Week 1 (Feb. 1, 2016): Project Empathy + GEMS World Academy Chicago

GEMS students learning about one of the many products made at Catalyze Chicago.

Regrettably, I am not a teacher.

When I was in High School, I led museum learning programs for children and ran Planetarium shows in my hometown of Bozeman, MT. In college, I taught debate at a local High School in Providence. Finally, I reluctantly turned down an offer to travel to the Mississippi Delta for Teach for America in 2010. I view teaching as more than a profession — it’s a way of being. Still, I do not work in a classroom.

So, when fourteen 7th graders finally showed up at our co-working space in Chicago on February 1, I was really nervous.

The entire concept for Project Empathy arose from conversations over a few months between myself, Thomas Steele-Maley, and Peg Keiner, two visionary educators. Whenever we meet, I truly feel like I step into a wizard’s laboratory where the shelves are lined with exciting possibilities for how this education thing can be done. Our focus is how to best and most holistically unleash the creative potential of a young mind with technology, as well as the oft-overlooked vice-versa: youth playing an active role in technology’s evolution. Stepping into new territory is exciting because it becomes your responsibility to draw the map.

We had a few goals in this first week introduction to Project Empathy:

Fabrication Lab at Catalyze.
  • Whet the intellectual appetite of the 7th grade class by pulling back the curtain on the hardware-focused maker/co-working space, Catalyze Chicago, where Outernet is located. The space is crammed literally wall to wall with cool stuff (the technology wizard’s laboratory equivalent to the one Thomas and Peg create in education at their school).
  • Get them to ask questions. The focus wasn’t completely on Project Empathy necessarily, but on the notion of creative execution: we wanted them to witness people making really cool things that those people had invented.
  • Introduce the concept of access to information. GEMS World Academy Chicago is one of the most tech savvy schools I have ever stepped inside. Each student has an iPad, which they brought on the Field Study to document what they saw. We wanted to take the first steps into the Empathy realm by presenting the global reality of Internet access.
  • Get them thinking like editors. This has two components: curator and creator. The curator selects content from an existing pool of material and thinks about their audience while doing so. The creator has to also think about their audience, but has an added level of responsibility as the author of the work.

When the students arrived at 9:30am, they got a tour of Catalyze and met the founders of two different ventures, Windy City Labs and Guard Llama. Most had never heard of a Raspberry Pi (not pie!), which they got to hold and see in a few applications, like a train map. They also got to see and ask questions about four other products made at Catalyze: a solar lamp, a moisture monitor for plants, a coffee cup, and a Red Bull chiller. Their questions were good ones and the speed at which they would grasp a new concept, like Internet of Things, and then want to know more had the urgency of Trick-or-Treating, but with ideas.

Windy City Labs explaining their train map that uses Raspberry Pi.

When we finished the tour, the students took a break for 15–20 minutes to document what they had seen and ask questions. Then we moved into the Catalyze event space for the introduction to Outernet, content creation, and content curation. It was my turn.

The first thing I did was show them two videos about Outernet. I learned that day that the students are reading Fahrenheit 451 in English, so the first video was especially fitting.

Once we finished the videos, I answered a few questions about how Outernet works. I asked the students what they love most about the Internet and we made a list.

My job at Outernet, among many, is to coordinate what gets broadcast from our satellites. “How can I know what to broadcast?” I asked the students. “How does the editor of the Chicago Tribune know what to put in the newspaper without directly asking the readers everyday?”

“You have to make an educated guess,” replied one of the students.

As a fun exercise on making an educated guess, I told them about the Voyager I and II spacecraft and the golden record that was included on board in case the spacecraft were intercepted by aliens.

Voyager I with the Golden Record adhered to the front.

I asked the students to consider the following questions:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What do they already know?
  • What do they care about?
  • What is my relationship with my audience?
  • What is my goal in talking to my audience?

The students thought about what they would put on a Golden Record to portray Earth. In this way, the idea of a constrained medium was introduced, which is quite different than the limitless nature of the broadband Internet they know.

Finally, the students interviewed Syed Karim, Outernet’s CEO. They then compiled the interview into a podcast about the day.

What was exciting to see was the students react to the notion that their work on Project Empathy will have real world impact. Yes, this is part of school and their work is graded and they are expected to learn something. But this is that and more. Their responses, photos, and discussions will be shared with the world so that other classrooms can follow along. They will be making real editorial decisions about what those without Internet will be receiving.

Again, this was just the introduction, but the seed seemed to be planted.