In I-Engineering, we have worked collaboratively with teachers and students using participatory design research methods to co-develop and implement energy engineering for sustainable community tools and materials in their classrooms. In this video, we discuss how teachers and students implemented one of our units (“How can I make my classroom more sustainable?”). In the unit, they integrated community ethnography into the engineering design process as a way to engage with community perspectives. Using what they learned about engineering practices and the DCIs of energy transformations, sources and systems, students were supported by teachers in identifying problems meaningful to the classroom and local community, and applying their STEM knowledge to iteratively prototype working solutions. As the teacher of the Occupied group said, “this is one project that will really promote classroom sustainability.” As a student in the Occupied group said, “This was the first time I felt like I could be an engineer.” Our goal is to support teachers and students in developing their agency and identities in engineering while gaining deeper knowledge and practices in science and engineering.
We are concerned with understanding the possibilities for designing pedagogical practices in support of equity-oriented and STEM-rich making for youth from historically marginalized communities.
One approach we have been developing is what we call “community ethnography as pedagogy” in support of equity-oriented STEM making. We are concerned with how youth are granted opportunities and supported in taking on making projects of relevance to their communities – both as they consider the social, political and ethical dimensions of the problems and solutions they hope to tackle, as well as the importance of their work towards community development. We are also concerned with the opportunities that youth have to move from understanding inequality to taking informed action. As facilitators and mentor-teachers, we recognize the urgency of exploring our pedagogical actions and choices for consequentially structuring and guiding/gatekeeping such opportunities.
Our stance on community ethnography as pedagogy is rooted in the traditions of critical ethnography. Community ethnography as pedagogy supports young people in engaging in reflexive inquiry with community members around both problems and solutions that drive their making. It also promotes opportunities for youth to see and critique systemic injustices in their communities and their future lives. Take for example, this quote shared with us by Samuel:
When you are engineering, when you are making your invention, first of all, you have to talk to people. You have to interview people in your community. You might know what the problems are, but you might not know how it matters to other people. You have to figure out how other people care, and you have to get their ideas, and learn what they know. . . When we made our library, we had to figure out that we needed to make it. We needed to know where it would go, what it could look like, and stuff we put in it. We had our ideas, but our ideas weren’t enough.
Samuel shared this view with us while reflecting upon his recent involvement in an afterschool STEM Club where he and his friend Fall built a “Little Free STEM Library” that they housed at their community club. They made the library so that the children at their club could have free and unfettered access to science books and mini-maker kits. They added blinking LED lights around the library, powered by a handcrank generator, to call attention to it, and to get kids curious about how it worked. Samuel and Fall were concerned that children in their community have ample time to practice their reading while also having the chance to “make things” for their community — concerns they felt were not adequately addressed at school.
This quote captures, in large part, how Samuel frames the importance of sustained engagement with his community as a part of the process of making. He makes the point that by interviewing and talking with different people in his community he could see the problems he cared about in new and different ways. Samuel also viewed his engagement with community as shaping the outcomes of his work as well. He needed to know, for example, where to put the finished library so that it would be accessible to others. His idea for including the mini-maker kits in the library was also inspired by observing how much the younger children enjoyed sneaking into the making space to play with the paper circuit materials.
Drawing upon ethnographic tools, such as dialogic interviews and observation, we conjecture that community ethnography as pedagogy can expand the boundaries of making – where making takes place, who makes, what counts as making, and expertise in making. Such practices can position youth’s historicized experience within a broader context and in direct connection to making. In addition, these practices may support youth in being recognized as creators of their own stories about their community, capable of representing themselves and others, and with important insider knowledge for doing so in powerful ways.
In our next blog post we will share a few examples of what this looks like in practice.
One of our commitments in Invincibility is to work towards authentic university-community-school partnerships in support of designing equitable STEM learning experiences for youth from non-dominant communities. This collaboration has been the forefront of creating serious conversations in our community around what high quality STEM experiences can be for youth in low-income communities, and the hoped for impacts on youth development.
For example, our collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club of Lansing began in 2006. At the heart of our partnership are a set of shared beliefs about working towards equitable outcomes, including drawing upon the strengths that each brings to the table, on-going communication for building a shared vision, and working for change – change in how we make sense of, design, and deliver equitable programs for youth, and change in ourselves as we learn from each other and the process. The process is not always smooth, even when the collaborative relationships are strong. Change is difficult, and the process is always under the stress of external forces, such as limited access to resources for community and public organizations, competing external priorities, and broader sociohistorical narratives/practices about equity and STEM.
In response, we have found that we are able to sustain our efforts by foregrounding the importance of youth perspectives. By inviting the youth to play powerful roles as co-researchers and co-developers, their voices provide a centering mechanism.
Inspired by the Research + Practice Collaboratory, three practices have helped us along the way that draw upon this youth-based focus.
First, youth participatory methodologies have served as a grounding mechanism of our partnership. We focus on the importance of a weekly conversation we hold with youth, where they provide on-going direction and feedback regarding our partnership programs. We also focus on the importance of youth researchers – youth who play the role of broker between our partnership and other participating youth and families. We also believe that youth participatory methodologies are important in supporting youth in trusting the process and the ones delivering the process.
Second, we have a set of both informal and formal tools and routines that have emerged from our efforts to listen to and learn from youth that keep us focused on our commitment to work for equity, such as the importance of deliberate efforts to talk about particular youth and their work/development, “thinking big” conversations (what we hope/dream for), and weekly check-ins on youth progress.
Third, we our committed attention to youth voices enables on-going productive change in ourselves and in our partnership. For example, what started off as a partnership focused on offering short term programs for middle school youth, has developed into year-round programming that incorporates family and community engagement, authentic community concerns, and opportunities for youth to form empowering relationships with leaders of local professional and academic communities. This partnership has also resulted in physical changes to the club, as they secured a new green roof based on youth research and action taking on energy- and community-related issues, and now with the construction of a dedicated makerspace.
If you have useful tools and practices towards research + partnerships, we would love to hear about them.