Broaden learning to boost diversity in STEM, says author Dr Barbara Oakley

4 Oct 2017

Dr Barbara Oakley. Image: Rachel Oakley

Encouraging broad learning can build diversity and creativity in areas such as STEM, according to Dr Barbara Oakley, who will speak at DCU this week. Claire O’Connell reports.

‘Follow your passion’ is often what we say to encourage people who are choosing a path of study, starting a new venture or learning new skills.

But Dr Barbara Oakley has a wider perspective: “My alternative advice is don’t just follow your passions, broaden your passions,” she said. “Don’t put yourself in a box.”

‘We tend to develop passions about things that we feel we are good at and that come easy’

Oakley, who is professor of engineering, industrial and systems engineering at Oakland University will visit Dublin City University on 5 October to speak about approaches to learning and about gender diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and she believes that encouraging people to broaden out from the learning they find easy can enhance diversity and creativity.

From Russian to maths

Oakley has walked the walk of her own advice. She went from learning Russian and working as an interpreter with the US Army to building up her knowledge and confidence in maths, working her way up to a professorship in engineering.

Oakley’s experience of change taught her plenty about the value of learning something new and, on the face of it, difficult.

After school, she had initially studied Russian and rose through the ranks in the US Army. Her expertise in language and communications saw her working at the South Pole Station in Antarctica and aboard Soviet trawlers in the Bering Sea.

But after she left the military, Oakley found that recruiters were not knocking down her door with job offers. She could see that technology was playing an increasing role in society and she decided to tackle a subject she had struggled with in school: maths.

Stepping stones to learning

This was a time before online courses were available, so Oakley went back and took university courses, picking her way along the stepping stones. “I didn’t jump right in. I went to the lowest level. I wanted to start with a beginner’s mind and I took remedial math. I did one course at a time,” she said. “I wasn’t the best but I studied hard. It was difficult, but I did OK.”

Oakley took on more courses and eventually worked her way up to becoming a professor of engineering. Today, she researches cognitive science and bioengineering. She is the Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University and she is the inaugural ‘Innovation Instructor’ at Coursera, where she co-teaches UC San Diego’s ‘Learning How to Learn’ course.

Oakley has also written numerous books, including Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and, more recently, Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential, where she writes about people who switched careers. “Many of the people are like me. They are rather ordinary people who decided to try and make a change in themselves,” she explained. “I talk about the secrets they used to help them.”

Build diversity

People who pivot from one field of learning into another can often bring with them helpful perspectives and a diversity of thought, added Oakley. “If something doesn’t come naturally to you and it feels a bit hard, then you are using different neural patterns to learn and you may be more creative as a result.”

She also has an interesting take on how early average differences in the development of skills may link in to the issue of gender diversity in STEM.

“When little boys and girls are growing up, their math and science are equivalent, on average, but the boys’ verbal abilities lag some whereas the little girls’ verbal abilities are ahead,” explained Oakley. “The boy thinks that, ‘I am better at math and science’; and the little girl thinks, ‘I am better at verbal than math and science’ – which is true, even though [the boys and girls] have the same abilities in math and science. And we tend to develop passions about things that we feel we are good at and that come easy.”

This is where the message to broaden out from your passions could play a key role, so that girls and young women continue to engage with science and maths, she noted.

Learn online

A lifelong learner herself, Oakley is a big fan of online courses, and she encourages everyone to check out Class Central, a website that highlights a wide range of courses to take.

“I love learning new things. I will often read late at night, but if I try to learn something technical late at night, the book goes plonk,” she said. “But, with online courses, I have got a teacher walking me through.”

Dr Barbara Oakley will give two talks at Dublin City University on 5 October. For more details and to book a free place, see

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication