Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Guest Bloggers: The Young People’s Project and Oakland Science and Math Outreach

Recently I blogged about the Math and Social Justice Conference that I went to in San Francisco.  It was a great opportunity to learn about issues of equity in teaching and learning math, and to meet leaders in the after school arena who are focused on these issues.  Two of these leaders agreed to do a Q&A with me for the blog this week: Chad Milner, the National Director of Programs of the Young People's Project (YPP), and Sepehr Vakil, Program Director of Oakland Science and Math Outreach (OSMO).  Read on to learn more about their organizations and overlapping interests.

Coalition for Science After School: Tell me a little about the mission of your organization in your own words. 

Chad Milner of The Young People’s Project: The Young People's Project was founded in Jackson Mississippi in 1996 as an outgrowth of the Algebra Project.  I say an outgrowth in the sense of the sprit and vision of the work, as well as the actual individuals who took this work on.  The Algebra Project was started in 1982 by Robert Moses, a former Mississippi field secretary for SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and later on MacArthur Genius grant awardee. Its vision centered around, leveraging Dr. Moses' ground up approach to voter registration in the civil rights era, and apply that to math education now.  He chose math literacy as a key to 21st century citizenship for poor and marginalized communities of color within the US.  Fast forward about 10 years, during the early 1990's the first students who came up through the program, including Moses' own children, had finished college and a few had decided to join him in Mississippi to work with AP in the schools down there. While there, the recent college grads started to work not just in the school, but outside of school and created a youth led "math lab".  It was through this and other relationships that YPP was born, as an out of school based response to the issue of promoting and enabling math literate communities of youth. 

Sepehr Vakil of Oakland Science and Math Outreach (OSMO): In 2009, while working as an engineer in Berkeley I organized the OSMO project with the help of teachers from Oakland Technical High School and the La Pena cultural center in Berkeley. My vision was to improve access to outside-the-classroom learning opportunities in mathematics, science and digital media to Oakland public high school students. Since 2009, OSMO moved to the Boys and Girls Club of Oakland, and I enrolled in the Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology PhD program at UC Berkeley.  The mission of OSMO is to build a powerful link between a community organization and the university in an effort to support deep math and science content knowledge for Oakland students. A secondary goal of OSMO is to advance research on equity in STEM fields.

These are some of the research questions being explored in the OSMO project:

  • How can research in learning and cognition inform the design of an outside-the-classroom educational program in an urban context?
  • What kind of an out-of-school support structure is necessary to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged and historically underrepresented youth in STEM fields?
  • If the goal of public education is to promote social change, what role does math and science education play?
  • How can recent advances in digital media and open-source technologies be leveraged in after school contexts? How can science and math education take advantage of these technologies?
  • What does math, science and digital literacy mean? How do we achieve it?

CSAS: What was your interest in the Math and Social Justice conference?  Why were you there?  Why is equity in math education an important issue to you?

Vakil: There are people in the education world interested in STEM. There are other folks interested in equity and social justice. It is a rare opportunity to meet researchers, teachers and community organizers that are thinking and working at the intersection between social justice and mathematics. I attended the conference to meet other people who are committed to connecting the dots between these two seemingly disparate fields.

In his book Radical Equations, Robert Moses asserts that math literacy is as important to democratic citizenship today as reading and writing was for African-Americans in the 1960s civil rights movement. Not only do I agree that literacy in math (and science and digital media literacy) is critical for active participation in our democracy, I would also say the critical thinking that is unique to mathematics is in itself an opportunity for student empowerment. In other words, the intellectual heavy lifting that is required in STEM fields, particularly in math, is necessary for tomorrow’s leaders who need to rethink and reimagine a society that is more just and more progressive than the one we find ourselves in today.

Milner: This was my 3rd Math and Social Justice conference.  The first two I attended were in Brooklyn.  I first got introduced to the conference by Jonathan Osler, a former Algebra Project student from Cambridge, MA, who initiated the vision for this conference while teaching math at a high school in New York.  Since then I have really enjoyed the intersection of education, social change, and community activism that have come to define the space of Creating Balance.  It was great hearing Lisa Delpit speak, an amazing educator whose work I have admired and has also been an ally to our work here at YPP.

CSAS: OSMO is based at the Boys & Girls Club in Oakland.  What kinds of youth do you serve?  What are the particular challenges these kids face in learning math and science?

Vakil: Currently we have 12 high school students from Oakland Technical High School and Skyline High School. We also have a student from Mcclymonds in West Oakland, another from Oakland School For the Arts, and an 8th grader from Bret Hart Middle School. Our students range in academic preparedness and motivation. Some of our students are already focused and participate in OSMO to really push their thinking and develop deep content mastery, while other students are really struggling to stay focused and motivated. So the challenges really vary student to student. And the great thing about an informal, after school environment is that we have the flexibility to customize the program based on each student’s needs.

CSAS: Chad, I had the pleasure of participating in YPP's workshop at the conference.  That was the most active math lesson I've ever had!  Can you describe a few more successful activities YPP has come up with to get kids excited about learning math?

Milner: “Flagway” is a sorting game, based on the Mobius function that kids can play from 3rd grade and up.  YPP has modified this game to be a running and physical game that can be played in community spaces such as a gym or playground.

“Road Coloring” was developed in partnership with Greg Budzban at Southern Illinois University. This mathematically based game involves building a city with roads and buildings.

“Algebra Labs” are targeted for 6-8th graders, and take students through a series of hands on activities that teach and reinforce understanding of core algebraic concepts.  The ultimate goal of the labs are to help enable students to complete Algebra 1 by the end of 8th grade.

There are a few others as well.  All YPP games and activities are built on our core pedagogical approach, modeled after Kolb's learning cycle.  It takes students through a shared experience and through reflection and deconstruction of this experience, the mathematics is drawn out.  We also call it the 5-step process.  

CSAS: At the conference I was excited to hear you two talk about a potential partnership [between YPP and OSMO].  Why would you partner with each other?  What would the partnership ideally look like for both of you?

Milner: YPP is working to broaden the reach of our model and work.  We have developed a program model called "YPP@" which is meant to serve as a sort of YPP lite.  This allows us to further our mission and vision as an organization and also enables communities and institutions across the country to embrace and customize the YPP model within their existing infrastructure.

Vakil: An ultimate goal of OSMO, beyond promoting deep science and math knowledge, is to cultivate and make available productive STEM identities for our students. This goes beyond “Oh, I think math and science are cool and I’m good at it!” What I’m really talking about here is what YPP really excels at: giving high school students the confidence and leadership to not only be good at math but also take on the task of promoting math literacy in their own communities. Now that’s what student empowerment is all about. Though there are no immediate plans for us to work together, the potential is definitely there. In the meantime, we are taking notes!

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