Reflections from #FabLearn2019 – Decolonizing Making and Remaking STEM, Part 1

//Reflections from #FabLearn2019 – Decolonizing Making and Remaking STEM, Part 1

by Eli Tucker-Raymond

FabLearn (https://nyc2019.fablearn.org/) is a unique conference because it brings together a healthy mix of young people, school-based maker educators, out of school maker educators, and education researchers. I appreciated the diversity of perspectives from that standpoint. In making, and STEM education in general, I think there is a constant tension between assimilationist and decolonizing approaches. Assimilationist approaches assume that the knowledge rests in the teachers, the tools they provide, and the institutions in which they reside.

The scholarship I find most compelling in making education is what I find most compelling in other areas of education as well. It is that which takes action to create humanizing and decolonizing learning spaces. It is the work that a) tries to meet learners where they are; b) disrupts existing power relations both within and outside of learning spaces; c) uses what learners already know and the practices, values, and beliefs of the communities from which they come help them create new worlds; and d) practices creative disruption through the kinds of making projects in which people engage.

One of the speakers argued for “massive inclusion” in making spaces. Without attention to the four things I mentioned above, it strikes me that “massive inclusion” results in missionary work, in colonizing work, and an assimilationist approach to learning. It posits all of the worthwhile knowledge is in the institution of power (e.g., schools or museums) and that institution’s agents (teachers or educators).

It is important, as Yasmin Kafai, pointed out to ask who is participating. In our context, we want to know if the students whom we are trying to reach, mostly Black, Latinx, and newcomer immigrant students are choosing to opt in to the learning spaces we are trying to create. It is also important, as Edna Tan and Angela Calabrese Barton have pointed out, that making have real world consequences for youth and seeks to disrupt social injustices c) and b) from above.

Perhaps a decolonizing maker perspective can be summed up by Edna Tan who asked: What happens when we don’t have the language to engage children? In this simple question she has shifted the responsibility to educators to meet children where they are and to understand their worldviews (a, above).

Lalitha Vasudevan, in working with youth in the justice system asked, “in what ways are adolescents engaged in knowing in making themselves known and in knowing about the worlds in which they participate”? And here Lalitha built on what young people already know and do and helps them explore their own worlds through media making. She then extended that frame to working with educators and helping them explore how they navigate personhood and citizenship, home and belonging.

It all came together at a workshop put on by Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn Youth Teachers and their education organizers Susan Klimczak and Adia Wallace at the South End Technology Center in Boston, with help from Per-Ivar Kloen. The workshop was called “Servos with a Cause.” We constructed kinetic sculptures, with political messages, that utilized a very inexpensive microcontroller called the ATTiny85. The sculpture I chose was of racial and social justice activist Grace Lee Boggs and some children all raising their hands. A star lit up and Grace waved back and forth (see video). We soldered, connected wires, and mapped them to the microcontroller.

Besides the introduction to an inexpensive tool (ATTiny85) what was compelling and decolonizing about that experience was that young people helped lead the session. They taught people how to solder, how to use the other tools, how to map their projects to the microcontroller. They were quiet leaders. Only stepping in when someone looked like they were struggling or asked for help. One of my favorite aspects of Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn is that at the end of every learning session they always ask “What did you learn and what can you teach someone else?” This orientation to learning, that learning is not just for the individual, but that as learners we also have responsibilities to others, to our communities, is what I hope I can teach someone else.

In Part 2 of this post, I will discuss how I think Remaking STEM attempts the three important goals I mentioned at the outset: a) tries to meet learners where they are; b) disrupts existing power relations both within and outside of learning spaces; c) uses what learners already know and the practices, values, and beliefs of the communities from which they come help them create new worlds; and d) practices creative disruption through the kinds of making projects in which people engage.