Tag Archives: equity

Poor Schools Face “Double Disadvantage” in STEM Education

Only twenty-six percent of high school seniors in the U.S. attend schools that offer some type of computer science course.

This stark statistic, among other inequities that exist between high- and low-poverty schools, appears in a brief entitled “Ending the Double Disadvantage: Ensuring STEM Opportunities in Our Poorest Schools,” published by Change The Equation (CTEq).

CTEq is a Washington, D.C.- based non-profit, non-partisan coalition of corporate leaders, educators, and policy advocates that convened in 2010 as a result of President Obama’s call to “strengthen America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation.” Its board of directors includes CEOs from some of the world’s most influential companies: Intel, Time Warner, Eastman Kodak, DuPont, Exxon Mobil, among others, with a goal toward improving STEM literacy for all children in the U.S.

As tech leaders looking toward the future for the next generation of employees, CTEq has reason to sound the alarm. The brief illustrates how, and (more importantly) to what extent, students who attend high-poverty schools are being left behind.

Using data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education, CTEq defines high-poverty schools as those where three-quarters or more of enrolled students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. By that definition, 2015 data shows a full twenty-five percent of all U.S. school children attend high-poverty schools.

According to the report, these students attend schools that lack lab space, don’t offer a full range of STEM courses, and don’t have adequate equipment to conduct experiments; in other words, the basics which low-poverty districts would consider foundational necessities.

  • 47 percent of fourth graders at high-poverty schools do a hands-on experiment once per week, compared to 61 percent of students in low-poverty schools
  • 62 percent of eighth grade teachers at high-poverty schools report having the resources they need to teach math, while 79 percent of their low-poverty-district counterparts do
  • 23 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools hold math degrees, while 31 percent in low-poverty schools do
  • 52 percent of high-poverty schools offer a statistics class, while 88 percent of wealthier schools do
  • 39 percent of high-poverty schools offer Advanced Placement Physics compared to 75 percent of high-income schools

These inequities have dire consequences for high-poverty-school students as they enter the workforce, unable to compete for jobs and ill-prepared for the technological demands of the 21st century.

As CTEq’s report demonstrates, “students in such schools suffer disadvantage upon disadvantage over the course of their schooling, and they face dim prospects for rewarding STEM careers.”

Although achieving equal access to STEM education may seem unattainable, there are solutions.

Locally, high schoolers can apply to attend INVESTING NOW, a program run through the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. Since 1988, the program has offered a “continuous pipeline for students from groups traditionally underrepresented to prepare for, enter, and graduate from the University of Pittsburgh as STEM majors.”

The program achieves its goals by providing individualized academic advising, SAT preparation, private tutoring with a Pitt undergrad, college planning workshops, hands-on projects in physics, engineering, and chemistry, and more.

In 2016, one hundred percent of INVESTING NOW’s high school seniors went on to college. More than half of them chose STEM majors.

According to Dr. Alaine Allen, INVESTING NOW’s Director, “Forming relationships with students and coaching them along the way to get into college is what we have observed has the most impact.”

Making sure they are challenging themselves throughout their high school careers, Dr. Allen says, is the key. If a student attends a high-poverty school, INVESTING NOW guides him or her to take the most rigorous courses available, sign up for extracurricular activities to gain STEM exposure, or plug into research as a supplement to academics to make them competitive.

The report points to ASSET STEM Education, which is based in Pittsburgh and is an active member of the Remake Learning Network, along with Science in Motion and the Amgen Biotech Experience as exemplary organizations working on the national level to help high-poverty schools acquire STEM resources and provide extra professional development to teachers.

College students majoring in STEM can earn teaching certificates “without adding time or cost to four-year degrees” through new programs like UTeach, a Texas-born initiative that’s spreading across the country.

State accountability systems can make science a priority by measuring educational outcomes, the same way reading and math outcomes are analyzed. As CTEq reports, “If science gets measured, it’s more likely to get taught.”

In the meantime, local efforts like the Pittsburgh Regional STEM Ecosystem and the Carnegie Science Center STEM Excellence Pathway are taking active steps to expand access to high-quality STEM learning, and programs like Citizen Science Lab (whose annual STEAMabration is coming up this Saturday!) are bringing STEM learning to children and communities in need.

