Digital Corps Empowers Youth to Master the Digital Landscape

The Digital Corps is building a network of talented teachers of technology that are helping Pittsburgh youth take digital literacy to the next level.

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.

Published August 07, 2014