Tag Archives: digital corps

Equity Tops List of Concerns About Education Innovation Among Remake Learning Network Members

The end of the year is always a reflection point. And so it is with the Remake Learning Network. We recently surveyed network members to get a bead on how the network is doing to advance innovative ideas and models in education.

The results from the 103 who completed the survey reveal a growing and highly connected network of educators and others creating new opportunities for youth.

Here’s what we learned.

  • We’re face-to-face: Nearly 50 percent of respondents attend network events more than once per quarter. The opportunities to make connections and learn from peers are among the most appreciated facets of the Remake Learning Network.
  • We feel invested: Nearly 50 percent identified as being active or deeply involved in the network.
  • We are turning connections into collaboration: Three out of four respondents reported forming specific partnerships through their participation.
  • We are largely educators: More than half of respondents are teachers or informal educators.
  • We are focused widely: Approximately two-thirds work in digital or tech-enhanced learning, 60 percent are makers, 60 percent focus on STEAM learning, 45 percent on STEM, and 44 percent on early education. Equal parts (about 30 percent each) focus on robotics, game-based learning, and youth voice.

The respondents gave the network high marks. Nearly 80 percent give the network a grade of B or better. About two-thirds agreed the network is generally headed in the right direction.

At the same time, members worry that the “only individuals who seem to be involved are those with access and opportunity,” and that while “we are seeing amazing innovations at school districts in the region, in general these are taking place in affluent communities.”

As a result, the most pressing concern is doubling down on equity and access, or risk exacerbating the education gap instead of closing it.

“Pittsburgh remains incredibly inequitable for access,” wrote one respondent. “If we do not actively work against this, we are increasing the divide.”

Sprout Fund Executive Director Cathy Lewis Long said equity and access must become guiding network principles. “That means supporting more mobile programs to bring innovative learning experiences to communities in need or enhancing transportation options for youth, or ensuring that programs are free, open, and visible to all families,” she said. “Each of us needs to take concrete steps to meet this challenge head-on.”

Just as Remake Learning has evolved from its informal and experimental stage to a more structured and strategic approach, so too have the needs and challenges faced by network members.

While calling on the network to strive for broader equity, members described how the existing programs have had a positive impact on young people in their communities.

“In the summer, 14 teens participated in two weeks of mini-apprenticeships, gaining life skills and job training skills in the areas of woodworking and metalworking,” one respondent wrote.

Another was grateful for the chance to send students to a drop-in robotics course at the public library’s digital learning program, the Labs@CLP. Another respondent praised the Digital Corps, a group of digital learning experts deployed to youth organizations throughout Allegheny County.

“Our kids loved building robots with Digital Corps. This sparked something that we would like to build on in the future if we are able to acquire more robotics supplies,” wrote one respondent.

The network has also raised awareness of emerging trends in learning innovation. Nine in ten said the network has “greatly” or “somewhat” improved their awareness, and 88 percent said the network has greatly or somewhat improved the exchange of ideas or successful strategies.

But there is a hunger for more resources and tools, and more how-to’s in the classroom. Network members also prioritized professional development and learning pathways. For educators, it means deeper and more engaging instruction. For students, it means step-by-step learning and development to meet their personal interests and give them job-ready skills.

Those priorities and suggestions help shape the network’s programs moving forward. Just as Remake Learning has evolved from its informal and experimental stage to a more structured and strategic approach, so too have the needs and challenges faced by network members working hard to sustain our momentum and spread the impact of innovative teaching and learning to more students. Equity and access will be at the forefront of efforts to remake learning in 2016 and beyond.

Community Corps Brings Digital Education to County Kids

El Círculo Juvenil de Cultura, a bilingual after-school program that teaches Latino kids about their heritage, was looking to add a digital literacy component to its curriculum. The students it serves are part of a population that is less likely to have access to digital literacy education, said Felipe Gómez, co-founder of El Círculo.

Hispanic youth actually use the Internet more than their white peers, according to the Pew Research Center. But language barriers and cash-strapped schools often mean they cannot get the guidance and scaffolding they need from adults to learn from their technology use.

