The Teen Innovators after-school and internship program has been mingling history and technology for the past six years. And now, its unique model is receiving some national recognition.
Teen Innovators is one of 12 programs selected for the 2017 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the nation’s highest honor for youth programs. The announcement came as a pleasant surprise and validation for the program’s two co-sponsoring organizations, the Brooklyn Historical Society and Brooklyn Navy Yard.
“The Brooklyn Navy Yard has always been a place of technological innovation,” explained Emily Potter-Ndiaye, director of education with BHS. Just consider the local development of steel ships that don’t require caulking between their joints, or the creation of medical-grade ether that won’t kill you. “History and tech have broad consequences,” she added. Especially in Brooklyn.
For the teens at the center of the yearlong program, the chance to see how innovations are still used today and how they have evolved is inspiring — and the award is no different, serving as another former of the motivation that brought them to the program in the first place.
“It gives us the challenge to be better than the past. We see what previous participants did and we want to top that,” said current participant Najee Borden, 17, of Benjamin Banneker Academy in Clinton Hill.
If the semester-ending presentations of Borden and his fellow Teen Innovators are any indication, the program is in no danger of resting on its laurels.
This year, the 25 students — all from local Brooklyn high schools — visited and were then tasked with finding solutions to challenges facing a range of tech-driven organizations. The group included New Lab–based 3D-printing outfit Ultimaker, the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, Brooklyn Clay Industries and the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm.
Ultimaker’s challenge: how to use 3D printers to help teachers in the classroom in a student-centered way.
For Aaliyah Green, 16, of Westinghouse High School, while some friends thought she was “joining the Navy” with the Teen Innovators program at the Navy Yard, in reality, she’s gotten to see New Lab entrepreneurs trying to print with chocolate, learn about rooftop gardening, and more.
“I’m amazed that so many things are here,” said Tyshon Hinds, 17, of Bedford Academy. “There is so much 3D printing can do, but there are limitations, only so much time, so how can you use it productively?”
“It is challenging to integrate 3D printing into the classroom because students and teachers are way too overworked,” said Teen Innovator alum and current mentor Abdul Mutawally, 17, who plans to study computer science in college and mentored the five students on the Ultimaker task. “3D printing is not foreign to us — we’ve done it in engineering class — but how do you implement it in English and History? How do you integrate it in the lesson plan and be engaging? We have to have a long-lasting impact, not something for one-time use.”
So, as Borden described it, “instead of focusing on the negative, we got creative.”
The result was two-fold: a “legacy wall” made up of visual representations of each student over time — a video game controller, a hand with a globe in it, a kid-shaped figure tinkering with mechanical parts, a fist with the word “Equity” written on the knuckles — that show “how you grow from ninth to 12th grade,” and printing larger versions of small body parts so that students can better grasp how they operate.
“I have seen students who were reticent and shy flourish as a result of the knowledge and confidence they acquired from being part of [Teen Innovators],” said Karen Best, assistant principal of the Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts. “In addition to increasing their academic knowledge and their passion for learning about history, the program afforded them an opportunity to apply the skills acquired in class in the real world.”