The Social and Emotional Future of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

How Bentley Kapten and Jacob Adams are combining modern, empathic educational practice with 21st century skills in underserved communities, from coast to coast

A chance meeting sparks an idea

We’re both educators, and we both have experience working in education—specifically in high-performing charter schools,” says Kapten. “Jacob [Adams] worked in Brownsville, Brooklyn—I worked in Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant], Brooklyn.”

Working in the same circles, it was only a matter of time before the two met. And, immediately, there was a connection.

“The thing about the schools where we worked—and the reason we started STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] to the Future [stemtothefuture.com]—is that they were sort of like ‘assimilation factories.’ A lot of the focus was just getting kids on compliance, and really not allowing them, whether through the formalities of the schools, or the curriculum, to have hands-on activities and test out their critical thinking skills. Everything was just wrote memorization, and kind of ‘drill and kill.’ So Jacob and I always had this idea in the back of our mind, like, ‘is there a way to change this?’”

“The students that we’re working with, a lot of times, don’t have access to these kinds of activities—either they’re located outside of the neighborhood, or the price point to participate is too high, so there’s a barrier to entry for under-resourced communities.

“Jacob ended up moving to Los Angeles with Teach for America, developing curriculum for new teachers, and I stayed in New York and took on a fellowship with a program called Foster America.

“Essentially, a couple months later [following Adams’ move], we got on the phone with each other and said, we’ve always wanted to collaborate, and we’ve always had a good rapport. We started putting our heads together and thinking about our experiences in those schools—how could we affect change? How could we leverage our backgrounds as instructional leaders, curriculum designers, teachers, and just members of the communities that we serve to develop and implement something in this space that’s productive, and allowing kids to have access to hands-on activities that promote these 21st century skills that were so lacking in the schools where we had worked.”

“With the pilot, we connected with an elementary school in Inglewood [Los Angeles, CA] through a relationship I’d developed with a network called ICEF [Inner City Education Foundation],” Adams explains. “For eight weeks (two days a week, for a period of about two hours), we worked with about 25 kindergarteners and first graders.”

That pilot has served as a jumping off point for Adams’ continued work in the South Los Angeles area, while in New York, Kapten has focused more on monthly events. However, there are several new relationships with New York schools that may help propel Adams’ and Kapten’s vision still further, into a truly full-time venture for the duo.

“Hopefully, we’ll be working with one school in LA, as well as two other Los Angeles CBOs [Community-Based Organizations, and two different schools here in New York during the school year,” Kapten outlines.


Developing an approach

Adams’ initial curriculum in Los Angeles consisted of some group exercises to begin—either communication skills or teamwork exercises. Then, the students would set about learning the basics of coding.

“Out of 25 [kindergarteners and first graders], only one of the students had any prior coding experience, but by the end of the eight weeks, kids were able to read, write, and debug up to 10 lines of block coding,” says Adams. “That was really great to see.”

The second hour of the session would then be devoted to ‘empathic design thinking’—that is, when designing a solution to a problem, making sure to consider other viewpoints.

“It’s about developing this mindset when problem solving, that you should try to work in a true partnership with others,” Adams says. “That is, when the students are trying to solve a problem, looking at the problem through the lens of the people experiencing that problem.

“We take the same approach when creating programming for the schools. Basically, we let the schools know what we offer, and then work with them to figure out the best way to implement our programming. Some schools aren’t ready for it to be a full class, but they are willing to set aside time for interested students. Other schools build it into their classroom hours and invite all students.

“We’re also working with this organization in LA called St. Elmo Village, doing skill-development workshops on the weekends, like creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking,” says Adams.

“It’s really about working directly with school leaders, getting feedback from parents and teachers, and continually improving,” Kapten says. “So it might be that it starts in the fall as a club or afterschool program, but then after eight or 10 weeks, they’re finding that this is really beneficial—then we can start to plan for spring, think about collaborative fundraising opportunities, and implement programming during the school day.”

Essentially, it’s about developing personal relationships, at the ground level, with community leaders, teachers, and parents—and then figuring out how their programming can be built to support the particular needs of that community.

“That way, we can craft our curriculum to be most relevant to what’s needed,” Adams says.

Kapten echoes Adams: “Everyone knows principals have ridiculous schedules, and it’s one of the hardest jobs in the world, so you really have to be creative about how you approach them and make the most of every opportunity to help them see that this program is beneficial for the students in their communities.”


Building the future today

We’re really taking elements of design thinking, and applying an engineering approach,” Bentley says. “So, we’ll come to students with a problem. For instance, we might ask students, ‘how can we make the New York City Subway system better?’

“Then, we really pick up the empathy piece, and we push and ask things like, what is wrong with the subway? What are the great things about the subway? What is your experience of the subway?”

In so doing, the problem is framed in terms of multiple perspectives and use cases—students are forced to look outside their own experience, as well as more carefully examine their own opinions.

“Next, and I think in some ways this is the most important thing we do, we allow the students to go through several iterations of building prototypes for their solutions. And they do that not only individually, but also as part of a group—they hear each other’s ideas, understand each other’s perspectives, and have a debate.

“Another thing we love about activities like this is that they’re embedded in everyday life, but they also involve all the elements of STEM. It’s something where they see how STEM applies to a real-world problem, and they understand the importance.

“Finally, students will present their ideas in front of the group. It’s a great time for students to get feedback, ask questions, but also it’s an important moment for us to push the SEL [Social-Emotional Learning] side of the curriculum. That is, building confidence and character.

“I really can’t tell you how impactful it is to see third and fourth graders not only being proud of their work, but also being able to share their work with their peers, families, and administrators. It’s something that leaks into the school day—it bridges the gap between afterschool and the classroom, and it’s an important reminder that hey, whatever you’re learning in math and science is totally applicable to your everyday life.”

“That’s the difference between where Jacob and I were originally teaching—where we would teach to a test, and the kids would get good grades, but then we’d never talk about it again—and our program: It’s about emphasizing and making clear that connection between what they’re learning and things that they experience every single day.”

“It’s something that, well, we don’t expect them to be thinking about it every time they take the subway,” Adams says. “But, at least some of the time, they will—they’ll be thinking, how can I make this better?”

It’s by encouraging the youth of today to ask questions like the above that Adams and Kapten hope to give those kids the tools to not just join in the future, but actively help shape it.

“We want these kids to not simply learn those skills, but learn to apply those skills to fulfill their potential, and the potential of the community,” Adams says. “Facebook, Twitter, Google—they have enough money, and they don’t seem to be keeping the community’s best interests, or privacy, in mind. So we’re not encouraging them to go work for those companies, necessarily.”

“Exactly,” says Kapten. “We want them to go from being consumers of technology to creators of technology.”

By building a curriculum that puts the students in the mindset of decision makers, STEM to the Future is shifting the way these students interact with the world around them—and helping them realize that it’s within their power to change it. ^DFG


Thanks very much to Jacob Adams and Bentley Kapten!

Story by Bryan Kitch for the UpMetrics journal, Data For Good. Photos courtesy of STEM to the Future. You can follow their progress on Instagram at @stemtothefuture, or donate to their cause via their GoFundMe page: gofundme.com/stemtothefuture.

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