Project Spotlight: Bits-2-Bites

STELAR recently had the opportunity to interview Anika Ward and Joseph Adamji (in photo) along with their team members Oanh Vu and Roi Ward from the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center (KAYSC) at the Science Museum of Minnesota. This team leads the ITEST Project Bits-2-Bites, equipping young leaders in urban communities with skills and experience to understand and use STEM as a vehicle for creating solutions to social injustice.  Anika and Joseph also presented during a STELAR webinar on Strategies for Increasing Diversity in STEM Learning Environments.

What excites you most about the work you do every day?
Hopefulness. The opportunity to work in partnership/community with youth, parents/families, educators, business owners, museum staff, scientists, artists and community leaders/members. Watching young people put KAYSC resources (information, tools, people) to work in their lives. Seeing young people develop into well-resourced adults who give back to this program and to their communities. Seeing young people become conscious of their reality and their own potential to shape the future reality. In times when the future is guaranteed to bring challenges and much change, it is settling to watch young people discover themselves. Young people discover their values, and their potential for shaping the world they live in, as they learn to think critically and create solutions through building community, inquiry, observation, impact, and deep reflection.

What do you think is your most important learning in this area (STEM, youth development, workforce development) based on your project work to-date?
To see personal and professional growth in youth requires developing a well-documented Leadership Cycle that prepares young people to see the relevance of STEM education, through a structured process and Pathway into Careers. Our process roots the work in creating solutions to social injustices, what we call a STEM Justice education approach. Additionally, building relationships as a foundation for the experience is key to successful STEM learning and youth development work. Youth in the program can progress to increasing levels of organizational responsibility and see themselves grow in and through the program. The combination of all of this builds confidence, direction, and a network of support for youth on their path to careers.

Additonally, a strong STEM Skill and Content development curriculum, embedded in a STEM Justice lens gives the youth experience and work meaning. The youth in the Bits 2 Bites program have been learning computational thinking using Scratch and Arduino. Most of the youth have never done computer programming. This programming can be difficult, and debugging the programs can be tedious and confusing. Because of this we design our programs carefully so the youth are engaged and not discouraged when learning STEM content by rooting their learning in real world applications that inspire them. For some this could mean making games, while for others it means connecting their work to local issues that they want to tackle. When reflecting on this process, the youth admit that it can be frustrating and sometimes they want to give up, but they don’t because they care about their work. They are motivated because their work has purpose and will contribute to their communities. We give youth time to reflect and present their work to the public, celebrating their work and allowing them to share their insights with others. This gives their work additional meaning. 

What strategies have you found most effective for engaging diverse underrepresented populations in STEM programs and careers?

Providing A Pathway of Opportunities: One strategy is demonstrating a pathway for youth to progress through your program. There are multiple roles  and opportunities for youth to increase their level of responsibility. Youth understand expectations, eligibility requirements, and can see themselves grow in and through your program.

Giving Youth Voice and Choice: Youth lead or impact the direction and activities of the program with support from adults. Adults listen to youth and create space for them to make choices on a day to day basis that drives the work they do or activities they engage in. This leads to authentic youth engagement and investment in the program.

Rooting work in Community: Community is the base for your Network of Support (community members act as teachers, trainers, mentors and inspire a commitment to community). Youth impact community by defining what their community is and learning how to support their community. Youth have a sense of and a network of support in their community through activities like block parties, workshops and school programming. Youth have real opportunities to make real change in the community (individual and collective).  Providing the space for youth to understand STEM content from a social justice (and community-centric) lens has been an extremely impactful strategy in KAYSC programming.

Being Responsive: Having an adaptive program structure and flexible set of activities that are based on needs and experiences of youth, families, and community partners makes for more effective programming.

Can you share how your ITEST project impacts youth?
KAYSC programs impact young people starting in middle school and through college, in a positive learning and youth development community, with a focus on leadership and creating solutions to social justice. We’ll let a current KAYSC intern, Shiranthi Goonathilaka, speak for herself: 

“...Through the KAYSC’s program I have learned two very important things: (1) it’s great to have dreams, but it’s a disservice to yourself if you keep them as such... And (2) I refuse to wait until I’m “established” to start implementing change in the world...

“The KAYSC’s design is simple; (1) expose students to a concept/idea/social issue. (2) Allow them to utilize their own methodology to research the topic. (3) Let them lead the discussion about its relevancy to their lives as young people. (4) Brainstorm STEM-related solutions. (5) Test the solutions on a small scale. And finally, (6) present the findings to the community. While this sounds very straightforward, it’s important to remember that everything in this process is purely youth-led...”

Youth gain high level skills in computational thinking and computer programming... that prepare them for STEM fields...  We’ve asked [our project youth] to rethink their world, to understand and confront social and racial inequity, and... to learn STEM content.

The project builds confidence. Youth on Bits 2 Bites have a real sense that they could now possibly have a career in a tech field. That was not the case for many of them earlier this year. They also starting to see that the breadth of science and technology jobs are much more than they previously imagined. They are beginning to understand that many of the new jobs created in this country will require skills such as the ones they are learning.