Researching the Reality of Remaking Learning

Lori Delale-O’Connor (Photo via www.cue.pitt.edu)

Lori Delale-O’Connor is learner and a teacher: a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the Associate Director of Research and Development at its Center for Urban Education. She has spent years researching issues of urban education and racial equity. Delale-O’Connor spoke with Remake Learning about how educators can embed themselves within a community’s culture and partner with existing organizations for a more transformative impact.

While the conversation focused on these issues from the perspective of education, her suggestions are just as applicable for anyone planning or launching programs in urban communities.

 

What challenges do educators face when trying to help students in an urban environment?

One of the primary challenges is resource limitations—if your education funding is closely tied to your property taxes, you’re facing limits that your wealthier, suburban counterparts are not. Also, challenges associated with greater diversity, particularly if educators are not taught how to harness it as an asset. The majority—over 80%—of our teaching force is white, and our student population is increasingly diverse. Teachers aren’t necessarily taught how and why those differences matter, and how to best engage with students who don’t have the same socioeconomic backgrounds as them.

 

What key ingredients make a teacher more likely to succeed in an urban environment?

It matters that teachers understand how to engage with their students: from popular culture, to the ways they communicate at home, to the assets and elders in their community. These things take on particular value if the teacher is coming from a very different experience.

Part of this connects to teacher training: emphasizing it’s as important to know your students as your subject matter. This means courses focused on understanding student experiences, and, particularly for students of color, how they are impacted daily by systemic racism. And indeed, that the teacher may unwittingly be complicit in this—by engaging in white, middle-class norms in the classroom, by tone and behavior and how they get evaluated. And we see this happening not just to students, but to their families—particular ways of participating are valued: coming to the school, engaging in a particular type of meeting. Families may be unable to do that, or may support children in other ways.

 

How can educators identify different ways of engaging families?

Partly, it’s allowing families to answer how they support their child’s learning, rather than assuming there are only a few ways to do so. It’s also broadening opportunities, so engagement doesn’t just mean coming to the school. Try hosting some events at places families already feel comfortable—because, particularly for parents of color, they may have had negative experiences in schools, maybe even the same school that their child is attending now. It’s also making those engagements, when they’re expected, easier.

If you’re not seeing participation, the assumption shouldn’t be families don’t care, the question should be, “What are we doing that prevents them from coming?” Also, use your resources: for the parents that are coming, why are they coming, and what do they know about the ones that aren’t?

 

What are the “networks of trust” for families in urban environments, and how can educators tap into them?

Make connections with pastors or community organizations, and bring those folks in. Ask, “Are there things you want to do with our students? Are there things we can do as a school or a program to support you?”

Educators can also tap into other needs. I worked in the Boston public system, where we did the typical things like childcare and meals. But we had a lot of English language learners and one of our most effective ways of engaging parents was offering free classes. Another school had a health center. These provide a great opportunity for teachers to communicate with parents, and to establish their own networks of trust.

 

Some of these things seem to need the power of an entire school to implement them. What can an individual teacher do?

You always have the opportunity of getting to know students’ families, trying different modes of communication: what if instead of sending home a flier, I can get everybody’s number and send a text? Maybe I can get students’ addresses and do home visits—not because something’s wrong, but just to introduce myself. Or I can attend community events. Getting to know students’ families in a more holistic way also allows you not only to meet their needs, but to appreciate their experiences. If a child has been falling asleep in class, you may learn that they also have a job and it’s amazing they are managing both a job and school work.

Students can recognize when an educator isn’t as closely connected to their community. A definite first step could be incorporating project-based learning addressing a community issue. That’s a way for teachers to learn and to centralize students as experts. I believe Maxine Greene said, “We are all people in process.” We’re all learners, and we’re all teachers.

 

Humility seems like a central ingredient to success. How can educators balance this with projecting the authority necessary to be an effective leader?

It’s about getting away from the model of authority, recognizing there’s a shared power dynamic. And that is challenging, particularly in a classroom. It’s the vulnerability of being transparent: instead of building authority, building a relationship.

