Sylvan Hemingway came up with a novel way of introducing kids at Assemble to coding with Scratch. First, he wrote code that reflected a hacked system. Then, he had the students look at the code and figure out what was incorrect. The activity both familiarized them with the kids programming language and gave them confidence to work with it themselves.
With a background in robotics and a firm belief in the importance of STEM education, Hemingway was part of the first cohort of 40 teacher-mentors who took their considerable skills and experience into communities throughout Pittsburgh this spring as part of the first Remake Learning Digital Corps.
“Students are in front of computers all the time, and so many have smartphones,” Hemingway said. “The challenge is in educating and empowerment. We need to help them find confidence in their ability to make things happen with technology. It’s there, it’s accessible for everybody, but who’s going to use it except those who are empowered to do so?”
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes particularly tech-savvy villagers to train kids in digital technology.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes particularly tech-savvy villagers to train kids in digital technology. Run by The Sprout Fund, in partnership with Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time (APOST), Digital Corps connects kids with mentors who can guide them through hands-on, technology-focused learning and exploration. The mentors attend training sessions on tech tools such as Scratch, App Inventor, Thimble, and Hummingbird—so they are well prepared to teach.
With the teachers’ guidance, the 400 teens and tweens who were enrolled in the six-week pilot program created animations, designed web pages, and built robots in 11 libraries and after-school spaces throughout the region.
The long-term goals of the program include strengthening kids’ STEM skills and boosting digital literacy in the Pittsburgh region.
But the program has other benefits. “It’s not just about jobs or school, though those are predominant and really important factors,” said Digital Corps Manager Ani Martinez, “but also just about knowing how the world around them functions, how people communicate. Making projects like this with hardware and electronics helps you organize your thinking. It helps you work collaboratively.”
With the ubiquity of smartphones, we might assume everyone is familiar with digital technology. But familiarity doesn’t equal fluency. Eszter Hargittai, sociology professor at Northwestern University, has studied the digital skills of millennials. This young generation may be plugged in—but digitally savvy? Not so much. Her findings “paint a picture not of an army of app-building, HTML-typing twenty-somethings, but of a stratified landscape in which some, mostly privileged, young people use their skills constructively, while others lack even basic Internet knowledge,” writes Megan O’Neil in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Among Digital Corps students, fluency in digital technology also varies greatly. “I’ve worked with sites where students have already mastered Scratch and want to go right into creating games and HTML, and it’s really exciting that we can provide that kind of programming,” Martinez said. “But there are other sites where students don’t know what right-clicking means, and that’s also greatly rewarding, that we can facilitate a program that can basically help with what should be new literacy skills. It’s just as essential as learning to write.”
Digital Corps’ emphasis on STEM learning through digital media and mentorship fit naturally with The Labs @ CLP, the teen learning labs at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. But by locating in library branches without established Labs programs, Digital Corps will enable the library to reach more underserved students.
The type of community connection Digital Corps fosters is often lacking in some lower-income neighborhoods in Pittsburgh that are isolated because of a lack of comprehensive public transportation, explained Corey Wittig, program manager at The Labs @ CLP. “If we keep putting programs in vibrant areas,” Wittig said, “we’re missing the opportunity to reach kids who come every day to the library and are not getting this opportunity.”
“We need to help kids find confidence in their ability to make things happen with technology.”
The Carrick branch hosted successful digital media programs before Digital Corps launched, according to Jon Antoszewski, manager of teen services. Last summer, 30 teens pitched in to direct, film, and edit a 20-minute horror movie called “Chairpocalypse!”. Still, there was some hesitation when he pitched the Digital Corps idea to them.
“When you’re tossing around words like ‘web design’ and ‘building robots,’ there’s an intimidation factor,” he said. “But the students ended up having a blast each week and surprising themselves about how much they could get accomplished.”
And the students weren’t the only ones who learned something. Despite the deep background in technology the teacher-mentors brought to Digital Corps, they also faced a learning curve.
A mechanical engineer working in software design, Greg Cala joined Digital Corps as an instructor at the Hilltop Computer Center. He’s accustomed to teaching software skills to adults but says teaching young people required an adjustment, particularly with the broad age range of his group. Among the 20 kids who showed up for his first session were students as young as first grade who had tagged along with older siblings.
The continual shifting caused by kids dropping in and out of the program also made it challenging to continue projects from one week to the next.
One thing was easier with kids, though: It was clear when they were bored. “Adults don’t yell across the room,” Cala said.
This summer the Digital Corps team plans to reflect on what they learned from the launch while expanding the program to 23 sites.
One insight they’ll be sure to carry over, according to Martinez: “We confirmed that snacks are mandatory after a long day of school.”