Gómez said many of his students have used computers and have access to cell phones. “But beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the tech,” he said.

“Beyond being users, what we’re interested in is giving them some idea of how to create the tech.”

Enter the Remake Learning Digital Corps.

Like El Círculo, organizations across the educational spectrum are recognizing the urgency of digital literacy education. But many of them lack the bandwidth, knowledge, or equipment to provide it. The Digital Corps aims to meet some of this need by recruiting, training, and deploying digital learning experts to after-school programs throughout Allegheny County. The program is now wrapping up its fourth series of workshops.

The goal? “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.” The Sprout Fund designed the program to train host-site staff, as well as the young participants, in digital literacy.

Digital Corps members, who include local software engineers and technologists, artists, and teenagers, come to their host sites equipped with a variety of digital literacy tools designed for kids: Scratch, Thimble, and Hummingbird Hummingbird to name a few. These programs aim to teach the building blocks of the web, and to demonstrate that the digital tools kids use every day are created by people just like themselves. What each educator does day to day—teaching basic coding, gif-making, robotics—is similar, but they have had to figure out how to adapt the curriculum to work well at sites with differing needs and demographics.

When Gómez first heard about the Digital Corps, he thought he would never find the triple-threat he needed at El Círculo: a tech-savvy Spanish speaker who has worked with kids. When previous El Círculo volunteers got trained as corps members, he ended up with two that fit the bill.

Corps instructor Yolanda Isabel Gordillo, a professional translator who works at El Círculo, worried that the kids would not have the attention spans for the long lessons. Not only did that prove to be false, the students also continued the work off-site on their own.

“It’s fantastic to see how these kids express this knowledge so fast,” Gordillo said. “They say, ‘Oh and I told my friends about this program I’m making and sent them the link.’ ”

And when put together, foreign language skills and tech savvy make a “powerful combination,” she said.

El Círculo, run by Carnegie Mellon University, is fortunate to have plenty of tech equipment. Other Digital Corps sites are not so lucky.

At the Northern Area Boys & Girls Club, the tech tools are less plentiful and more finicky. But staff member Caitlin Zurcher said the participants still get a lot out of the program, sharing computers, playing with the hands-on robotics materials, and setting up accounts on sites they can log into elsewhere.

“The great thing about the training I received at The Sprout Fund is many of the activities were very easy to do with a low budget,” Gordilla said. Her students loved one completely tech-free coding activity, where they pieced together paper puzzle pieces labeled with HTML tags to make a logical string of commands.

The Hazelwood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a veteran site now enjoying its third series with Digital Corps members, faced a different challenge: How to fit the sequential lessons into the library’s drop-in programming for teens, where they never know who might show up.

So Corps members worked with the librarians to adapt the digital literacy curriculum to be less structured and function like a weekly “menu of challenges.” Librarian Michael Balkenhol said he still thinks kids get a lot out of the program even in the less-structured environment. “We let anyone that walks into our teen space just jump in and play around a little, and hopefully enjoy themselves and make a point to come back,” he said.

There has been a range of reactions among the youth participants. “Sometimes it’s frustration,” Balkenhol said. “It’s not always easy to just jump into something new.”

Then there are the kids who come to every single session.

For the stretched staff at the library, the Digital Corps members have been a tremendous help. And even when Corps instructors are not around, the students have the basic skills to explore tech tools on their own, whether that means building a website or mashing up YouTube videos.

The program “inspires different ideas, and then you try to help out a teen or kid move forward with whatever they want to accomplish,” Balkenhol said.

The kids’ personal interest is often what drives the success of the Digital Corps program. At the Boys & Girls Club, some of the students were video-game fanatics, so they jumped at the chance to learn to make their own.

“Some of the kids who do it wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t have this video game interest,” Zurcher said. “This forced them to work together. They never hung out here at the club together.”

The organizations serve different populations with different circumstances. But the low-budget, flexible programming has allowed instructors to engage all the participants, and help them shift from tech consumer to tech creator.

