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Ready to Code libraries in Rochester team up, offer coding education to underserved youth

This guest post was contributed by Libraries Ready to Code cohort members Julianne Wise, Rochester International Academy librarian, and Sarah Ryan, Montessori Academy librarian, both in Rochester, New York. 

How can libraries increase access to coding education, especially for potential patrons who were previously underserved by library programs? We, Julianne Wise, Rochester International Academy (RIA)  librarian, and Sarah Ryan, Montessori Academy librarian, teamed up to develop strategies that address this question. We created the “Design Engineers” program for 24 fifth- and sixth-grade students in the Rochester (New York) City School District. Rochester has the the fifth highest rate of childhood poverty in the nation. Our Rochester International Academy students are new arrivals to the United States who are learning English. Nearly all of the Rochester International Academy students have refugee status and live in poverty. The Montessori Academy students are very diverse and most have been attending Montessori Academy since they were three or four. Since Montessori is a school where collaborative, hands-on learning is common, students are eager to work together with others. 

A girl holds a small flashlight made out of an aluminum-covered toilet paper roll
Ready to Code students created LED flashlights as part of the Women in Engineering Explore” program at Rochester Institute of Technology.

One of our key focus areas is transportation. Most of Rochester International Academy’s newly arrived refugee families do not have personal transportation and are not yet confident using Rochester’s spoke-and-wheel bus system. Many of these refugees have witnessed unspeakable violence in their other countries, and they do not yet feel safe walking in their new neighborhoods. The result is that while school-aged children are very frequent users of their school libraries, refugee families are not using the public library unless they live very close to it. We have overcome this significant access obstacle by expanding our school library programs to include coding opportunities and by connecting with an existing popular after-school program at Rochester International Academy to offer our “Design Engineers Club.”  The after-school program already provides door-to-door transportation to students for any activities that occur outside of the school day. While Montessori students do not face the same transportation barriers as the refugee families, many also do require transportation to club activities due to their parents’ work schedules.

Another potential barrier to access is language. Although our students are successfully learning English, they may not feel ready to participate in a program with proficient English speakers. The Design Engineers program offers English language learners an opportunity to learn with a heavy emphasis on instruction via graphics and demonstrations, assistance from language interpreters and hands-on practice with three-dimensional materials. The students are becoming design process experts by interacting with the information in various modalities, and this is providing them with the confidence to share this knowledge with more proficient English speakers. They are valued and important members of our design teams with some taking on leadership roles.

It would be a mistake to view these newly arrived students through a deficit lens, though, for you would miss a huge opportunity if you were to do so. Having lived in refugee camps without many of the conveniences we depend on here in the United States, our students are already engineers. They have shared stories of cooking chicken in a homemade solar oven, making toys out of tin cans, and building their own shelters with their families. Essentially, they already have a very strong design engineer perspective. Once they are afforded the necessary physical and language access needed to confidently participate in the program, they are active and valued participants.

After we witnessed the students’ successful participation in their small after-school program, we decided to encourage the girls in the club to attend a Women in Engineering Explore program at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Girls from around the region participated in this packed engineering workshop at the university’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering. After being greeted with RIT drawstring backpacks, and water bottles, the girls worked with female engineering students on activities from many different engineering disciplines.

The girls participated in two different breakouts that day and many of our students worked with girls from other schools. One breakout focused on the programming steps needed to program a robot by working with a partner to complete a task using simple commands. Electrical engineering students worked with a group of girls to design and create an LED flashlight using a simple circuit. Mechanical engineering students introduced a boat challenge to the girls and asked them to work in groups to design a boat that could float and hold the most rocks. The girls worked with chemical engineers to create a popular polymer—slime! Industrial engineers coached the girls as they designed and implemented an efficient process for creating cookies out of Play Dough at their pretend bakery. Biomedical engineering students introduced the girls to a robotic prosthetic finger.

We accompanied the girls throughout the day and an interpreter provided language assistance to the students with less English proficiency. All of the design engineers comfortably worked with girls outside of their program and capably participated in brainstorming and development sessions. This was likely due to their prior experience tackling the design process in the Design Engineers program. They were all surprised to see the simplified version of the design process that was presented at the session and later contrasted it with the more detailed version they have been using in Design Engineers. In other words, they were the confident experts.

We are grateful to the American Library Association and Google for enabling our students to explore these issues and develop strategies that may, in RtC parlance, “expand the playing field” to include previously underserved communities. Transportation and language barriers may pose challenges, but they are not insurmountable obstacles. Rather than measuring outcomes by counting the participants in programs, we challenge libraries to think about potential patrons not yet reached and actively reflect on why. It has been a huge undertaking but payback was earned in a brief moment at the end of the Women in Engineering session. A handful of our students paused to look at relief plaques honoring important graduates from the RIT College of Engineering. One of the girls reached up to gently touch the face of one of the female graduates and announced to her clubmates that she would be depicted on one of these reliefs in the future.


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Marijke Visser

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