I teach them Creative Tech; they teach me a whole new world

I’ve been asked a number of times, “You got an Engineering degree from Stanford and you’re busy pursuing your doctorate at an Ivy League, so why waste your time teaching at a public elementary school in Harlem?” Here’s why:

When I excitedly told my Masters advisor, Stanford Professor Jennifer Langer-Osuna, that I had been accepted to Columbia University (Teachers College) for a research-intensive doctoral degree in education technology, she gave me a piece of advice that I’ve held on to.

Students aren’t just academic case studies or numerical statistics. They’re real people. You have to get out into the field and find out who they truly are, interact with them, and learn from them. Only then will you find out what they need and how your research could potentially help them.

At Teachers College, I was fortunate to be selected for the Arthur Zankel Urban Fellowship 2018–19, which provided me an opportunity to teach an after-school program in Creative Technologies at a public elementary school in Harlem. The students who enrolled for my class are 82% youth of color, 73% female and 27% male.

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. This program began in September 2018, and this was my first time teaching (ever!) and standing in front of a classroom of boisterous 5th-graders. It gave me some comfort to know that I had a co-teacher who is a veteran educator. This was also my first time personally developing a year-long curriculum related to Creative Technologies. Although I am well-versed in topics such as introductory programming, digital fabrication and physical computing, I entered with minimal experience teaching youth of color and classroom management.

I started my adventure of Creative Tech lessons with these students, but without realizing, they taught me several important lessons:

1. Linking identity to STEAM projects is incredibly important.

We introduced students to stop-motion animation, where they would create an entire group project starting from storyboarding, designing their characters and scenes/backdrops, narrating the story, and finally filming it with a stop-motion app and recording a voiceover. The portion that stood out to me was during the character design phase. I realized my students gravitated to designing characters that resemble themselves, in terms of appearance and personality. Thus, there was a rush for the brown play-doh to make their characters’ skin color, which I hadn’t anticipated when my co-teacher and I brought a big box of colorful play-doh for the class. Perhaps this could’ve been considered minor; perhaps the students could’ve made do with beige play-doh; but this seemingly trivial observation made me discern that there is more to teaching students the technicalities of stop-motion animation. Ensuring that they have an avenue for self-expression and authentic representation (in this case, by ensuring they have sufficient brown play-doh) is essential.

Examples of characters the students made

2. Building self-confidence matters.

During our introductory computer programming unit where we used Scratch, I discovered that students did not understand why and how their sprites move horizontally or vertically on the screen because they did not have a good grasp of the concept of x- and y-axes. We took a little break from programming to go through coordinate points on a graph, and asked students to explain it back to us to reinforce the concept. To my surprise, a student began crying and said that she had always been terrible at math and would never comprehend this concept. She stated that she didn’t see how learning about coordinates and programming would add any relevance to her life. My heart sank when she said that, because I know too well that girls’ confidence in themselves, and particularly in STEM subjects, slump significantly as they enter their teens. Recent research published by the Girl Scout Research Institute and many academic sources point to the same phenomenon that girls’ confidence in STEM decline exponentially. My co-teacher and I jumped into action to brainstorm alternative methods of explanation. We knew our students love the wide variety of Scratch sprites (characters that would perform programmed actions), love drawing, and love embodied activities. Hence, we decided to spread a huge vanguard sheet with an x- and y-axis where students could sprawl over on the floor, and begin drawing their favorite sprites while we gave coordinate instructions on where to draw their sprites. This turned out to be a huge success, and we are proud to say that all our students definitely understand the coordinate system now!

3. The technology equity gap is real.

I discovered from a student that only in this after-school program (my class) could he have the freedom to use the laptop to do activities he wants to, because his home neither has reliable wifi nor a working computer, aspects we might have taken for granted now in this technology-centric era. He loves remixing projects on Scratch, playing and creating software games, and wants to do more of it at home, but is unable to. Most of my doctoral research focuses on makerspaces in schools, and the majority of schools that have makerspaces are typically private or charter. These schools usually have the capital to afford high-tech equipment (such as laser cutters and 3D printers), have manpower to maintain these equipment, and attract students from families who can afford the cost of attending such schools. Yet, now I am seeing how students from the other side of this technology spectrum make do with their limited resources. I acknowledge that the technology equity gap is challenging to solve, but the most concrete plan that my co-teacher and I have right now is to take our students to the ThingSpace at Teachers College to introduce them to digital fabrication technologies this semester.

These are merely small snapshots and anecdotes of the students in action, but there is so much more. We have just begun a second semester, moving on to units such as game design and laser-cutting. I am looking forward to learn more from the students too. Also, I’m giving a shoutout to my fellowship advisor Professor Richard Jochum and academic advisor Professor Nathan Holbert, who have been supporting me during this new teaching journey.

If my 10 hours per week for 26 weeks are able to change a modicum of my students’ attitudes towards STEAM, their self-confidence and creativity, I would conclude that this is not time wasted; it is time well-spent.