The 5th Grade Classroom, Revisited.

Every Friday, I take a couple hours out of my day to visit an underserved school in the Pasadena Area, attempting to teach the basics of Computer Science with an amazing team of undergrads from Caltech. To be honest, I didn’t think it would be that challenging at first — after all, I’ve been at their stage and I’ve dealt with young kids in the past. Piece of cake — just takes some time.

Boy, was I wrong.

I was shocked at nearly every step; things have changed dramatically in the last decade. Here’s what surprised me most in the classroom, disregarding material-specific revelations:

  • Technology ≠ Magic.
    Especially in the Silicon Valley, there’s this false sense of belief that technology will suddenly lead to innovation in the classroom — stemming from increasing access to resources. I disagree. The students we work with uniformly have access to Chromebooks. They regularly use Google Docs as 5th Graders (!). They can explore on their own with or Khan Academy. Yet, there are classrooms with immensely better learning environments than others: this comes from the teacher’s ability to focus and direct the class, not how many laptops they have or how well-trained the students are to surf the internet. Of course, the discipline of the students, their backgrounds, etc. are all in play here, but technology is no magic pill. Just because a child can activate Siri, unlock an iPhone, and download an app doesn’t correlate with the tangible basics of education. There are real problems here that we can’t solve with a wave-of-the-hand startup.
  • Wonder -> Curiosity -> Motivation.
    Here’s where the education system needs to be taking its biggest leaps. Nearly 100% of these students are blown away by Video Games or Animations: the end result. They love the way the characters in Frozen move around and how their favorite cars dart from one edge of the screen to the other. Out of that 100%, about 65% are curious. These kids care about why something happens or what makes the computer act in a specific way — at a very basic level, this is the first sign of intellectual engagement, and the mark of any academic. Out of this 65%, I’d say about 33% (at the 5th grade age) are motivated to learn about it. Here’s where I want to focus my efforts moving forward with this program: my gut feeling is that the leap from wonder to curiosity comes innately and with age, but making the shift from being curious to acting on it can be taught. Whether it’s teachers that present material in a novel way or homemade experiments that bring out the life in a boring topic, curiosity is the perfect starting point.
  • Luck is a big part of education.
    There are so many things that need to go right in the classroom, and it’s something I’d never thought about. As a 5th grader, most of this isn’t in your control. Your teacher can’t be a drag — otherwise you’ll despise the material. The environment at home needs to be healthy — otherwise you won’t want to step foot in school. Financials need to be in order: at the end of the day, school isn’t free. Friends matter: say no all you want, but peer pressure is an ingrained part of society. The person who sits across from you all year in 4th grade? It makes a difference. I can’t list all the factors here, but there’s no easy way to pinpoint why someone is having a hard time in school, especially when they’re as young as 5th grade. I chalk it up to luck simply because this is the part of education that’s hardest to change. It’s the part of life that’s hardest to change.

Maybe the most important lesson here is sometimes you have to get up and see it for yourself. Teaching these young kids has taught me more than I could have ever imagined.

Huge shoutout to Darius, David, Joe, Matt, Meera, Phillip, Sachi, Sid and Zack (among others!) who have regularly helped out and been amazing with these kids. The Microsoft/Caltech partnership and Outreach@Caltech have also been invaluable here.

Want to spread the word? Hit Recommend. More importantly, if you’re at Caltech and want to get involved, send me a message and I promise you an unforgettable experience.