 

What should educators and program leaders consider when planning partnerships with veteran organizations?

The first step is never assuming that whatever you’re offering hasn’t been done before. Do your research. Figure out what other programs are operating successfully in the community and connect with them about how they built their program, how they engage with families.

Also, make sure there’s clear reciprocity. Likely, your program isn’t the first that’s approached them for help, and in some ways, it’s like asking, “Can I borrow your homework?” Examine what you can contribute that is valuable. Figure out what issues matter most to that community: housing, incarceration, access to food? It’s on you to see where your program can fit into the existing landscape, and to be open to adjusting that to meet the community’s needs.

 

What can Remake Learning do to contribute to this effort more productively?

Remake is this vast network, and it’s been touted in many positive and important ways. And because of that, it’s in a position to centralize issues of equity. It can really push people toward holding themselves and each other accountable: “When we say equity, what does that mean, and how does it appear in the work you do? If you’re doing a program in Oakland, is there a reason everyone is coming from Squirrel Hill and not the Hill District? And why is that?” Remake can say those words, and push program providers to think about them and measure them and address them. You can amplify the voices of people who are succeeding and support the people who are struggling. Remake can be part of the catalyst.

Going Abroad—And Bringing the Lessons Back Home

In Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a strong network of community groups is working to make sure the neighborhood’s younger residents have the opportunities their parents might not have had. Once a thriving community of middle-class African American families and black-owned businesses, the fabric of the Hill District was decimated by urban renewal in the 1950’s. Today, 40 percent of residents still live in poverty, compared to 20 percent in the ZIP code just to the north. Only about 15 percent have a college degree.

Community groups here believe that a concerted focus on young people is the key to positive neighborhood change. A newly renovated youth center offers enrichment programs to local kids and teens and a new nonprofit research lab has begun providing vocational job training in the Hill. Groups are working to engage young people in changing their own neighborhood for the better. But for organizers at Amizade, a Pittsburgh-based global exchange and service learning organization, that change begins by giving teenagers the chance to go as far away from the neighborhood as possible.

Who gets to go abroad?

Since its founding in 1994, Amizade has partnered with other community-based organizations in 12 countries and some domestic sites to create volunteer opportunities for individuals of all ages, schools, and community groups. Amizade practices what it calls “Fair Trade Learning,” meaning that its global exchange programs are reciprocal. The organization sends Americans abroad to volunteer, but also hosts foreign young people in the United States. The mission? To produce “global citizens” whose time abroad will foster increased cultural awareness as well as lifelong civic and community participation.

“We’re not trying to create a citizen who can go abroad and simply cross-culturally communicate for a couple weeks,” said Amizade executive director Brandon Blache-Cohen. “We’re trying to create a citizen who becomes a better neighbor and an active, engaged learner in their own community.”

In the summer of 2015, a group of Pittsburgh teens traveled with Amizade and the Hill House Association to Northern Ireland, where they visited cultural sites with Irish youth. Photo: Hill House Association

In 2015, Amizade took Pittsburgh youth to Northern Ireland, where they visited cultural sites with Irish teens. Photo: Hill House Association

Today, experts say that learning global competencies is a key 21st century skill. To be successful in the future, today’s young people need to be able to work and solve problems as part of a diverse team.

Blache-Cohen has watched students come home from these trips with new perspectives on their own neighborhoods and their roles within them.

This, Blache-Cohen believes, is especially important in the region’s low-income neighborhoods, where children are less likely to have the opportunity to participate in enrichment activities and where increased civic participation is needed to improve neighborhoods.

Education researchers Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane have studied the growing “opportunity gap” between American children from high- and low-income families. They find that affluent families spend more on educational enrichment activities like afterschool programs, summer camps, and global exchange trips—the kinds of activities that better prepare students for college or a career. Between 2005-2006, they report, higher-income families spent $8,000 more per child on enrichment activities, compared to $3,000 more in 1972-1973. Racial disparities in study abroad programs exist as well.

How will the Hill District change when its youth go abroad and come back with a new desire to engage in their community and broader world?

