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Data / Education / STEM / Technology / Youth

Pittsburgh’s future civic technologists are being trained in and outside the classroom

Programs such as Codefest Jr. at Carnegie Library are training kids to solve real-world problems with STEM. Think of them as pre-technologists.

This story appears as a part of Open Data PGH, a joint reporting project by and PublicSource on open data trends in Pittsburgh, underwritten by Heinz Endowments. Learn more here and get updates here.

Given the resources and technology available to them, the current generation of schoolchildren will be the most tech-savvy ever.

Where 10 or 15 years ago there was a drive to build curricula around STEM, now educators are trying to harness kids’ natural instincts to solve problems and do good into meaningful interactions with the tech tools they’ll build as they learn.

Think of them as pre-technologists: The kids who design a better hall pass today could be the coders and developers working on a city’s tech challenges tomorrow.

That “better hall pass” idea came from a group of students at the Cornell School District. Kris Hupp, the district’s director of technology and instructional innovation, said the students decided that instead of carrying a physical pass that gets germy and disgusting to the restroom and back, each student should get a QR code that would track their whereabouts in the school building.

“They came up with the idea and it was like, ‘Yeah, you got it!'” Hupp said.

Steel City Codefest Jr. 2017. (Photo by Ben Filio)

Remake Learning is a Pittsburgh-based network of innovators and educators. Its community manager, Ani Martinez, said while schools are leading the way, much of the work of creating future civic technologists is done outside the classroom.

“We see this work happening more in the out of school time space,” Martinez said. “That’s not a critique or to say that schools are bad, but programs like Codefest Jr. reaches kids where they are, and brings them together in a public way.”

In her capacity with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Civic Information Sciences program, Tess Wilson spent last summer working with teens on a project to promote data literacy.

The group used data from the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center and other publicly available data resources. Working with a team of journalists from PublicSource, they created zines, which provided a visual component to the project, and learned about biases, how to create visual representations of data and how to use data to find stories.

“It helps a kid understand what data is if they can relate it to their lives,” Wilson said.

While many of the students worked with data on lighter topics like shark attacks and UFO sightings, she said one student chose to do a report on racial diversity.

“She talked to folks, gathered information and used data to examine something that was important to her,” Wilson said of the student.

Steel City Codefest Jr. 2017. (Photo by Ben Filio)

Wilson said if she had it to do over again, she would have asked the teens in the group for ideas for zines about things they encounter in their daily lives.

“I would have narrowed it down to something in the city they’re curious about, like taking the bus,” she said. “I think that may have allowed a deeper connection to their community, which is the goal.”

Kristin Morgan, digital learning lead librarian at the Carnegie Library, said the annual Codefest Jr. event brings together students from various socioeconomic backgrounds and just as importantly, their parents.

“If we can get families excited about coding, and highlight a new technology, that’s sometimes more effective than trying to teach a new programming language,” she said. “We know early learners’ brains are primed for those STEM thinking skills. By engaging with parents around the tech, we’re letting families know it’s more about the mindset than the skill set.”

When kids see another child tackling a problem using technology, it resonates really strongly for them, Morgan said. “We have a program where we teach circuitry and we have a book called ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ about a boy in Malawi,” she explained. The boy builds a windmill using scrap materials to help his village have electricity. “The kids see how he finds the resources and has some failures, but that he goes through the process of creating a solution.”

Steel City Codefest Jr. 2017. (Photo by Ben Filio)

The library has become a big part of teaching kids about technology, and Morgan says that’s just another part of its mission of literacy and learning.

Another segment on architecture teaches kids interested in building how to think more broadly.

“We use a TinyBop app called Skyscrapers, and it shows the kids how to think about accessibility, and building universally, so they design buildings for everyone,” Morgan explained. “We try to keep all the programs relevant to their lives, and do our best to make sure we approach the instruction as not just tech for tech’s sake.”

In April, Cornell was named the No. 1 “Overachiever” school district in the Pittsburgh Business Times’ ranking of disadvantaged school districts. Providing its students with access to technology has been a priority for the district, Hupp said; it has a new dedicated computer science department which means a full-time teacher in the high school teaching Python and other computer science courses.

“We’re doing a lot of coding and robotics, but getting kids in STEM, that’s really every kid,” Hupp said. Encouraging kids to take technology and do civic good with it is sort of a no-brainer: “Kids do have that tendency to want to help other kids.”

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