Youth as Counter-storytellers: Using Multimodality to Discuss Meaningful Science and Engineering Learning (Part I: The Case of Faith)

By: Christina Restrepo Nazar

How do we increase access for marginalized and minoritized communities who have traditionally been underrepresented in STEM education? Our youth may have the answer!

K-12 STEM education initiatives are one of the most pressing issues being discussed across universities, policy centers and schools nationwide.  Often times we enter with assumptions as researchers and practitioners into schools and communities by pledging to “fix” problems and proposing best practices for success.This is why I am very excited to be part of the Invincibility Lab team where we constantly work towards (re) identifying community assets and forefronting experiences, ideas and subjectivities of youth in how they describe and identify what is meaningful science learning. In this series of three blog posts, I will discuss my work with Faith, AD and Christopher, three youth inventors who participated in GETCity, our equity oriented makerspace. Although I have worked with the youth for almost three years, for this particular study, we met for an hour a week for a period of 6 months creating multimodal messages of what it meant to engage in meaningful science learning, specifically when engineering for sustainable communities. The case co-construction was comprised of negotiating  multimodal artifacts that describe their STEM learning across spaces and over time.

The Case of Faith: A 14 years old, African American female high school student, she created a solar panel fan-hat, primarily to keep church members cool during the summer time. Her  design was created when she was 12 years old. She discussed three important problems when deciding on an engineering design: 1) ladies who go to her church wear stylish hats that often times cannot be worn during the summer time due to the very hot un-airconditioned church 2) the church she goes to has ceiling windows where solar light shines through, enough that she believed can power a solar panel and 3) her family’s personal appearance in avoiding being hot and sweaty in public places (e.g. school, work, church). In her design, she identified important criteria and constraints based on the needs of her community, for example, the type of hat she used, the design considerations regarding placement of motor, fan with blades and solar panel, and wires that connected to the solar panel.

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Faith’s sketch up of her FANcy Hat!

When we started our multimodal case study, Faith was very adamant about describing frustrations related to how her engineering design was not linear. She constantly had problems in finalizing one design requirement, and then those problems shifted based on community needs. In the beginning of her design  year, we gave her an engineering design cycle based on the NASA model, which focused on stating the problem, generating ideas, selecting solutions, building, evaluating and presenting results. However, Faith described her invention as one that had “multiple circles and many steps” because her design was constantly being re-informed by how her community best viewed their needs through the hat. Eventually, after much negotiation, Faith and I decided to create her own engineering cycle that showed the steps she took in her design and how community needs informed and re-informed the design as it moved forward.

Although her fan-hat design was an engineering project for sustainable communities, during her case study development, a lot of the discussions we had were around how important community ethnography and obtaining perspectives from friends and family were crucial to how she thinks about herself as a friend and listener. Many times there were stories of how she helped her friends, family and others with emotional problems and that her advice was always to create a sculpture that housed all their frustrations. To create the sculpture you have to use tools, such as hammers and screwdrivers, which are also used by engineers. By doing so, she connected these community needs in engineering to her interest in psychology. In her case, she described herself as an  “imagination creator” because she is constantly re-imagining what it means to create and do with and for others, and this is clearly seen through the videos, pictures and audio she chose to describe her engineering design and career choice on her multimodal case.  In one of her videos, she made the case for redefining what it means to do engineering with and for communities: by thinking of  a new way to apply science and engineering as a psychological tool. She named this psychoengineering.

This very important example of Faith’s engagement in meaningful science learning is just one example of youth can counter narrate their experiences. What makes Faith’s case so unique is that although her engineering work in GETCity happened over 2 years ago, she still uses examples from her engagement with community ethnography to set criteria and constraints in her design process, to inform how she now thinks about creating new perspectives for her learning and participation with science. For example, redefining what it means to do engineering design because of her focus on community needs, and also how she thinks of applying engineering design to psychology through a career path she wants to develop for herself with psychoengineering. Finally, she used all these meaningful learning experiences and counternarratives to drive the creation of her multimodal case.

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