The gap in access to global exchange programs is “a serious issue of equity,” Blache-Cohen said.

For the past few years, Amizade has focused in on the Hill District, opening up opportunities for teenagers from the neighborhood to go on trips to Ghana, Jamaica, Northern Ireland, and next year to Puerto Rico. Currently, three partner organizations—the Hill House Association, the Center That Cares, and the Ujamaa Collective—help recruit Hill District youth to go abroad with Amizade. Trips usually last around two weeks. While abroad, students visit cultural sites and stay with local teenagers, who introduce their visitors to local customs and issues of local importance.

In addition to support from Amizade, the students and organizations raise their own funds to cover costs through personal donations as well as sometimes philanthropic and corporate support.

Blache-Cohen says these trips are meaningful and transformative for the individual participants. But the organization is interested in understanding the effects of their trips on the community at large. They are asking: How will the Hill District change when its youth go abroad and come back with a new desire to engage in their community and broader world? Ideally, Amizade would like to eventually bring one out of every four or five Hill District teenagers on a trip abroad, and then measure the impact on neighborhood-level metrics like crime and graduation rates over time.

Photo: Hill House Association

Photo: Hill House Association

Amizade is far from achieving its ambitious goal. That will require a deeper level of foundation support or a public investment, Blache-Cohen said. But the organization is pouring the resources it has into the area. Over the past few years, 50 Hill District teenagers and adult mentors have gone abroad, and dozens more have welcomed young people from Northern Ireland, Bolivia, Peru, and Kenya to Pittsburgh.

“It’s incredible to watch young people look at their place in a larger global ecosystem,” said Terri Baltimore, director of community engagement at the Hill House Association, a social service organization with a long history in the neighborhood. “The world becomes a place where they belong. You see young people thinking about how they can influence the world around them.”

“The world becomes a place where they belong. You see young people thinking about how they can influence the world around them.”

Baltimore brought some of the youth she works with to Northern Ireland with Amizade last summer. None of the students had traveled outside of the country before, and they gained a new understanding of how the Hill District was connected to the world beyond its borders. When some of the teenagers returned, Baltimore said, they got involved with environmental and social organizing locally.

Amizade is exploring how to better help trip returnees turn their experiences into action. One idea on the table is offering community engagement grants, Blache-Cohen said. A participant who has learned about food insecurity on Amizade’s trip to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, for example, could apply for a grant to start a community garden in the Hill District, where some residents also suffer from food insecurity.

“As far as we can tell, there’s never been a community that’s invested this heavily in this type of global experiential education anywhere in the country,” Blache-Cohen said. “No neighborhood has gotten together and said, ‘We believe this is a pathway forward for our young people.’” Leaders in the Hill District may be the first.

Young visitors from Bolivia and Peru tour the Hill District. Photo: Daniel Alexander/Amizade

Young visitors from Bolivia and Peru tour the Hill District. Photo: Daniel Alexander/Amizade

Drawing connections across borders

The Hill District youth who have had the chance to go abroad have learned that their own hometown is simultaneously special and ordinary.

Qui Ante Anderson, an 18-year-old who has lived in the Hill District her whole life, said she felt less alone when she discovered the striking similarities between her hometown and the Irish communities she visited with Amizade in 2015. That summer, she and several peers and adult mentors spent 10 days touring Northern Ireland, staying at hotels, homes, and retreats, learning about local customs, and giggling with Irish teenagers over culture clashes. They were exposed to both beauty and hardship.

Anderson was startled to find that a version of discrimination and segregation existed in the largely white Ireland as well. The clashes between the Catholic and Protestant populations were impossible to miss, she said.

“I felt like I was going back in time in my own history”—to the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, Anderson, who is African-American, said.

She and her peers from the Hill District were also surprised when they were taken on a tour of a public housing complex.

“A lot of students had the stereotype that literally only black people live in housing projects,” she said. “But we saw a housing project full of white people. We heard some of their stories and saw an effort to create change, and that’s what’s going on in the Hill District too.”

The connections she’d drawn on her trip made Anderson more curious about the rest of the world, but also importantly renewed her interest in how these issues played out in her own history and community.

