We knew they were special the first moment we learned about them and their cause.
While most college students are spending their Summer “maxin’-and-relaxin’” poolside or working in jobs that will prepare them for future careers (or, at the very least, provide much-needed immediate income), these seven rock-star students chose to dedicate their Summer to riding across country on their bikes, teaching STEM subjects (using project-based learning) to children in underserved communities.
Evan Gastman (Harvard), Samuel Green (Harvard), Jamin Liu (MIT), Cali Warner (MIT), Caleb Fuji (Columbia), Emma Benjaminson (MIT) and Madeline Hickman (MIT) are the team behind SPOKES 2014 (@SpokesAmerica) — a non-profit organization launched by college students in 2013. The mission statement on the SPOKES website would easily rally anyone behind their noble cause:
“For the summer of 2014, a team of 7 will bike across the United States in collaboration with Teach for America as part of an effort to rethink education. As we go, we will stop in more than ten public schools throughout the country to hold learning festivals. At each school, we will teach hands-on, project-oriented classes based on our passions. We are dedicated to revealing the exploratory, self-directed, and boundless nature of learning to students across the US. We want to show this to high school students and give them an opportunity to feel inspired and find something they love.“
The five lessons team-SPOKES will be teaching students at learning festivals in 15 states include: Electronics 101, Thinking in the Deep: Algorithms, Designers of our Environments, Double-Take: Estimation Physics and The Magic in Math (read more about each class HERE).
IT’S ABOUT TIME®’s decision to sponsor SPOKES and their ambitious mission was an easy one. While we recently pondered the idea of where to find today’s inspirational, unsung engineering superheroes (hint: we found one in Hawaii HERE), it’s clear that these seven students, with their passion for STEM education and education social causes, are on their way to being future STEM-superheroes themselves. Other companies sponsoring SPOKES 2014 include MIT, Harvard School of Engineering, Texas Instruments, IAC, EdX and Edgerton Center.
We’ve been tracking and posting the SPOKES team progress via Storify and sharing it with all of you on Twitter (see the photos, read their blog updates and follow their progress, check out the Storify HERE and embedded at the end of this post).
So, after a month of traveling the open road and working with parents, teachers and students along the way, what valuable lessons have these road warriors learned about themselves, teaching and, well, life? Sam Green (Harvard class of 2017 student majoring in Applied Math & Computer Science and SPOKES’ Fundraising & Media Officer) took a break from the road and shared a few insights, tips and noteworthy life-lessons with EDUCATION INSIDER.
“In the end, I just remember that if I keep on turning the pedals,
eventually I’ll get to where I need to go.” — Sam Green
Education Insider: What inspired you to join SPOKES and what are you hoping to get out of it?
Sam: When I was thinking about this summer, I started out thinking about jobs or internships in software engineering. After I heard about Spokes from Evan Gastman, one of my teammates this summer, I could’t pass up such an incredible opportunity to see this country in a way I’d never had a chance to before and to do good in the communities I was visiting. It’s the unique combination of a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the chance to change the lives of students who may never have heard of computer science or learned what drives popular technology. I’m hoping to walk, or rather bike, away from this summer with a new and deeper understanding of the country I call home and to have changed the lives of at least some of my students.
Education Insider: Now that you have several teaching lessons with students under your belt, what have you learned about yourself, teaching, or the kids that has surprised you the most?
Sam: I’ve been really surprised by the power of “personal attention” to hold a student’s attention. I’ve had some really great interactions with kids, one-on-one, where we’ve made some great progress.
Education Insider: How has this tripped changed your ideas about STEM education — what’s needed, where it’s needed, the tools used to teach STEM?
Sam: We’ve held workshops in communities that are doing STEM education better and some that are doing it worse — seeing how the kids compare to each other in terms of their critical thinking skills, the kids that have had more of a STEM background have an easier time grasping what I’m talking about. The quality of the questions, however, that come from students of both backgrounds, has reassured me of the potential power of STEM education; no matter what, all of the kids ask great questions and push me to explain anything they’re curious about. STEM education gives them the tools they need to act on that curiosity.
Education Insider: What has been the toughest part of this journey so far for you personally and how did you overcome it?
Sam: The toughest part of the trip so far has definitely been those days where my body just really wants a day off—after a couple days of riding without a break, with a big hill (or mountain) in the way or maybe just a difficult headwind. On days like that, riding is a mental challenge, as we sit on the bike for as long as 10 hours. In the end, I just remember that if I keep on turning the pedals, eventually I’ll get to where I need to go. Riding in a group with my teammates, keeping track on the passing miles, and trying to stay aware that, no matter how slow it seems like I might be going, I’m still moving — this has all helped me push through.
Education: How have the kids responded to the project-based STEM lessons?
Sam: We’ve had a lot of “woahs!” and “that’s awesome!”, usually accompanied by tons of thoughtful, incisive questions. Both of those reactions, excitement and curiosity, are precisely what we’re going for. I’ve had students ask me questions about circuitry on the TI Launchpad or about the Internet’s structure that I haven’t been able to answer precisely. I’ve found that really positive.
Education Insider: What advice would you give young kids about STEM education and their future?
Sam: STEM has provided me with structured thinking skills that allow me to examine the world critically and tackle problems in a way that I couldn’t before. Even if kids don’t see themselves working in a lab for their career, or if parents don’t see their kids benefiting from a STEM education, the benefits extend to every aspect of life and are tangible. I’m a better problem-solver and decision maker because of studying an engineering field. Any person could also benefit from STEM in a similar way.
Education Insider: Your trip is almost half completed. What’s the most impactful lesson you’ve learned that you think you’ll carry with you throughout your life as a result of embarking on this challenge?
Sam: I’ve had my horizons widened immensely in terms of my perception of the United States. I grew up in New York City, so my worldview is urban—seeing how people live in other parts of the country has been really eye-opening. I think recognizing the wide diversity, and all of the potential that it brings with it, in the United States, is a pretty awesome thing I’ve learned. That just comes with travel. The lesson I take away from biking stems from the challenge of our longest, hardest rides. Even on the steep mountain climbs or winding rides in the plains that seem to drag on forever, turning the pedals for long enough eventually gets me where I need to go. That lesson is broadly applicable—move for long enough and you can get anywhere.
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