Grade nine students at TechBoston Academy — a Boston Public School in Dorchester — were given a challenge: Choose an issue that’s important in your community and do something about it.
Doing something about it took many forms but all of the projects had a single goal: making positive change. Topics ranged from picking up litter, saving art classes, reducing gun violence, alleviating poverty, even improving STEAM Studio itself, a pilot program at TechBoston.
The joint initiative, made possible by a generous grant from the Barr Foundation, took place over two weeks—STEAMweeks—and was facilitated by Helen Harlan, educational collaborations coordinator at the MIT Edgerton Center and the STEAM Studio Foundation.
A claymation video on racial discrimination, a rap song on gentrification, even a trash can with a basketball net attached to its rim called Trashketball were some of the myriad projects presented by 85 TechBoston students to the MIT community at the Stata Center this past April.
“I think the most exciting thing for me and the students was the chaos that was happening,” said Matt White, a TechBoston math teacher. “We were in a room of artistic expression and kids were able to choose whatever they wanted to do.”
While it was challenging for students to devise a plan of action once they chose a project, the benefit came when “we realized that the [STEAM Studio program] was teaching us how to be independent when it comes to learning. It taught us how to not waste time on stupid stuff,” reported the group tasked with improving STEAM Studio.
Harlan, who worked with the teacher team and students, talked about the process. “We wanted students to connect what they are learning to real life. Allowing students to choose community issues that they were interested in meant that students could dive into big and deep issues, issues that students come up with at college and at grad school. They were making their voices heard on a variety of issues.”
For their gun violence project, Jeneal, Savaun, and Daniel met with the Boston police at the Dorchester Arts Project. Along with discussing options for an after-school program they also talked about ways to protect the community from gun violence. “If you're on the outside and you see something happening, that's not snitching, you're helping out the people around to stop things like this,” said Jameal.
An intentional learning goal of the two weeks was pushing students to reach outside of their comfort zone and connect to an outside community group for feedback and for mentorship.
“They’ve never been put in a position where they needed to take that much ownership and interact with someone outside of the school community,” said Aaron Zaubi, the engineering teacher at TechBoston. “It was something students found very uncomfortable.”
But students were visibly excited when they received a response. “They would come right over and show you the emails,” said White. And for most students, regardless of whether they received responses, they felt that going through the act of contacting community members was a useful skill they could use in the future.
When the Trashketball prototype—the barrel with the basketball net that makes disposing of trash more fun—was complete, the team contacted the director of the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. He visited the students and reviewed their prototype and is considering it for future implementation.
A fine example of project-based learning, community collaboration, and solving an issue close to home.