“You should want to travel not just with the intention of leaving home and running off,” Anderson said, “but with a love and appreciation for your home.”

Virtual Reality in Schools Becomes Something Real

In one local district, students can travel to Ancient Egypt and back, sans time machine or permission slip.

Montour High School in Robinson, Penn., is home to a “virtual immersion lab” where computers come equipped with simulation software and styluses. Students need only throw on some 3D glasses—the kind that make animated characters jump at you in movie theaters—to plunge into a world where they can dissect dinosaurs, examine a human eye, or explore the pyramids up close.

The lab uses education software from zSpace, a California company that has outfitted about 100 such spaces in schools around the country. The cost is steep at $70,000, which Montour covered with a combination of district funds and support from the Grable Foundation and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Kids go nuts over the technology, Justin Aglio, Montour’s director of innovation, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. No surprise there: the lab immerses students in the ancient worlds, infectious diseases, and extinct species that used to be the stuff of textbooks.

Virtual reality is a “powerful empathy tool”

Virtual reality “is a really powerful empathy tool,” Jen Holland, a former product manager at Google, recently told the Smithsonian. She was explaining why more schools should embrace the technology, but many who make media for grown-ups think so too. Since last year, The New York Times has occasionally shipped its subscribers Google’s Cardboard headsets so they can watch original VR films. The first introduced viewers to child refugees; another placed them next to Iraqi soldiers fighting ISIS.

As long as the virtual reality is accompanied by thoughtful lessons and adult guidance, it is just the kind of hands-on, interactive learning we know is valuable. Teachers at Montour can choose to play an active role in students’ exploration, editing the preprogrammed activities or designing their own. They are able to watch what the students are doing from their own screens, providing live feedback when appropriate.

VR could make existing disparities grow wider
As the technology becomes more common, however, there are risks to watch out for. Any time a new device or program comes out and only ends up in certain classrooms, it has the potential to make existing disparities grow even wider. Low-income, black, and Latino families are less likely to have broadband internet access at home, for example, so it is all the more important that their children’s schools aren’t left behind as well. The proliferation of smartphones and the educational technology equipped for them have improved access. But the cost of a virtual immersion lab puts it in the category of programs unlikely to land in most American districts anytime soon.

Montour has vowed to share its lab with other schools in and out of the district. Other educational VR endeavors have placed an emphasis on access.

Earlier this month, visitors to a Pittsburgh recreation center got a week to experiment with a new VR tool in development at Carnegie Mellon University. The students uploaded 360-degree images of their own neighborhoods, editing them to design their ideal community. The program gave them a chance to create, critique, and help determine their own surroundings (if only for the moment).

Google last fall launched its Expeditions Pioneer Program, allowing schools to apply for free kits that included VR viewers, smartphones with educational VR software, and an internet router. The company sent employees to participating schools to train teachers, who also received a free tablet. Within a year, however, Google turned Expeditions into an expensive commercial product.

Tech moves rapidly. Ten years ago, hardly anyone had a smartphone. Ten days ago, some of the Montour students had probably never been outside of the state, let alone “to” Egypt. When it comes to educational technology, it’s important to make sure access plays catch-up with invention.

A Chance to Redefine High School

The trajectory of public education today is one of both progress and stagnation.

On the one hand, more schools are discarding stale practices in favor of approaches grounded in new research about how young people learn today. There has been a proliferation of new tools that can make learning and assessment easier and more engaging. We’ve replaced a controversial federal law with one designed to encourage more flexibility and innovation. Makerspaces, community gardens, and career academies are springing up on public school campuses.

Yet only some students get to benefit from these exciting developments. There are still deep divides in the American education system.

Across the country and even within counties, there are wide funding gaps. The highest poverty districts receive 10 percent less in state and local funding than the most affluent districts, according to The Education Trust.

There are still deep divides in the American education system.
Racial minorities are hit the hardest by the disparities. An analysis by the Center for American Progress found that schools with at least 90 percent students of color spend $733 less per student per year than schools with at least 90 percent white students. Whether lack of funding is the cause of worse educational outcomes for students of color or not, CAP says, it certainly doesn’t help close the gaps. High school graduation rates are rising for all students, but black and Hispanic students’ rates are 73 percent and 76 percent, respectively, compared to white students’ 87 percent.

