Ron Callahan, left, coaches students in computer programming and circuitry at his Nov. 26 Raspberry Heights workshop. Photo by Meral Agish.
NEW YORK — Ron Callahan stood in front of his makeshift computer station, the table reaching just above his knees. He held up the class’ newest equipment: a simple rectangular circuit board called a breadboard.
The three students giggled.
“It doesn’t taste like bread, so don’t eat it please,” said Callahan, 43, founder of Raspberry Heights, a do-it-yourself computing class for children in Jackson Heights, Queens.
“And it’s not a breadboard like you cut bread on,” said Jackson, 6, with a laugh.
“Please don’t do that either,” Callahan said.
Callahan, who is also a director of technology at the School of Visual Art, leads two weekly workshops in the basement playroom of a Jackson Heights day care center. That Sunday he wheeled from student to student on an egg-shaped office chair, the only available adult-sized seat, while the kids wired and programmed a small light bulb to blink on and off. The students, all between the ages of 6 and 10, had successfully performed a small feat of electronic circuitry.
“By making it fun, even if they’re not digging deep, at least they’re getting to experiment hands-on,” Callahan said.
Raspberry Heights is part of a recent trend in children’s education, where science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known collectively as STEM, meet “Maker” culture, a movement that emphasizes a hands-on and do-it-yourself approach to learning.
But a hands-on approach to STEM education does not automatically change student attitudes. As a 2010 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found, “too many American students conclude early in their education that STEM subjects are boring.”
Yvonne Shortt, executive director of the Rego Park Green Alliance, a technology-based youth education organization, often encounters reluctant students. Many attend her workshops at the Queens Public Library because the classes are free and typically serve high-need areas, not because the students are interested in her offerings, she said.
“When the kids hear ‘robotics,’ they think, ‘Oh, I’m not interested in programming, I’m not interested in engineering,” she said.
Part of the enthusiasm gap has to do with unfamiliarity, Shortt said. Many of her students have never touched a robot or programmed with a laptop, in part because the cost is so high.
By creating opportunities to interact with advanced equipment at no cost, the Queens Public Library’s programs are “democratizing technology and innovation for all,” she said.
“I’m teaching the kids new technology, and I’m teaching them until they love it,” she said.
Like the Queens Public Library, the New York Hall of Science has adopted STEM-based Maker culture in its workshops and exhibitions for children. Each program uses design-based learning, hands-on making and open-ended play to teach the more traditional “how stuff works” alongside “how to make stuff.”
Reid Bingham, 28, the MakerSpace coordinator at the New York Hall of Science, leads after-school woodworking classes that are free for elementary school students who live in the museum’s Corona neighborhood.
Like Shortt’s students, many of Bingham’s students sign up because the programs are free.
Meanwhile, the STEM values used in woodworking, such as precise measurements and geometric principles, “sneak up on kids when they have to figure out the Pythagorean theorem to figure out how to make a triangle,” Bingham said.
“They sometimes forget that it’s a math problem when they just want to get their bird house done really well.”