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In Baltimore, students go high-tech at low cost

By Dorian Geiger on Aug 5, 2014 10:52 AM

Walking through the hallways of the Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore, you can hear the clicking of computer mice, the clacking of fingers on keyboards, and the staccato hum of 3D printers.

Founded in 2013 by Andrew Coy, a young teacher and educational entrepreneur from Alaska, the Digital Harbor Foundation is at the forefront of infusing technology into youth programming on the East Coast.

“We love seeing young people be creative designers and engineers, think through real-world problems, and create solutions,” Coy said. “Technology is a really important tool in that and is something that is used every day here.”

DHF’s full-blown tech center is a powerful example of how summer camps can use technology and “maker” programs to engage kids academically in the summer. Maker programs place a strong emphasis on engineering, electronics, robotics, and 3D printing. 

Digital Harbor has about a dozen 3D printers and 45 computers at its disposal, and staff bring in their own cameras for the roughly 150 youth that will attend this summer's programming. The organization secures funding through grants, as well as local and corporate sponsors such as PayPal, IKEA, and M&T Bank, APX Labs, Northrop Grumman, and has invested thousands of dollars in technology for its programs. 

According to a 2010 study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, children spend an average of more than seven hours each summer day with some sort of digital media. Smartphones, tablets, and computers are in the hands of most parents, and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and SnapChat are household names.

But is technology helping solve summer learning loss? Or is it compounding the problem?

Sarah Pitcock, CEO of National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore, says technology is a game-changing tool in curbing summer slide. In June, Pitcock spoke alongside Michelle Obama at the Department of Education’s National Summer Learning Day in Washington and urged children, parents, teachers, and summer camps to embrace the responsible use of technology.

“It opens up doors where you might not have teachers, where you might not have schools,” Pitcock said.

She believes that transforming children into "producers" of technology, rather than "consumers" of it, is the key to using technology in an academic context.

Capstone's MyON Reader, PBS Kids, the Curiosity Machine, Curiosityville, and Wonderopolis are digital libraries available on online platforms and smartphone apps that offer users an abundance of literature and hundreds of books for children and adults. 

“You can have a handheld device, you can have a tablet. There are a ton of apps out there that have digital libraries that have all sorts of learning opportunities for kids. Giving kids the opportunities to build their own websites in the summer, to build their own games, is huge.”

The National Summer Learning Association is an implementation partner of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, whose mission is to double children’s literacy rates in hundreds of communities across the United States by 2020. Pitcock is convinced that this would be much more attainable if technology was responsibly harnessed and put in the hands of children.

“[Digital Harbor] gives us a lot of technology,” said Sierra Seabrease, a 15-year-old enrolled at DHF. “They allow us to use their cameras. They show us different websites to use, like Tinkercad, and provide us with electronic components like Arduinos."

The foundation has given Seabrease, an aspiring photographer, the opportunity to capture stills of the camp’s activities this summer. She blogs about her experience and helps teach younger participants how to use the camp’s technology.

“When I first came to DHF, I immediately thought of computers when I thought of technology and I didn’t really realize [it was] broader than that.”

Seabrease also transformed an old piano left at DHF into a digital jukebox using circuitry to link to Spotify, a web-based music player, to the piano's hammers using an iPad. The digital jukebox plays a variety of songs from different genres, featuring tracks like Pharell's "Happy," and Calvin Harris' "Summer."

DHF offers a "pay what you want" enrollment cost to parents. The recommended price is $350 for a two-week camp, although Coy said DHF accepts any amount the family decides they are able to contribute, including completely free. 

The computer game Minecraft, which allows users to construct 3D worlds, is also an essential tool, despite what many adults might expect.

“You translate [Minecraft] as a tech tool — all of a sudden you can design 3D objects. We’re taking some of those objects and things they create and 3D-printing them. It’s an interesting take on Minecraft that maybe one wouldn’t initially anticipate, but it’s a great application of it in an academic setting.”

“Doubling the rate of 3rd-grade reading proficiency by 2020 is much more doable with the smart use of technology,” said Pitcock.

Donna Cooper, executive director at Public Citizens for Children and Youth, isn’t as optimistic about the use of technology in tackling summer learning loss, particularly in younger children, kindergarten to 4th grade.

“The evidence on some of this technology platform work just isn’t strong enough to say everyone should leap in and do this,” said Cooper, who is also coordinating Philadelphia’s Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, branded READ! By Fourth.

“We’re not recommending that people rush into the technology world until we’re really clear that technology is going to build the kind of thinking skills we need.”

At the same time, though, the initiative is not ignoring technology. Cooper noted that as the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading rolls out in Philadelphia, the initiative will be partnering with the National Science Foundation and working with software companies across the country to build a stronger technological presence.

Some organizations like the Free Library of Philadelphia and Springboard Collaborative are using technology in their summer learning programs. But these initiatives do not approach the sophistication of what is happening in places like Baltimore and programs like the Digital Harbor Foundation.

“We have a long way to go in Philadelphia,” Cooper said. “And I think the software market has a long way to go to where it’s really offering up lots of affordable tools that grassroots organizations can use to educate kids, as well as parents, living on very limited incomes.”

Like DHF in Baltimore, the Free Library of Philadelphia uses a hands-on approach to technology through maker programs. However, beyond this, the application of technology in preventing summer slide in Philadelphia is lagging.

Ryan Barnes, a maker program instructor at the Free Library, is adamant that technology isn’t just constrained to computers.

“There’s a lot of physical things that we can build and make with technology,” he said.  There are things “that we see every day that we can tear apart and we can turn into new things.”

As an example, Barnes demonstrated to some young participants in his program how to take apart old Sony PlayStation controllers and transform them into miniature robots on wheels that can be moved by the click of a computer mouse.

“This project,” he said, “is going to prepare kids in a different way than the [traditional] classroom will.”


Subscribe to the Notebook’s YouTube & Vimeo channels to see all of the Summer Lost episodes. Follow Dorian Geiger on Twitter.

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