Amid insufficient resources and funding, there is certainly no shortage of ideas for addressing educational inequalities. That is evidenced by the 700 submissions to a contest that asks applicants to redesign public high school to serve all 21st century learners.

Launched in September 2015, the XQ Super Schools Project will award a total of $50 million to at least five schools. Each school will receive $2 million per year over five years. Applicants had to “reimagine” how a typical high school could better prepare all students for the rapidly changing world they will enter when they graduate, whether they go to college or join the workforce. About half of the applicants were selected to advance to the semifinals, and winners will be announced in August.

How would you reimagine high school?

It is no surprise that three of the semifinal “super schools” are in the Pittsburgh area, where educators are constantly reimagining learning. Each submission taps into local industry and innovation to build opportunities for its student body.

Steel Valley School District, serving old steel mill towns, has taken inspiration from its changing surroundings to imagine a changed campus. The redesigned school will hook students into the community, taking advantage of the skills and knowledge of local residents and organizations, and in turn encouraging graduates to stay and become local leaders. The coursework will be experiential and project-based.

At Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh, a team has dreamed up Thinking Lab HS. Students there will become engaged, empathetic members of their communities and of civic society. Activism, research, and experience outside the walls of the school are central, and the curriculum focuses on ecological literacy, culture, and health and well-being. Under the guidance of a mentor, students will work on projects in campus studios and labs.

The third semifinalist, Rivers Cubed Academy, is a college and career program for low-income youth. The school will offer academically rigorous courses as well as technical education, preparing students to follow a pathway to higher education or employment. Transportation is provided, so underserved students from multiple districts can enroll. The proposal is the brainchild of Schools That Can, the Remake Learning Network, and others.

The three Pittsburgh submissions represent different valuable approaches to rethinking learning. Two start from scratch, using the modern world as a jumping off point for setting up students for success. A third bolsters an existing institution, supporting educators and families by taking stock of what the entire community has to offer.

Regardless of who ends up in the final five, the ideas put forth by hundreds of teams across the country demonstrate the kind of out-of-the-box thinking our education system can continue to use—and the chunk of funding demonstrates the kind of support it needs.

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.

Kids Who Amazed Us in 2015

In 2015 we were, time and again, impressed by the ingenuity and creativity of kids.

We wrote about some of them on this blog. There was 16-year-old Olivia Hallisey, whose simple, cost-effective Ebola detection method made her the winner of the Google Science Fair. Then there was Jahnik Kurukulasuriya, who took time off from Pittsburgh’s Allderdice High School to present his breast cancer research at the White House.

Some kids used technology to innovate and help their peers. Fourteen-year-old Lexi Schneider won the National STEM Video Game Challenge for “Head of Class,” a game that leads players through a comic-inspired virtual school, teaching lessons along the way. And 10-year-old Torrae Owen used a 3D printer to build a plastic “superhero hand.” Her disabled peers who lack hands or fingers can use her invention to pick up objects.

These kids give us a glimpse of what youngsters can do. “Youth are natural inventors,” Joan Ganz Cooney Center director Michael H. Levine said when he announced the STEM video game contest.

So why are these kids the exception?

Low-income students and kids of color often lack access to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education that has helped the Olivia Halliseys flourish. Many under-resourced schools cannot offer basic chemistry or Algebra II. According to the U.S. Department of Education, black and Latino students have disproportionately low access to math and science courses.

It is fair to say that even when the seeds are planted, most kids will not grow up to become cutting-edge cancer researchers. But STEM education opens many career possibilities. The nonprofit Change the Equation reports that middle-skill jobs that require technology grew 2.5 times faster between 2003 and 2013 than jobs that do not.

Economist Raj Chetty has spotlighted the many factors stacked against low-income children—and the importance of childhood environment in laying the groundwork for success. He has researched how a child’s neighborhood and family income affect his or her economic opportunities.

