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Technology-Enabled Social Action at the Island School

ExpandED Schools

This guest blog is by Lou Lahana, a teacher at PS/MS 188 The Island School on the Lower East Side and a Teachers College doctoral student immersed in the art of bringing out kids' talents and social activism through technology. The Island School partners with Educational Alliance to expand the school day.

*Click any photo to enlarge.

The Island School’s “Tech Café” plays host to a unique educational Makerspace. Here, students research a wide variety of social issues ranging from homelessness and cyber-bullying to bottled water and blood diamonds. Once students home in on a problem they would like to help solve, they have access to a plethora of low- and high-tech tools with which to create projects. Some of these tools and materials include Lego robotics, sheet metal, 3D printers, Arduinos (microcontroller boards), sewing machines, felt, saws, microscopes, plywood, electronic components like speakers and LEDs, hammers, jewelry making resources, sewable electronics and video cameras.

“In this class, I have a lot of room to be creative and use my imagination and create anything I want,” said a Tech Café student. “It’s like a little scientist about to help the world. After I graduate this class, my mind will be more creative and thinking about more stuff beyond the classroom.”

The results have been phenomenal. Last year, students created projects such as cruelty-free makeup, a low-energy do-it-your-self air conditioner, anti-bullying jewelry, a documentary promoting the health and environmental benefits of eating bugs (wherein the student sampled a delightful assortment of edible insects), a rap song about life’s struggles and the importance of hope, a multimedia collage on racism towards Muslims, and an affordable water filter for third-world countries. Many of these projects can be viewed at: vimeo.com/channels/socialaction

One project in particular impacted its creators, their fellow students, and others within the Lower East Side community. Three sixth-grade girls selected “homelessness” as their topic. After researching this issue on the Tech Café’s website, www.techbrarian.com, students decided to make cards for the homeless in their neighborhood. The goal of these cards was to “bring smiles to their faces.” To this end, these sixth-graders gave a presentation on the struggles of being homeless to a first-grade class at The Island School. First-graders were then asked to create cards to put smiles on the faces of homeless and bring them comfort.

The first-graders responded with fantastic cards. Messages included “you are not alone,” “I know you feel sad, but things will get better,” and “someone is thinking about you.” These sixth-graders then held a successful bake sale in order to raise money to place in the envelopes with the cards. Video camera in hand, these students recorded their adventures giving out the cards. The homeless men and women they encountered were deeply touched by the great care and generosity clearly evident in the creation of these cards. So were their fellow students who, having viewed the video, wanted to create similar projects or simply accompany the sixth-graders on their next round of deliveries.

In this way, students move in the truest sense from being consumers to creators – creating not just high- and low-tech products, but creating a better community.  A community that respects the work of our youth because it holds real value and reflects deep-felt beliefs in social justice. 


 (All photos courtesy of Mr. Lou Lahana.)


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