Saltwater Batteries, Finland, and Pittsburgh’s Promising Advanced Industries

Before you think a new report on the state of “advanced industries” in the United States might be a bit dry, two words for you: Saltwater. Batteries.

Pittsburgh’s Aquion Energy builds saltwater batteries that, although complicated, truly sound like the stuff of the future. The environmentally friendly battery uses nontoxic materials like saltwater to act as the electrolyte. The batteries can be used in large-scale energy systems like solar and wind power generators.

Aquion Energy is an example of what the new report from Brookings calls the “advanced industries.” Ranging from software publishing to ship building, the 50-industry segment of the economy is characterized by its deep involvement in technology research and development, and in STEM.

It’s not a huge industry, but for its relatively small size, the advanced industries pack a major “economic punch”:

“As of 2013, the nation’s 50 advanced industries employed 12.3 million US workers. That amounts to about 9 percent of total U.S. employment. And yet, even with this modest employment base, U.S. advanced industries produce $2.7 trillion in value added annually—17 percent of all U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).”

Advanced industries also provide high-quality economic opportunities for workers. Wages are rising sharply in the sector, and in 2013 the average advanced industries worker earned $90,000, nearly twice as much as the average worker outside the sector. But the researchers find the advanced industries are accessible, too: more than one-half of the sector’s workers possess less than a bachelor’s degree.

It’s not all great news, though. Yes, the advanced industries have grown, but the United States is still losing ground to other countries in several measures of innovation performance and capacity, like patents, for example. Plus, the report again finds that the United States is falling behind in producing STEM graduates. As a comparison, only 15 large US metro areas beat the global leader, Finland, in the share of STEM graduates as a proportion of the young adult population. Thirty-three large US metro areas fall behind Spain, which ranks 24th internationally.

So how do we sustain the advanced industries and keep the segment competitive and in the United States? Short-term workforce training is like a bandage. Instead, the report said sustaining the advanced industries long-term means increasing the STEM proficiency of Americans through the formal education system, starting early with universal prekindergarten.


Graph/The Brookings Institution

It also means getting creative—forging partnerships, adjusting hiring requirements, and thinking outside the box about ways to widen the channels that encourage people to enter these industries and give young people more options.

That sounds a lot like what we’re doing here in Pittsburgh. Both in and out of schools, kids throughout the region are getting the opportunity to experience STEM long before college or even high school.

Just one recent example: The Allentown Learning & Engagement Center recently hosted the Digital Corps for the second time. The students learned to manipulate code, learn basic machine functions, and build their own robots. As Amber Rooke, education coordinator for the Brashear Association, recently described in a post, one student who struggles in schools lit up when working with the materials, jumping ahead without needing further directions.

Additionally, the Chevron Corporation is investing in the region’s STEM pipeline through its Appalachian Partnership Initiative with the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, RAND, and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. It is supporting graduate students at Carnegie Mellon, for example, in a game-based learning project with students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. The team is designing a game to teach kids about solar energy. The game, which centers on a touch-sensitive globe the Carnegie Mellon students built, requires kids to figure out how to keep the lights on in their adopted city 24/7 using only solar power.

We hope opportunities to make, tinker, and explore will give kids not only a base of STEM skills to build on, but excitement for and engagement in learning what’s possible for them both in and out of STEM careers.

If there’s anywhere that can make this happen, it’s Pittsburgh. But don’t ask just us. The report’s video highlights Aquion but also calls out the Pittsburgh region as a spot that epitomizes a strong segment of advanced industries.

“Places like Pittsburgh with their sophisticated technology assets and experienced workforces epitomize the kind of synergies a city can provide to a new company,” said Mark Muro, Brookings senior fellow and director of policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program.

Those same synergies are helpful to leverage for education, too—not only companies. Plus, as we’ve known all along, Pittsburgh has a culture of collaboration, innovation, and getting down to work.

“Even though the steel industry wound down over 20 years ago, those people are still here. That heritage is still here,” said Aquion CEO, Jay Whitacre, in the video. “It’s amazing how much we benefit from that.”


