SXSWorld November 2015


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2 4 S X S W o r l d | N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 5 | S X S W. C O M he September arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed for bringing a homemade clock to school (on the grounds that it looked "like a movie bomb") provoked a range of reac- tions. Most critics of the arrest saw racism and Islamophobia at work, while others pointed to the draconian zero-tolerance, no- weapons policies adopted by many schools. But there is another explanation for why authorities reacted the way they did. In the words of Irving, Texas, police officer James McLellan, "[Mohamed] didn't offer any explanation as to what it was for; why he created this device, why he brought it to school." In other words, a high school student who had built something on his own and wanted to show it off was exhibiting suspicious behavior. That is an attitude Andrew Coy would like to change. A former schoolteacher (and SXSWedu 2015 speaker), Coy is executive director of Baltimore, Maryland's Digital Harbor Foundation, which adminis- ters afterschool programs for some 2,500 tech-minded schoolkids. The foundation provides mentors, materials and importantly, dedi- cated spaces for young tinkerers to pursue their own projects. One of Digital Harbor's rallying cries is that "the rec center should become a tech center," and as its first project in 2013, it converted an unused city facility into the first of its "maker spaces." Since that time, hundreds of kids (and their parents; DHF offers adult and family programs, too) have streamed through its doors to work on software development, electronic projects, 3-D printing and more. Coy sees a tension between the traditional top-down model of education and the way that science and technology evolve in the real world, and specifically in the tech marketplace. "School systems are designed to teach what I would call generational knowledge," he says. "But in the tech [industry] things change every two years. How does a school system designed to do one also do the other? If we have an idea, we can start working on it next week." It's not that Digital Harbor wants to replace the existing education model. Coy sees his foundation's work as complementary to more traditional educational approaches. But the inde- pendent nature of the student's work in this approach is a challenge to the idea of the teacher as authority figure, replacing it with something more like a mentor. "We need to change the role of the educator from the expert in con- tent to the expert in process," he explains. In fact, treating education more like a verb than a series of nouns may not be as disruptive as it seems. "Schools are already doing this," says Andrea Saenz, first deputy com- missioner for the Chicago Public Library. "Kids are learning differently in the digital age." Researchers at the University of California at Irvine have identified a number of ways in which young people learn differently than their predecessors did, and unsurprisingly, a lot of the differences seem connected to being online. "The peer is important; the social context is important," says Saenz. "When kids learn a new skill, they want to share it online. We felt like they could be encouraged and sup- ported to learn the way they were already learning online." The Chicago Library's YOUmedia project translated these insights into physical spaces within existing libraries, which were set up to replicate the more interactive online environment. That meant changing traditional library rules, like "no talking." Also, "you can eat in that part of the library," says Saenz, laughing. The program's success has spawned a number of similar initiatives within the Chicago system. Libraries now offer maker labs for adults that focus on subjects like digital design. And that library mainstay, the summer reading program, has been retooled as a more interac- tive science, technology and arts program that encourages individual initiative and personal projects, most of which are done at home rather than under the supervision of an adult. Saenz is enthusiastic about the results of these programs. "We had a site visit from the National Learning Association, and they were blown away. The libraries are full of kids doing projects. You've got one group over in one corner being led by a 12-year-old, and in another you've got a NASA space ambassador talking about the moon." Still, that move toward interactivity and away from what used to be called "book learning" makes some people nervous. What happens to what Coy calls "generational knowledge" as education becomes more self-directed and interactive? Coy isn't worried about that. "We need to have faith in the enjoyment of learning … People watch TED talks without having an assignment." "What we need is to develop a culture of conversation and intel- lectual engagement," Coy says, and he is heartened by some of the immediate reactions to Mohamed in the wake of his arrest, which included invitations to visit the White House, MIT and the offices of Facebook. All across the world, nerds and tinkerers in positions of power celebrated Mohamed's initiative and creativity. "That response," says Coy, "speaks volumes about the culture of creators."T SXSWedu will take place March 7 - 10. See for more details. Reimagining Learning Spaces for the Digital Age by John Ratliff T Stu d e n t s a t D ig ita l H a rb o r's Te ch C e n te r i n D ow n tow n B a lt i m o re C O U R T E S Y O F D I G I TA L H A R B O R C M Y CM MY CY CMY K

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