How can digital learning mentors reimagine afterschool programs?

Meet Jomari and Sylvan, two Digital Corps mentors working to activate digital literacies among youth in neighborhood afterschool programs

Jomari Peterson is always busy. He’s in his final semester as a PhD candidate in Engineering and Public Policy at CMU on top of working full-time for Homewood’s Bible Center Church as their economic development manager. He’s also an active educator in the Maker’s Place, BCC’s out-of-school learning site. Working in the Maker’s Place alongside his wife Brittney, Jomari believes coding and programming are essential skills for success in our economy. His training as a Digital Corps member furthered his own digital literacy skills. What he really savors about the program is the opportunity to collaborate with the other corps members and share his teaching ideas (like presenting HTML as a metaphor for building a sandwich).

Working from a refurbished row of former delinquent properties called “The Triplex” in Homewood, the Maker’s Place is a the brightly-colored space filled with technological equipment (there is also a recording studio on site), warm food, and eager minds. He loves that his students see him interacting with his wife while they teach students to create products that can sell. Digital literacy skills help the students interact with their online global customer base amidst a family atmosphere, where taking turns holding Jomari’s baby, Levi, is all part of the collaborative learning process.

While Jomari says his students might not even like coding, the skills are invaluable because learning to troubleshoot a website means they don’t have to rely on somebody else to fix it for them if something goes wrong down the line in their career. He says, “I believe that youth are capable of creating economic wealth and changing the world where they are now. I don’t think we should focus only on academic preparation for college, but provide young people with the technical skills to earn money right now if they choose.”

Jomari & SylvanSylvan Hemingway has a background in mechanical engineering, specializing in robotics and automation. For him, the draw of the Digital Corps was the opportunity to help feed the passions of young people who might be similar to himself–kids who feel thirsty for more knowledge about programming and robotics, but who lack access to resources.

“Kids are so malleable,” he says. “The tools we’re teaching are so accessible to any sharp mind, and these young people can do anything with these tools.” Sylvan began working with local youth through Assemble and his exposure to the teens’ creativity and hunger for more digital literacy energized him to join the Corps. He’s seen kids from different backgrounds coming together, putting aside differences, and working together to solve problems in the “learning by doing” atmosphere that the Digital Corps creates.

Sylvan’s own specialty is in debugging and troubleshooting industrial machinery–he describes his most valuable work experience as the night engineer at the Xerox toner plant, where his job was to fix whatever went wrong with any of the machines. Troubleshooting in such a high-stress environment was empowering for Sylvan, so he takes special interest in the Digital Corps’ emphasis on building troubleshooting skills.

Sylvan, who mentors at both Assemble and Garfield’s Brothers and Sisters Emerging sites, began his involvement in the Corps initially as a robotics expert providing training for the Hummingbird Robotics Kit to recently recruited Digital Corps mentors.

Now as a digital learning mentor working directly with youth, he sees the short-term enthusiasm when teens learn to program LED lights with a computer, but is ultimately excited by the long-term effect of the Digital Corps: “These teenagers will become empowered adults with these skills to accomplish a lot. I think this program will really impact the technological innovation that Pittsburgh might offer the future.”

Published May 27, 2014