Tag Archives: remake learning digital corps

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.

Mozilla’s Maker Parties Teach Web to the World

The invasive Japanese knotweed has become a tricky ecological problem in Pennsylvania. But at the Pittsburgh Maker Party on August 2, Albert Pantone showed kids how to mix the pesky weed with cotton and soda ash, eventually transforming it into handmade paper.

The Pittsburgh Maker Party brought a dozen organizations together at the Society for Contemporary Craft and let more than 200 kids and parents get their hands dirty making seed bombs, creating mobile apps, or shooting marshmallows in the air with a bike pump.

It was only one of more than 2,000 Mozilla Maker Parties held in 368 cities around the globe since mid-July, which aim to “teach the web on a global scale through hands-on learning and making.” The events range in participants, size, activities, and resources available. What they have in common is the goal of equipping people with digital literacy and web skills so they can understand and help mold the web, not just consume it.

To do that, the events often teach partygoers Mozilla’s Webmaker tools like Thimble, which lets users write HTML and CSS on the left of the screen and instantly preview their work on the right. Another tool, X-Ray Goggles, let people peek behind any website and check its code. At the Pittsburgh maker party, the Remake Learning Digital Corps helped kids in attendance “hack” the New York Times’ website and replace the headlines with their own.

In Cape Town, South Africa, Teen girls learned to code with HTML and CSS. Then, they design websites for local community organizations.
 “In English, ‘learning’ can sound like as passive a verb as they come, yet learning is the most all-encompassing, mind-devouring, time-consuming, and dare I say intoxicating experience one may have,” Ani Martinez, head of the Remake Learning Digital Corps, wrote last month in a post about the maker party. “That’s what gives Maker Parties their vibe and why they are such the success they’ve become.”

The maker parties’ success also stems from how easily organizers can share detailed event reports, tweets, and videos with other makers around the world. The posts inspire ideas for future parties and are nearly perfect examples of the body of collective knowledge that makes the internet so powerful.

Here’s a handful of other amazing Maker Parties that taught people about the web, its inner workings, and the power of using it to create:

  • The Brooklyn College Community Partnership hosted a nine-day open house in the first drop-in teen makerspace in Brooklyn. The days were packed with 3D modeling, inventing contraptions that could save people on a deserted island, and debating what should go into a maker manifesto. At the end of the event, kids and educators reimagined their makerspace and built intricate prototypes of a dream space that included hydroponic gardens and a bamboo lounge.
  • The Code4CT program teaches teen girls in Cape Town, South Africa, how to code with HTML and CSS. Then, they design websites for local community organizations. At the Code4CT Maker Party, the girls each brought a friend and passed their new skills on to her.
  • The internet connection dropped out at the Maker Party in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. But the party continued offline as participants discussed how the web functions, voiced their concerns about privacy, and brainstormed other problems—like scams and malware—they find online.
  • At Coworking Monterrey in Mexico, youth got to 3D print their own Maker Party logos and crowns, and they even saw how it might be possible to 3D print a person. They took some great photos in the process.
  • The village of Gangadevipally, India, has no internet connectivity. That didn’t stop Meraj Imran from bringing a Maker Party to the village on a motorcycle to teach awareness about the web to rural families. He used charts to describe HTML tags and 3D prototypes to demonstrate how the internet works.
  • In San Francisco, volunteers and employees of nonprofits got free HTML training to make their websites and newsletters more effective through Aspiration’s Maker Party.
  • At MozFest East Africa in Kampala, Uganda, more than 30 Mozilla Webmaker mentors taught more than 200 kids how to “hack” with Webmaker tools. Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, recently wrote about the party in Uganda and explained the challenge of teaching web literacy with both depthand scale.

“We’ll see more people rolling up their sleeves to help people learn by making,” Surman wrote. “And more people organizing themselves in new ways that could massively grow the number of people teaching the web. If we can make happen this summer, much bigger things lay on the path ahead.”

Teaching Kids to Think Like Computer Scientists, Without Using Computers

Teaching computer science is important for many reasons. Advocates say it’s a vital piece of preparing educated citizens of the 21st century and of meeting the demand for jobs in the new economy.

MIT Media Lab’s Mitch Resnick, the mastermind behind the popular kids coding language Scratch, says that coding teaches mathematical and computational thinking in addition to problem solving, design, and communication skills. And author Douglas Rushkoff, in his book “Program or Be Programmed,” argued that coding is the new literacy of the digital age. Just like we learned to write when we learned to read, he argued, humans should learn not only how to use computers but how to program them.

Folks like Resnick and Rushkoff say the coding itself and the skills one gains along the way are valuable for all citizens of future society, not only those who will become computer scientists.

These days, after all, the hardware and software are changing rapidly. Who knows what will be around when my 8-year-old enters the workforce? How should we prepare him? A group in Australia may have found one way.

Over at the Hechinger Report, Annie Murphy Paul profiled a project called Computer Science Unplugged, which uses games, puzzles, and magic tricks to teach concepts of computer science to kids as young as age 5.

“Rather than talking about chips and disks and ROM and RAM,” the organizers wrote, “we want to convey a feeling for the real building blocks of computer science: how to represent information in a computer, how to make computers do things with information, how to make them work efficiently and reliably, how to make them so that people can use them.”

For example:

“Younger children might learn about ‘finite state automata’—sequential sets of choices—by following a pirates’ map, dashing around a playground in search of the fastest route to Treasure Island. Older kids can learn how computers compress text to save storage space by taking it upon themselves to compress the text of a book.”

We’ve done similar work here in Pittsburgh with our Remake Learning Digital Corps, which brings technologists into the community to teach digital literacy skills to kids. The workshop leaders often start with games to get kids to understand computer science concepts before turning to the computers themselves. Ani Martinez, who leads the program for the Sprout Fund said that participants often play “Harold the Robot,” an activity also used by Computer Science Unplugged. In the game, students give instructions to one of their peers pretending to be a robot. They get to see how well the robot is able to follow their instructions and how their instructions are taken literally.

At Elizabeth Forward Middle School, students get to use their bodies and new technology to act out concepts of math and science and to play games at the school’s SMALLab. The Wii-like space uses a ceiling-mounted projector, motion-sensor cameras, and a computer to create a kinesthetic learning environment where kids can learn physics and learn about human computer interaction.

You may also remember the board game Robot Turtles, which made a splash on Kickstarter when it came out in 2013. The game teaches programming fundamentals to kids ages 3 to 8 without using a computer. It’s designed by a software engineer who’s a father and believes teaching his kids “to program a computer is the single greatest superpower I can give them.”

Engineers hope that these kinds of teaching methods will help overcome barriers to teaching and learning computer science: the hardware for one, but also stereotypes that computer science is, as Annie Murphy Paul wrote, boring or geeky or not for girls.

“The biggest challenges for the future,” wrote Resnick in a 2013 article at EdSurge, “are not technological but cultural and educational. Ultimately, what is needed is a shift in mindsets, so that people begin to see coding not only as a pathway to good jobs, but as a new form of expression and a new context for learning.”

Computer Science Unplugged is available for free download at csunplugged.org.

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.”