Four weeks ago, 40 educators, administrators, advocates, and the Washington STEM team, including myself, hopped aboard a bus to explore STEM education across Washington. This particular trip was geared towards a large state-wide representation of STEM education in various communities in southern and eastern Washington. Our goal? To spend three days immersed in communities around Washington with students, equity, Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and career connected learning as our focal points. My particular role in this adventure was to capture the story of what we all saw and experienced through photography.
We traveled south to Vancouver; then east to Zillah, the Yakama Nation, and the city of Yakima; and then further east, to Cheney and Spokane. Each one of these communities showed us something unique and exciting. Hayes Freedom High School in Vancouver was diving into virtual internships with their students; Zillah High School is bootstrapping their very own fishery management projects; and Cheney High School is making strides in their efforts to build a robust computer science program with gender equity in mind. But for me, there was one exceptional experience that set off a tidal wave of reflection and challenged my thinking when it comes to students, education, and the resources needed for success.
On our second day of the statewide Learning Tour, we stopped at the Yakama Nation cultural center to listen to a group of Native American students from the Yakama Nation Tribal School. The students’ curriculum was centered around Project Based Learning and personal research and covered a wide range of topics. Our group intently listened as each student gave their presentation. We heard about a young man’s deep interest in the Tasmanian devil of New Zealand. Another student shared his research on the future of the use of solar water heaters to improve housing on the reservation for tribal members. A graduating senior shared her thoughts on the state of public education and standardized testing.
The last and personally thought provoking presentation was by two groups of students who had begun to dig into computer science and programming by way of an microcontroller. The students discussed writing code to create light patterns through LED and control artificial limbs through their Arduinos.
As the students spoke, I took a picture of the girls talking about their work. The photo shows the girls holding a small circuit board. In the picture it looked as if they were holding and protecting a precious thing.
That device, to me, represented so much more than the sum of its parts. It was a path towards a life of learning, exploring, and breaking down barriers that face women and underrepresented communities in the state of Washington and across Indian country.
As I reviewed the picture, I thought to myself, “That tiny circuit board is a gift that will bear fruit many times over. The learning that has started around computer science and that device could carry over into many other areas for these students.”
And then that thought came to a screeching halt.
That circuit board is no gift, nor is the learning that has allowed those students to create what they have; they are both necessities.
We should not pat ourselves on the back when we see a group of students taking advantage of the small amount of resources they have been given access to.
Should we celebrate their learning and accomplishments? Absolutely. But again, these things are not gifts.
The Arduino and the computer science education around that device should be the baseline of measurement, not the stand-out example. The underrepresented groups in our state should not have have to wait for “gifts” to be bestowed upon them in order to secure a future that is both bright and exciting – a future that many others with resources come to expect as a given.
Tools such as the Arduino are not prizes or presents – they are the implements that will allow students to be successful in the 21st century. While there are some schools that have these resources, there are far too many who do not. And more often that not, those that go without are the underrepresented groups in our state. It is the Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, girls, and the economically disadvantaged – just to list a few, who are overlooked.
We should look to those who are able to bring success to their communities and learn from them, especially when the odds are not in their favor. There are phenomenal people already hard at work in the Yakama Nation. Elese Washines, an instructor at Heritage University, has acted as a mentor and guide for the students we got to meet and listen to. Monette Becenti, the Director of the First Nations MESA program, provides STEM enrichment and support to all students within the Yakama Nation. These are the kinds of people we should be listening to when tackling the educational challenges of Washington. These women have given us an example to follow. We must ask more from our state leadership, and we must ask more from ourselves.
How can we make sure every student in Washington has access to the resources they need to succeed? For me, one of the first steps I’ll be taking is to adjust the lens in which I view education. There is no benevolence or gift giving. There is only doing my best to make sure every single student in Washington has access to the robust and impactful education they deserve.