In a study in 2014, Chetty and his colleagues found that “the birth lottery”—who a child is born to—is a bigger predictor today of economic mobility than in the past. In a lecture, he noted how a childhood of poverty is much less likely to lead to an adulthood of innovation. A child born to parents in the top 1 percent income bracket is 10 times more likely to invent something than one whose parents earn below the median income.

By contrast, with access to STEM and hands-on learning, kids begin to fuse technical skill-building with curiosity—with an eye on the world around them. In 2015, we watched what young people can do when they have the right tools, supportive educators and families, and well-resourced schools.

In 2016 and beyond, let’s give more kids a chance to experiment and create.

 

Teens and Technology: The Uneven Playing Field Persists

Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For the next two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. 

For nearly a century, private Waldorf Schools around the country have subscribed to a teaching method that focuses on physical activity and creative, hands-on learning. But the schools, which many Silicon Valley tech executives send their kids to, made headlines in 2011 for their strict belief in not using any technology—no screens, no internet—from kindergarten to middle school. At thousands of dollars a year, it’s a privilege to be disconnected from tech.

Meanwhile, being disconnected is a major hurdle for under-resourced public schools, whose slower internet speeds can prevent teachers from doing the same basic activities as schools with fast speeds, even in neighboring districts. Only 14 percent of low-income schools meet internet speed goals set by ConnectEd, a federal initiative aimed at increasing broadband internet access. That is compared to 39 percent of affluent schools.

Like much else in society, access and use of technology and the opportunities that come with it fall along race, class, and gender lines. It’s why when educators push for greater technology integration in education, equity has to be central to any effort in order for tech to propel, not hinder, a more equal shot at a STEAM career.

When educators push for greater technology integration in education, equity has to be central to any effort in order for tech to propel, not hinder, a more equal shot at a STEAM career.

For example, how teachers use edtech is shaped by what resources are available to them. But teachers in low-income schools tend to have less support. Among teachers in highest income areas, Pew research found that 70 percent said their school gave them good support for incorporating technology into their teaching, compared with only half the teachers in lowest income areas. That means while there might be two identical iPads in two different classrooms with equal internet speeds, the type of support and ongoing professional development a teacher receives could mean that the learning experiences students have with those iPads is drastically different.

Young people’s experiences with technology on an individual level also differ greatly, though discussions about technology rarely take in the full breadth and diversity of how young people use it. Last winter, a 19-year-old named Andrew wrote a blog post titled “A Teenager’s View on Social Media, Written by an Actual Teen” that gained traction in tech and media circles.

People working in the tech industry forwarded the story to danah boyd, author and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, who has researched and written extensively about teen technology use. Though she didn’t fault Andrew for voicing his perspective, she thought that as a white male college student, his thoughts on social media shouldn’t be considered a single stand-in for how 16 million teens use tech.

“Let me put this bluntly: teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background,” boyd wrote. She added that listening to only one group of teens’ perspective on technology is a problem because it shapes what the tech industry builds and invests in and what “gets legitimized by institutions of power.” For example, by only reading Andrew’s post, a reader would miss how many teens, especially teens of color, are harnessing social media as a tool for social activism.

Of course, there are many great programs designed to keep young people of color and low-income teens at the center of all their technology opportunities. Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. is an afterschool program at Woodland Hills Academy outside of Pittsburgh and a pop-up program throughout Allegheny County. It aims to empower young women, predominantly young women of color, with hands-on STEAM learning, introducing them to STEM careers through five core units, including one called Thoughts & Bots that introduces girls to robotics.

Nationally, Black Girls Code introduces girls and young women to basic programming skills in languages like Scratch and Ruby on Rails. At its recent hackathon in New York City, the winning team of teenage girls created an app that let students share notes and homework after being absent.

“If the minority presence in leadership roles doesn’t soon reflect the general population or the online population, it will be time for Net boosters to ask themselves why what was supposed be a democratizing influence didn’t work out that way,” wrote Catherine Yang, editor of Bloomberg Businessweek . . . in the year 1999.

Well, 16 years later, it didn’t work out that way. But with a greater focus on technology that keeps equity as a central goal, not just as an add-on, there’s a chance to make greater progress for today’s kids in the next 16 years.