Digital Corps Empowers Youth to Master the Digital Landscape

The Hilltop YMCA appears, from the outside, a regular office building, small and brown and clinging to the hills of Pittsburgh’s Knoxville neighborhood. Inside, however, the space booms with energy as children move between various programs held in the orange and green rooms atop the South Side Slopes. Since this YMCA site is a free meal distribution location, kids come in for lunch and snack, are intrigued by the flat screen televisions and gaming systems, and stick around for classes on cell-phone repair or robotics.

Tuesday afternoons, the older kids are learning programming and coding via the Remake Learning Digital Corps, a group of mobile digital learning mentors visiting out-of-school time (OST) learning sites throughout the city to bring digital literacy skills to tweens and teens.

The Corps, a program of The Sprout Fund, is one response to the reality that today’s youth spend up to 8 hours per day engaging in digital media, and a recognition of the important role programming, coding, and basic robotics play in education, the workforce, and life.


What is Digital Literacy?


Ani Martinez, Program Associate at The Sprout Fund / Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf

Ani Martinez / Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf

“Digital literacy” can encompass everything from word processing skills to online privacy to advanced lessons in coding. These skills are becoming increasingly essential for success in higher education and the workforce, and yet Remake Learning Digital Corps program manager Ani Martinez observes “there is a deficit of mentors or educators with digital literacy training, across the board from formal education to informal learning environments.”

The Internet abounds with pre-made curricula to teach and learn digital literacy skills. But, some of these teaching tools overload kids with options or else are very finicky–if someone misses a semicolon along the way, the entire program doesn’t work and users wind up frustrated. Martinez wanted the curriculum for the Digital Corps to provide a foundation in digital literacies so youth can then take their skills in whichever direction they chose. She says, “We want our classes to be studio classes, where students get an introduction to a skill and then immediately, in the same session, learn by doing,” so it became important to select course material that could quickly translate to hands-on project work.

In its first year, the Digital Corps offered a sampling of four digital tools:

Scratch is free, open-source programming software developed by the MIT Media Lab for 8-16 year olds to create and share interactive stories, animation, games, and more. This will help young people learn the basics of programming.

App Inventor is a free open-source software kit created by MIT Media Lab that enables learners to build apps for Android devices. App Inventor uses a framework of “building blocks” that can be assembled into apps and games that can be tested instantly on Android mobile devices or with a built in Android emulator.

Building from this, Thimble is a free Mozilla Webmaker application that allows learners to easily design their own web pages. So, youth will develop skills in html and CSS languages.

Hummingbird Robotics Kit

Hummingbird Robotics Kit

Finally, the Corps teaches Hummingbird, which is a no-experience-necessary robotics kit designed locally by folks with BirdBrain Technologies at CMU. Hummingbird provides the physical technology to let a computer interact in some way with the physical world. Users learn about circuits, light, and motion to create projects like kinetic sculpture or animatronics from craft supplies, and it’s compatible with many programs. Scratch is one of them! Which brings the workshops full circle.

In addition, the Digital Corps workshops emphasize troubleshooting and collaborative learning. Martinez says, “learning by doing is a great method to get students asking questions, learning to troubleshoot, and figuring things out together.” The workshops not only teach technical skills, but also foster 21st Century Skill-development, teaching kids how critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity are interconnected. Digital Corps students learn to ask questions (of each other and of instructors), use Google to find an answer, or delve into the network of Scratch projects created by others to find bugs in their own program. The Corps members also model collaboration by working in pairs or small teams to introduce the material.

Once mentors are accepted into the Digital Corps program, they enter a training program to help familiarize them with the digital tools, but more importantly allow the group at large to collaborate on best teaching practices so they can deliver more effective learning experiences and support positive youth development. The training sessions are hands-on, a model of the “learn by doing” style the Corps aims to present to the youth participants. Corps members are team-taught by people familiar with the tools–these leaders range from a teenaged Scratch expert to roboticist Tom Lauwers, who created the Hummingbird tool.

