Like a Piece of Gum.

by Day Greenberg

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Last time, I wrote a blog post about what I think about grit research. That post referenced a running metaphor that Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth made in her TED talk about grit. “Running ahead” with that metaphor, I challenged it with my own analogy about access to high-quality running shoes, in that there are some crucial resources that act as gatekeepers on people’s paths toward their goals. These gatekeepers (e.g., a high-quality educational opportunity) make rushing forward—AT ANY SPEED—toward a goal either easier, or much, much harder.

This time around, I want to introduce you to one particularly gritty young person I know, and to the metaphors he has used in discussions of his access to educational gatekeepers. This person—a youth engineer who is currently in the middle of prototyping an actual pair of running shoes—has some very relevant points to share about forward momentum and what it requires.

M*, an active member of our afterschool STEM club, visited our club at the end of last year (his 5th grade year) and asked to join. We turned him down, reminding him that the school year was almost over, and that our program membership usually begins in 6th grade. This fall, he showed up at our welcome back party and joined that same day. Since then, he has been actively involved in engineering for sustainable communities, developing novel footwear design solutions to community member’s needs related to injuries, cold and wet weather, and economic constraints.

We asked M what he thought about doing science and engineering afterschool in our program. Here’s what he said:

Author (A): Why are you doing it?

M: Cuz last year, I couldn’t make it out here. And I seen something, and I started thinking maybe that could be me next year. So, I stuck around. On the bottom of your shoe. Like a piece of gum. And I waited… [looks at author smiling] That’s a big cheese.

A: Cuz I love that metaphor! …Now what does that mean to you?

M: That I’m patient.

A: … So how do you feel now that you’re done with being patient and done with the wait?

M: Now I can build stuff!

A: How’s that feel?

M: Good. It gets my hopes up to build, like, all these type of things that people need, or all these things that we need. So, we build. And we create. And we present. And we search for facts, and people’s opinions. And we do.

A: And what do you mean by “do”?

M: We work off of them [facts researched, and people’s opinions], and sometimes we actually take their things and put them into our things, and create a whole big thing! [moves arms out wide] Like a whole big thing of ideas for our invention. Like, something be cool, so, it builds up… it just started spreading when people started talking about it. …it just made it into this big ole resource that people need. So, I worked off of it. Or, if somebody says they did it [that the product he wanted to create already exists], then that might stink, so I bounce back. Or sometimes I just rush forward.

A: When do you rush forward?

M: When I see stuff that is really, things that I really need.

In M’s comments, I definitely see grit. It’s quite hard to miss. We told him “no,” and he came back. After an entire summer, he still remembered. And the way he describes it, there was no way we could have gotten rid of him, even if we tried. He was sticking around and waiting for his turn. No matter what.

But you see, the thing is, this young man who described himself as “a piece of gum” was not acting as “a piece of gum floating in space.” He had something (and someone) to stick to. In his mind, he was anchoring himself to me, and to the club. By proxy (whether he was/is fully aware of it or not), he was also anchoring himself to our cache of precious resources—educational information, social relationships, institutional affiliations, professional network connections, experiential opportunities, not too mention the financial and material support we have the ability to share.

Where we went, he wanted to go too. As he would likely tell it, we couldn’t get rid of him, and we had to accept his presence eventually. Not only that, we had to finally give him access to the resources, environments, and opportunities he so craved.

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So, I have my own interpretations and perspectives about this story and what it can tell us as science education researchers and practitioners, but to be honest, I’m still in the process of figuring that out. One of the benefits of longitudinal, qualitative research is that the investigation of data can be viewed as a journey, one that runs in parallel to the journeys your participants/students complete during your research/practice (and I’m not done with exploring M’s journey just yet).

For now, why don’t you tell me: what lessons can potentially begin to be uncovered here with M, in your opinion? What connection do you see between his grit, our shared resources together, and his supported, forward momentum past multiple different gatekeeper stations (some of which he has already passed, and some of which he has yet to encounter)? Where is the balance of power, responsibility, and perseverance located, in M’s world?

Where is it located in yours?


*Name kept private.


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