Digital Corps Equips Kids to Navigate Digital Landscape

Ani Martinez, program manager of the Remake Learning Digital Corps, talks about the new initiative teaching digital literacy to adults and kids across Pittsburgh.

Young people spend a lot of time using digital media—studies estimate more than 8 hours per day connecting with social networks, playing games, and producing or consuming media. But there is digital literacy beyond Facebook access and a YouTube account. Skills like programming, coding, and basic robotics are becoming increasingly essential for young people to thrive in school, college, the workforce, and life.

A new program, the Remake Learning Digital Corps, aims to bring these skills to tweens and teens throughout Allegheny County, helping to catalyze young people to reach their potential in the digital world around us. Partnering with Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time (APOST), the Sprout Fund has trained a team of mobile digital literacy instructors to bring digital literacy education to youth participating in afterschool programs around the county.

Program manager Ani Martinez describes the Digital Corps and its goals.

Tell us what inspired the Digital Corps Program.

AM: Prior to my work with the Sprout Fund, I’d been a program coordinator for Assemble, which is a maker space on Penn Avenue. When trying to staff or even design programming for youth, we consistently found a shortage of mentors/educators who also have digital literacy training.

I never meant to become involved in digital literacy, but I needed to in order to run the programs I was working with, and I picked up skills gradually over time. As I tried conveying these skills to our other educators at Assemble, I started to realize how much I had really learned by doing. This cemented my understanding that digital learning is essential for everyone.

The problem was not unique to Assemble—this knowledge gap for educators was found across the board, in formal education, too. So not only do we have young people who want and need to build these skills, we have educators lacking in digital literacy training as well. The Sprout Fund recognized this and designed the Remake Learning Digital Corps to help assuage that need. We recruited a corps of educators and developed a training program to enhance their digital literacy skills.

Scratch training at Hilltop Computer Center / Photo: Norton Gusky

Photo: Norton Gusky

So who makes up the corps of educators?

AM: We recruited individuals from diverse backgrounds. Some of our members were seeking mentorship opportunities, some were looking for professional development, and others were just looking to build their own skills and give back to the community. We received 58 applications and accepted 40 members who work as artists, librarians, technologists (like data processors or engineers), formal educators, informational scientists… we’ve got everyone from roboticists to teenagers involved in developing the Corps.

What sorts of sites will the Corps be visiting?

AM: We have a wide variety of learning environments. We selected 11 sites that applied to host our Corps members, and these range from boys and girls clubs to libraries to YMCA programs and other community centers or school-based after school programs.

What will members need to learn to work with the APOST sites?

AM: Our Corps members learn three basic tools: Scratch, Thimble, and Hummingbird.

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

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

Finally, we’re teaching 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 lots of programs. Scratch is one of them! Which brings us full circle.

Our Corps members become familiar with these three tools and then work in pairs to teach them to the youth participating in the various programs.

Teaching Scratch at Hilltop Computer Center

Photo: Norton Gusky

How does training work?

AM: It’s been kind of a crash course! We’ve had a lot of fun. We approach teaching the way we’d like the Corps to teach the youth, so we introduce a skill and immediately, in the same session, have them learning by doing. It’s a great method to get them asking questions, learning to troubleshoot and figure things out.

We’re dealing with skill-based learning, so the idea is not just to learn the tool but also to learn to troubleshoot within the tool. How can we use Google to find the answer? How can we use Scratch and its vast network of projects to find the bug in our program? It’s been very hands-on training facilitated by people familiar with the tools.

Because we’re also emphasizing collaborative learning, we’re employing teams to teach the Corps members the different tools. Our Scratch team consists of a teacher from Propel Braddock paired with a 15-year-old intern from Assemble—she teaches Scratch there. Our Thimble team is a pair of professional developers and designers. They are familiar with the back-end of coding and languages and can translate this information in an accessible way. And we were lucky to get Tom Lauwers, who created the Hummingbird kits, to teach the Hummingbird unit.

What will the education process look like for the youth at the host sites?

AM: Our Corps members will teach in much the same way they learned, so they’ll present a skill and then that same day, the participants will work with that skill hands on, learning by doing again.

Our Corps will work with both the young people and the adult educators at the host sites—staff will be on hand to sit in on the program while the Corps members are working with the youth and be present mentors in the process. We are encouraging positive youth-adult interactions as well as peer-to-peer activity, letting the students help teach one another, collaborate, and share in a safe environment. The idea is for everyone to develop competency with these tools.

We’re actively trying to build relationships between our host sites, finding ways to have the spaces talk to one another about their projects, having our Corps members relating experiences between neighborhoods, etc.

What is happening currently with the Corps program?

AM: This is a very exciting time for us because we’ve just deployed our first corps members into the APOST sites. We have 11 sites throughout the county that all have different backgrounds, educational focal points, and access to technology. For this first round of programming, we’re thinking of it like a bento box—each site will get a little taste of each tool. This summer we’ll go deeper into specific tool sets and competencies. We hope to also add host sites as the summer progresses, so we can work with more youth.

Would you like to be part of the Remake Learning Digital Corps? Sign up to be a member or a host site by Friday, May 2nd!

Published April 17, 2014