Meet the Digital Corps Members

Martinez recruited members from throughout the Greater Pittsburgh region. The members are paid for their time spent teaching with the Corps, and although their training is unpaid the program offers attractive professional development opportunities for folks interested in facilitating out-of-school learning opportunities. After receiving 85 applications from artists, librarians, technologies, formal educators, roboticists, and even teenagers, the program selected 50 people to receive training as Digital Corps members.

One member, Mike Elliot, works as a media engineer for an audiovisual company. With a master’s degree in audio education, he’s had a lot of experience writing tutorials and teaching these skills to learners of all ages. While he was familiar with programming and coding, he’d never taught these skills. When he saw the Digital Corps call for member applications, he felt drawn to the opportunity to hone his skills and work with young people.

Scratch training at Hilltop Computer Center / Photo: Norton Gusky

Classes at the Hilltop YMCA / Photo: Norton Gusky

Elliot now teaches Digital Corps workshops at the Hilltop Y, along with Greg Cala, an engineer with a software company focusing on industrial automation, and Marilyn Narey, who teaches at Duquesne University’s masters in education program.

The trio represents a blend of experience typical of the Digital Corps members placed in the various host sites. Cala and Elliot are experienced coders and programmers, while Narey has long been interested in educating educators, studying effective ways of learning in and outside of school.

Cala explains that the Digital Corps training sessions were so informative and the digital tools so useful that he has integrated Hummingbird into his work developing curriculum for industrial clients who come to him for instruction.

He says, “They’re going to be getting a better experience in class than they do currently with the standard curriculum. They’re not going to be building cardboard robots–these tools let our clients build automated control systems, measure pressures, analyze temperatures…they’ll be using this tool to affect overall manufacturing processes. This training has been amazing for me in my own work.”

Regular round-table sessions allow the Corps members to come together to discuss curriculum challenges, like how to plan workshops for the Hilltop Y, where one week might bring 30 students and the following has just a few teens show up.

Narey says, “We’re learning that the pre-built curriculum we studied is just a guide for us, that we have to figure out what the specific kids need at our host site.”

Corps members learn to work with both the young learners and the adults who facilitate the host site programming. Some hosts, like Hilltop Y director Nic Jaramillo, are well-versed in the tools the Digital Corps is presenting and can already help the teens throughout the week if they continue working on skills. Others are learning to use the digital tools for the first time.

Martinez says, “We want our Corps members to feel comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know, let’s figure it out together,’ both when they are learning and teaching.” Since problem-solving skills are a vital component of the program, Martinez encourages asking questions and collaborating with others (regardless of age or role) to find solutions.

Visiting Digital Corps Host Sites

The Digital Corps partnered with a group called Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time (APOST) to find potential sites to pilot the digital literacy workshops. Martinez sought sites that have forged lasting relationships with their community, had a certain level of infrastructure and equipment on site, and served an audience of tweens and teens.

Patrice Gerard / Photo: Ani Martinez

The Hilltop Y is one of 25 host sites throughout the city’s neighborhoods. Program Coordinator Patrice Gerard points out that the Knoxville community has limited parental involvement and neighborhood children have few options most summer days. Apart from some structured day camps or short-term programs, the kids had tended to loiter at Rite Aid.

As a technology center (no gym or basketball courts at this YMCA), the Hilltop site offers everything from Minecraft clubs to a program called RoboKids, focusing on Hummingbird. The Digital Corps workshops seemed a perfect complement to the site’s existing programming, where Jaramillo says their space also offers a lot of unstructured time for youth to use the equipment under supervision from a team of AmeriCorps volunteers.

At Jaramillo’s site, the Digital Corps workshops represent one sliver of a vast pie of tech-based course offerings. Gerard remarks that the local youth is already familiar with technology and “our core group of ‘students’ is beginning to expect technology programming to happen within our center, programs presented through a digital medium.”

Other host sites, like the Maker’s Place in Homewood, aim to teach youth to create tangible items. At these locations, the Digital Corps workshops offer makers the tools to develop, say, online stores to sell completed products, like the music the youth produce in the in-house recording studio, string art, or fashion products.

