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iSchool student groups putting community first

Fifty children gathered around computers in an East Austin classroom last spring. They knew how to operate the machines, of course. The children could type, run software and explore the Internet. But now they were handed screwdrivers.

One by one, fifth-grade students at the University of Texas Elementary School took turns removing the tiny screws that held the computers together. When they popped off the protective case, the hard drive and other components were revealed.

Several kids giggled. “I can see inside!” one girl declared.

“What is it?” another asked.

School of Information student volunteers were on hand to answer the girl’s question—and many more. Two of the iSchool’s student groups, Advocating for Women in Technology (AWIT) and the Association for Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T), had organized the “Toward Tech” day to familiarize the fifth-graders with technology by showing them the inner workings of computers.

In 2016, the fifth-graders in Felicia Adams’ STEAM class learned to disassemble and reassemble laptops. In Spring 2017 they took apart desktop computers.

Because AWIT and ASIS&T’s leadership positions are held by women, their involvement in the tech-focused activity also sets a powerful example for children growing up in diverse yet traditionally underserved areas of Austin, said iSchool Dean and Professor Andrew Dillon.

“We want everyone to share in the design, ownership and management of the world’s information infrastructure,” Dean Dillon said. “For this to happen, we must level the playing field, and I am proud of our students’ efforts to show all children that they can participate.”

Working Together

Austin fifth-graders are far from the only people who have benefitted from AWIT and ASIS&T’s commitment to equal access to information technology. During the 2015-16 school year, the sister groups also organized a series of learning sessions called the Coding Commons.

The series brought together UT students pursuing graduate and undergraduate degrees in fields ranging from English to biology. They wanted to master the kinds of tech skills that would open doors for future careers. Working together, they learned to write programming languages and design software prototypes, among a number of other things.

“There’s an informal and welcoming atmosphere where I feel comfortable asking questions,” grad student Elizabeth Taylor told The Daily Texan.

Recent iSchool graduate Kristin Sullivan, who helped coordinate the series, said ASIS&T and AWIT created the Coding Commons to serve as a space where UT iSchoolers and the general campus community could learn, share and practice technical skills. Coding Commons supplemented iSchool courses through diving deeper on topics such as coding languages and prototyping tools, she added.

“I really liked the opportunity to create a shared learning environment to discuss topics of interest with fellow iSchoolers,” said Ms. Sullivan, who focused on user experience at the School of Information and now works as a business analyst for UT Libraries. “If I didn't set aside the time every week during the semester, I would have gotten so bogged down with other grad school work that I'd have no time to have explored other areas of interest.”

Participants of the Coding Commons also learned to edit Wikipedia pages, traditionally a male-dominated pursuit, and they were introduced to prototyping tools like Axure and InVision and programming languages like Unity and C Sharp. More advanced users were given space work on personal projects and talk through problems with their peers.

“Our students are committed to improving the world, and the Coding Commons effort symbolizes that commitment and our belief that anyone can learn to code, regardless of background or disciplinary interest,” Dean Dillon said.

Partnering with ‘Big UT’ 

Back at UT Elementary School, teacher Felicia Adams said her fifth-grade students love interacting with “Big UT” students. The partnership with the School of Information reinforces her students’ social and emotional values and enhances their science, technology, engineering and math skills, she added.

“The specific type of learning that this partnership provides shows our students the real way that a piece of technology that they use every day works—the why and how of it,” Ms. Adams said. “Not many people ever get the chance to take apart a computer and really dig into how it does what it does. This opportunity can open up our students’ minds to future paths of learning that they might not have considered before.”

As the students disassembled the computers, they learned to identify the hard drive, motherboard, processor and other parts. Then they put the computers back together.

“It’s a great feeling to take a part your first computer,” iSchooler Althea Logan told the students. “I’m glad to be sharing that today.”

April 5, 2017