Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For the next two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light.
For nearly a century, private Waldorf Schools around the country have subscribed to a teaching method that focuses on physical activity and creative, hands-on learning. But the schools, which many Silicon Valley tech executives send their kids to, made headlines in 2011 for their strict belief in not using any technology—no screens, no internet—from kindergarten to middle school. At thousands of dollars a year, it’s a privilege to be disconnected from tech.
Meanwhile, being disconnected is a major hurdle for under-resourced public schools, whose slower internet speeds can prevent teachers from doing the same basic activities as schools with fast speeds, even in neighboring districts. Only 14 percent of low-income schools meet internet speed goals set by ConnectEd, a federal initiative aimed at increasing broadband internet access. That is compared to 39 percent of affluent schools.
Like much else in society, access and use of technology and the opportunities that come with it fall along race, class, and gender lines. It’s why when educators push for greater technology integration in education, equity has to be central to any effort in order for tech to propel, not hinder, a more equal shot at a STEAM career.
For example, how teachers use edtech is shaped by what resources are available to them. But teachers in low-income schools tend to have less support. Among teachers in highest income areas, Pew research found that 70 percent said their school gave them good support for incorporating technology into their teaching, compared with only half the teachers in lowest income areas. That means while there might be two identical iPads in two different classrooms with equal internet speeds, the type of support and ongoing professional development a teacher receives could mean that the learning experiences students have with those iPads is drastically different.
Young people’s experiences with technology on an individual level also differ greatly, though discussions about technology rarely take in the full breadth and diversity of how young people use it. Last winter, a 19-year-old named Andrew wrote a blog post titled “A Teenager’s View on Social Media, Written by an Actual Teen” that gained traction in tech and media circles.
People working in the tech industry forwarded the story to danah boyd, author and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, who has researched and written extensively about teen technology use. Though she didn’t fault Andrew for voicing his perspective, she thought that as a white male college student, his thoughts on social media shouldn’t be considered a single stand-in for how 16 million teens use tech.
“Let me put this bluntly: teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background,” boyd wrote. She added that listening to only one group of teens’ perspective on technology is a problem because it shapes what the tech industry builds and invests in and what “gets legitimized by institutions of power.” For example, by only reading Andrew’s post, a reader would miss how many teens, especially teens of color, are harnessing social media as a tool for social activism.
Of course, there are many great programs designed to keep young people of color and low-income teens at the center of all their technology opportunities. Sisters e S.T.E.A.M. is an afterschool program at Woodland Hills Academy outside of Pittsburgh and a pop-up program throughout Allegheny County. It aims to empower young women, predominantly young women of color, with hands-on STEAM learning, introducing them to STEM careers through five core units, including one called Thoughts & Bots that introduces girls to robotics.
Nationally, Black Girls Code introduces girls and young women to basic programming skills in languages like Scratch and Ruby on Rails. At its recent hackathon in New York City, the winning team of teenage girls created an app that let students share notes and homework after being absent.
“If the minority presence in leadership roles doesn’t soon reflect the general population or the online population, it will be time for Net boosters to ask themselves why what was supposed be a democratizing influence didn’t work out that way,” wrote Catherine Yang, editor of Bloomberg Businessweek . . . in the year 1999.
Well, 16 years later, it didn’t work out that way. But with a greater focus on technology that keeps equity as a central goal, not just as an add-on, there’s a chance to make greater progress for today’s kids in the next 16 years.