The host sites vary widely in their mission (they encompass community resources ranging from libraries to faith-based youth groups), the types of learners they attract, and even the regularity of their participants’ attendance. Thus, the Digital Corps members aim to tailor their workshop content to best meet the realities and needs of each site.

Damian, a 10-year-old who frequents the Hilltop Y, loves animation. “You can check out a bunch of my creations on YouTube,” he says. He’s spent the summer learning more about Hummingbird and jumps to enroll in classes to enhance those skills.

Working with Plants vs Zombies for Hour of Code

Damian starts his summer session with the Digital Corps working on an activity called “Hour of Code“–a game using Angry Birds characters to teach the basics of drag and drop programming. The activity is self-directed, so the Corps members can both gauge each student’s base knowledge and supervise multiple youth working at their own pace.

By having each student complete the Hour of Code, Corps members make sure even drop-in students are familiar with terminology and basic skills before moving on to more complex lessons. Damian is among the younger students the Corps has taught this spring–the initial vision for the program was to work with youth aged 12 to 18.

Like many kids visiting the Hilltop Y, Damian is responsible for his younger sibling, who is upstairs engaged in a card game with AmeriCorps volunteers. In between levels of coding, he pauses to go check on his sister. He comes back to the workshop just as the students are working as a group to write a code loop that will direct Elliot to walk from the sofa to the doorway. “If path ahead, move forward. Else, turn right,” shout the students as Damian enters the room. “Turn right!” Damian and his much-younger sibling could potentially become a bump in the path for the program.

Jaramillo says, “We’ve overlapped our staff with Corps members in an effort to carry on their programming throughout the week. Our staff are trained innovative facilitators, so we try to model adaptability for our youth.” He says he’s seen Elliot, Narey, and Cala adapt their teaching style to connect with the Hilltop youth as the program has progressed.

Understanding the Impact

As the name implies, the Remake Learning Digital Corps program would like to remake the process of learning digital literacy. Helping to do this is Tom Akiva, a professor of Psychology in Education at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s been conducting an empirical study of the Digital Corps for publication in the journal After School Matters.

Tom Akiva

Tom Akiva

Akiva is interested in what factors enable the corps members to deliver the information in the OST environments, as well as how the teens and tweens are experiencing the workshops.

For the pilot year, Akiva found some interesting, if a bit surprising, results. For one, members like Elliot and Cala are the minority among the corps. The majority of the Corps members identify as youth workers or educators instead of technologists. Martinez says the eagerness of these educators “to expand their expertise into digital learning points to the great need for this sort of programming in OST.”

Rather than struggle with how to deliver content to youth, the Corps members have instead wrestled with curriculum challenges, like how to handle drop-in students or the wide age range of participants at the Hilltop Y.

Akiva observes the round-table discussions attended by the Corps at large, where they debate and collaborate to find solutions to these challenges. He notes that the atmosphere during the sessions is friendly, saying “I’ve seen Ani [Martinez] create a comfortable and productive experience that carries over into the classroom and workshops the Corps members go on to teach,” he says.

In order to remake the learning process, the Corps discusses the ways lessons are being delivered in Digital Corps workshops. Akiva has noticed a tension between offering structured, how-to lessons about the digital tools versus presenting open-ended projects as a way for students to learn. The Digital Corps is designed to engage students in ways traditional school environments cannot, but at the same time wants to effectively deliver the information so the students can build their digital literacy.

A Digital Corps training session with Ani Martinez

Digital Corps training session / Photo: Ben Filio

“They are debating ideas education science has looked at for years,” says Akiva. “Will ‘discovery-based learning’ work in this context? The idea of the project is to remake learning, to shake up teaching. It’s interesting to watch them debating methods to provide small amounts of structure that support kids in their learning.”

As a new experience for all involved, these sessions help everyone strike a balance between program needs and member backgrounds as they get to know each other as a community of digital learners and educators.

