass. Not now. Not likely ever, unless it changes function, design, security and easily visible human interactive cues so people know they aren’t being recorded or broadcast.

Smart watches? Good question. Let’s wait a year, and we’ll know more. I’m glad I don’t have to wear a watch. Time is everywhere. But I also like my tablets smaller, and my text a little larger. We’ll all see together!

Do you have Carl Kassell’s voice on your voicemail message? And if not, why not?

It’s like secret Santa. I pulled my own name in the NPR voicemail recording lottery.

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