Perseverance and Problem Solving

Makey Makey, Raspberry Pi

What a lucky kid. Seventh grader C is an active participant in our library’s summer reading club. Last year, his first year participating in the teen program, he won the big tech-focused prize: a Raspberry Pi setup. This year, he was one of the random drawing winners again, and selected the MakeyMakey*.

excited price is right prize winner

When he and his mom stopped by the library’s table at the Junior High’s registration night to tell me what he’d been up to with all of this tech, he was glowing, and his mom was excited too. And just what had he been up to? Building a media server for his house. With the prize he won from the library for reading books.

I asked him to come over to the library some time and chat about what he’d learned, and hoped he’d share his ideas on technology in the library. We had a really interesting conversation. I showed him the pieces that I’ve been collecting for our circulating technology collection, and he had some great ideas on how to promote the collection. There was definitely more than a spark of curiosity and hunger when I asked if he would help me figure out how to use the tools.

When I asked what he had learned while working with these tools, I expected to hear about how he’d learned a lot about programming in Linux. Or how he’d discovered some fun vintage games online while looking for ways to play with the Makey Makey. What I didn’t expect was an answer that we can all learn so much from.

“I would say, perseverance and problem solving. Definitely. Yeah.”

My librarian heart grew three sizes.

grinch heart growing

This is, of course, the “right” answer. It’s the one we hope for, and the one that here, at the Robot Test Kitchen, we believe in sincerely. But it’s not the answer we often hear the young people we work with repeat. We hear about the fun they had finding the vintage games. We hear about their new sills in Linux. And though we might see them persevering and problem solving, those aren’t the skills they can usually pull out as evidence of their learning. What made the difference here that allowed this teen to make and then verbalize that connection so unwaveringly? I think there are several elements at play here.

First, he has ready access to the tools he used. He had them in his home, and he had time to use them.The ability to approach the technology on his own terms, when he’s in the frame of mind to be open to trial and error is key. This is obviously not a possibility for a lot of teens. But an ongoing club setup or open Makerspace time at the library could provide similar access.

Second, he has a great support network at home. Both of his parents are involved in engineering, so he had people to bounce ideas around with, and more likely than not, he had someone to fish him out of the weeds if he got in too deep. Again, not all teens have this, but this is an area where that same club setup and the supportive co-learning environment of Makerspaces fills that need.

Third, he had open ended time and opportunity. There was no assignment and there was no deadline. Assignments and deadlines certainly have their place, but for this teen, the blank slate of opportunity allowed him to be creative, think about what he wanted and needed from the tech, play, revise, start over, settle in to the detailed work required, and finally triumph with a project that was meaningful.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on the benefits of summer reading program for teens whose reading skills are more established and don’t slide over the summer like those still developing reading abilities. What I’ve learned is that more than minutes spent or pages read, the most significant impact for teens in developing a love of reading, or increasing the perceived value of reading, is engagement. It’s seeing that adults care that they are reading, want to hear about what they think of the books they find, and encourage and champion them to read more.

I believe that technology literacy is largely the same. If we can encourage engagement with the technology by providing time, access, and support, the minutes spent on tech and the lines of code created will likely increase. But more than those quantifiable results, the teens will want to come back to it because they will be developing those Assets that have proven to lead more teens into successful adulthood.  It’s not about the tech. It’s not about the library. It’s about the people.

*I’d like to point out here that the total cost of the prizes he won this year is far less than many of the big draw prizes that some libraries offer. Another prize option, the gift card to the local book store, had a higher dollar amount. Sometimes -maybe most of the time- the biggest splash doesn’t come from the most expensive, shiniest tech.

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Punching Above My Weight

Raspberry Pi, True Confessions

It’s Sunday morning and I wake up thinking about computer monitors. Specifically, where can I get more for cheap, and where will I store them and how will I get them, smoothy and safely, into our multipurpose meeting room at the library every other week. And this gets me thinking about extension cords and how we probably need some more since the outlets are only around the perimeter of the room, and these kids want to look at each other, not stare at a wall.

I’m also thinking about these Minecraft Circuits In Real Life kits, and trying to figure out if any soldering is actually involved despite them being listed on a site called Soldering Sunday, which is kind of like how some folks probably find themselves here in the Robot Test Kitchen and wonder what’s robotic about paper airplanes and marshmallow towers. I have a lot on my mind.

I tell my husband I need to figure out more things to do with the Raspberry Pis that piqued my initial monitor musing. I’m worried that my coding club needs more ideas, maybe a project to bring them back together again since they’ve grown in number and mostly paired up and are working on individual projects. “Are they networked yet? I found these cool soundcards for cheap. What about moisture and heat sensors? There’s so much cool stuff you can do with them! ” he says. I tell him what the ten kids (ten! TEN! This time last year I was happy when I had three!) did last Thursday and how no, they’re not networked and one of the three isn’t working, and we’ve only gotten Minecraft Pi loaded on one.

He reminds me how far I’ve come before asking, “You do realize how much you’re punching above your weight here, right?” Boy, do I. Every day I’m reminded of that.

I’m energized by the enthusiasm of the middle schoolers who come to my coding club every other week, who ask why can’t we do it every week, and who excitedly show me the JavaScript games they’re building together outside of club too. But yes, I know I am punching above my weight, every time they ask me a question and I reply with, “Well, what have you already tried? At which point did you get stuck?” and then ask if anyone in the room has had experience with that problem, and can they come and help this guy over here work through it because that’s the only answer I have.

I’m reminded of it when I read the components lists for simple project kits and need to Google several of the pieces and then only gain a surface level understanding of them.

I’m reminded of it whenever I read about what much bigger libraries (and only a little bit bigger libraries) are doing with makerspaces and technology with their youth and am paralyzed when I think about how I would go about implementing similar projects.

As my friends in tech often say, and as I often feel even in the library world, “there’s a legion of people out there who know more than you and they’re coming fast and furious.” The struggle is to see this not as a threat, but as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to collaborate, to keep on punching. None of us needs to be the best, we just need to keep going.

I am punching above my weight. But I’m punching. I’m thinking about it on Sunday morning when I wake up. I’m looking for answers from colleagues and peers and strangers. I feel like I’m cheating when I ask my tech-field husband’s advice because really, shouldn’t I be able to figure this out on my own? What kind of example am I setting if I’m relying on my husband‘s knowledge to do my job?

On better days, I remind myself that the example I’m setting is the one the Maker movement wants set: I’m setting an example of trial and error, of collaboration, of shared workspaces and cocreation. I’m trying. I’m failing. I’m thinking. I’m learning. Maybe not as fast as I want to be learning, but it’s happening. Like Michelle reminded us, our one-year-ago selves would probably be impressed with where we are. And I need to check myself – constantly – and pull myself back to the present, where it’s about those ten (ten! TEN!) tweens & teens in my meeting room every other week who are doing their own thing, doing things that they couldn’t do a year ago, and not about me one bit.

I’m a big believer in the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets and every time I read through them, I feel better. Coding Club – even as thrown together and chaotic as mine sometimes feels – is giving these kids the opportunity to add to their asset lists. What we’re doing matters, and it’s working, and by perservering when it’s hard, I’m modeling exactly what I hope they get out of it. I’m not in this to help teens become excellent coders, Maker extraordinaires, or jumpstart their app creation businesses. I’m in it for the long haul.

I’m in it to be a part of their community of caring adults who believes in them, supports them, provides a safe space where they are valued, and the skills they need to persevere, and encourages them to keep it up, keep punching above their weight. In coding club, in everything.