As the program wraps up its first year of programming, Digital Corps members are eager to apply what’s come up in the roundtable discussions and surveys. “Our data can help to tell the story of what works well for the Digital Corps here in Pittsburgh,” says Akiva, “and hopefully we will learn things we can apply to both future sessions of this program and eventual implementations in other cities.”

Akiva has observed the youth participants very quickly engage in the material, eager to delve deeper. One day at the Carrick library, he saw a 13-year-old boy come late, catch up very quickly programming an LED traffic light, and progress to creating an automated robot of his own design: a giraffe whose eyes lit up and neck moved side to side. Far from loitering at Rite Aid, this student was enhancing his digital literacy while building his problem-solving skills as he worked out how to bring his imagined giraffe to fruition.

“It was so neat,” Akiva says, “to watch this middle-schooler get an opportunity to be creative, to be a kid in the context of this technology.”

Given a solid foundation in these digital tools, Digital Corps learners seem well equipped to impact the future of our city. Automated cardboard animals today can provide the foundation for untold innovation tomorrow.

Program Brings Tech Professionals Into Communities to Teach Digital Literacy

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.”

So far the program has set up bases at the Carrick and Woods Run branches, with plans to expand.

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.”

Making Connections Between Creativity and Digital Literacy

“I’m going to need to find a lot of cheetah-print fabric for the sleeves,” says 10 year old Amya, as she reviews her sketch of an outfit she’s designing. She points out how she’s reusing old jeans to make the bodice and combining dark and light materials for the pants.

Every Friday after school, Amya attends the Maker’s Place, learning skills to produce items she could sell, even as a young student. The group has begun work producing a fashion show using reclaimed denim. The students will complete everything from clothing design to model choreography. As the session begins, instructor Jomari Peterson reminds the students that they’re learning to “take control of your own destiny and change the world.”

This week, Amya isn’t thinking about the world. She’s thinking simultaneously about ripping seams from a pair of wide-leg pants and how she can use Hummingbird to direct the models who will wear her designs in the Blues-themed fashion show.

The Maker’s Place is also a site for the Remake Learning Digital Corps, so the tweens and teens learn digital literacy skills ranging from coding to robotics. The previous week students learned about Hummingbird, a basic robotics program. Amya says, “I was using my mouse to move these bars on the screen, change the colors, and it was controlling lights. I thought right away about how we could use this in the show.”

Making at the Homewood Maker's PlaceAmya seems fascinated by the connections she sees between her new digital literacy skills and physical products she’s producing in the Maker’s Place. After learning HTML and working with Thimble, she was able to customize her online portfolio of work, changing up colors and adding background music to her website.

While she prefers to sketch her designs by hand, she’s been able to upload them to her portfolio for easy access. “Plus, it’s easier to use the computer to adjust sizing and modify patterns,” she says.

Each week, the Homewood-based students begin their out-of-school learning with an “Info-make” session—basically a boardroom discussion where each student briefs the group on what he or she has been doing and reviews material learned the previous week. The Digital Corps emphasizes collaborative learning, problem solving, and “learning-by-doing,” so the lessons pair beautifully with the projects these students produce in the Maker’s Place. When people seem reluctant to speak up, Jomari reminds them, “This is not a lecture hall. If we don’t talk, we can’t move forward.”

While the students eat pizza and bananas, they start to address concerns about their work. One asks, “how can we move forward if we don’t even have a date for the fashion show?” Others are clearly anxious to dive in to the bags of material scattered around the space, and a handful of new students are learning to navigate Pinterest for design inspiration.

Amya sits quietly to the side. The youngest student in this out of school learning site, she formed a bond with an older teen, Micah. The two have worked together through the coursework, reminding each other to “close the sandwich” when coding in HTML.

Even though Amya doesn’t currently see a future for herself in the field of computer science, she is reaping the benefits of her newfound literacy in the digital landscape. Finding the links between Digital Corps lessons and other hobbies helps her expand her creativity in both realms.

As her scissors move through the denim fabric, it’s hard to say where her mind might turn next.