CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.
Andrés Henríquez is Vice President of STEM Learning in Communities at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), where he leads the Queens 2020 initiative, a partnership between NYSCI and the local community. He worked previously as a program officer at both NSF and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, where he launched a national program to develop the field of adolescent literacy.
How did you get started in cyberlearning?
Early in my career, I started at the Children’s Computer Workshop (CCW), a software division of Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) now called Sesame Workshop. Back in 1982 and 1983, there was a group of folks really interested in technology, children, and learning, and that was an obvious places for that work to be going on. CTW had a number of different divisions organized not so much by subject domains as by computers: there was a TI-99/4A group, an Apple IIe group, and a Commodore group, which was kind of crazy! I was one of of 4 researchers who worked with people like Leona Schauble and Glenda Revelle and that’s also where I also met Margaret Honey, my mentor. But like everything, the markets go up and down. The excitement in industry and of policymakers and congress began to wane, and unfortunately, the market collapsed. So there were layoffs.
Then in 1986, I joined the Center for Children and Technology (CCT), started by Jan Hawkins and Roy Pea, to focus on the impact of technology on learning in classrooms. At the time, CCT was at Bank Street College of Education. Roy and Jan got a large OERI grant for their work, and I got a call from Margaret Honey asking me to come over because they needed a researcher to look at the impacts of things they were doing in schools. At the time, I was a computer teacher at a public school in Spanish Harlem where I grew up. That was a wonderful situation for me, but I really wanted to get back into the research world. And that was the point in my career that really started me off. I’ve been close with the people I met at CCT ever since. There were wonderful people who came through the offices along the way. I remember Jeremy Roschelle coming by our office – I think he was a graduate student – and showing us a cool tool to analyze classroom videos using a simple HyperCard decks. He was thinking about how to do analysis of interviews, and how you could code things. I had no idea how fortunate I was to be in a space where I could work with Roy Pea, Jan Hawkins, and Margaret Honey. It was just dumb luck! When we think about the learning sciences and cyberlearning as an overlay to that, the advisory group that Jan got together was all the people we read about in graduate school.
You’ve seen so many changes over your career. What kinds of things do you think have made a difference?
What has reared it’s head the past 25 years is the very early work we did in Union City, NJ, a town where the telephone industry, Bell Atlantic, was trying to figure out a way they could compete with the cable companies. The telcos were trying to figure out how to deliver video over their lines – what we now call ISDN and DSL. It so happens that Louis Gomez – another light in our lives – was one of the geniuses at Bell Labs. He approached us to figure out ways we could use a school or school district as a testbed for new technology they were trying to figure out. So we began doing work with Bell Labs and Union City, one of the lowest performing districts in the state. The district was about to be taken over by the state, and state gave them 2 years to try to fix themselves. So reforms were going on in this district. We worked closely with a guy named Fred Carrigg, the key reformer who had run the bilingual education program, and changed the way kids were learning by introducing collaboration and a much more hands on approach to learning. We came in with the technology the same time that the reforms were going on – and that’s really important. It’s not that the technology influenced those reforms, but that the handshake of the reforms along with the technology was very influential in transforming that district into really, still, one of the best special needs districts in New Jersey 30 years later.
We began that work back in the early 1990s, and got NSF support to go from 1 school to the district. What’s impressive is the number of kids going to tier 1 and tier 2 colleges. The graduation rate went way up, and literacy scores went through the roof. This is important because the technology at the time really incentivized the kind of reforms going on, and drove some of the really critical thinking about how teachers communicated with kids and saw the real identities of those young people. They could see that these kids were actually engaged! It was an old school in the old school way, where we had a majority of white teachers who had been there for 30 years, and this new immigrant student population. There was a lot of distrust. But the technology really broke that down and gave teachers a very different perspective of what young people could do.
One reason I bring this up is that Sean Reardon at Stanford has done this wonderful analysis of high poverty school districts that really break the mold. Here we are, 25 or 30 years later, with Union City still being at the very top of that, and very much an outlier. It just goes to show you can embed really good change in a system – change that is part of the culture of the district – as opposed to bringing something foreign out of nowhere that would go away after a few years. I’m very proud of that work. We don’t have many feathers in our cap in education, but when you get one, you should talk about it as much as you can! That body of work that I did with Margaret and Louis was outstanding.
Clinton and Gore went to Union City to launch the Technology Challenge Fund in 1996 to improve all the schools through federal money. The idea was to put technology in and the kids would do better, which was a naive way of thinking about it, but for policymakers, it was the low hanging fruit. We knew you needed a lot more work to do that. But it did allow for a lot of interesting work to be done.
What are you doing today that is exciting?
After spending a number of years in philanthropy, I’ve rejoined my mentor Margaret Honey. When you find the right spark with a colleague, it’s an unbelievable plus. We got the band together to work on Queens 2020, which is a body of work to use NYSCI as a hub for STEM learning and a focused community – a zip code. We’re engaging a very large Latino immigrant population and figuring out ways to give them a pathway for STEM jobs and opportunities. Cyberlearning is embedded in that work: not just the technology, but also thinking about systemic change and how you use a student-centered approach with young people – using different kind of tools and focusing on what they care about – to help them reach their potential.
Queens 2020 is a very large initiative within our museum, and I’m running the whole thing, but there are different components within it. One we just finished was with the University of Washington, partnering with Mobile City Science where we had young people go around with technology like GoPro and GPS systems to explore the assets of their community. Many had not explored in the past the richness of their community. Many of them are from foreign countries and don’t really know the value or the history of their local community. I was honored and super excited to see what these young people came to at the end. How do you reconfigure your community in a way that’s going to be really available for young people and the community at large? We asked them those questions as a way for them to grab the video and think about their community, but also really explore ways in which they can engage in different ways as activists within their communities. We had a final project where young people presented to people in the community and stakeholders in the community about exploring different ways they could include bicycle paths, because are none where we are. Transportation is really crazy here; it’s a lot of big highways and boulevards, and not very friendly. And how could we begin doing tours of the community that people from the community itself can actually take? Why aren’t we exploring the fact that Louis Armstrong had his house here and lived here for 50 years? Not many people know that. How do we take advantage of the US Tennis Association’s Arthur Ashe stadium so that people know that the US Open takes place here every fall, and the impact that has on our community business? It was really invigorating using the tools and the ideas that came out of the kids as a way to really changed the hearts and minds of young people.
How can the cyberlearning community support more productive cross-project collaborations?
CIRCL’s Innovation Lab on Smart and Connected Communities for Learning (SCCL) was one of the best professional experiences that I’d ever had in my life. Being introduced to a topic and new people, the way CIRCL structured and facilitated it, and the outcomes were all informative and super rich. That’s how Katie Headrick Taylor and Nicole Pinkard and I all got together to do an NSF EAGER grant after that, which was part of the Mobile City Science work. That collaboration has been great. The work that we did internally along with with schools has been really rich, and we’re putting together a paper and proposed session for AERA where we’re going to have folks come here to NYSCI hear the young people talk about their Mobile City Science projects. What CIRCL did for SCCL – that process – was really valuable for people like me who have been in the field a very long time but were feeling slightly disconnected from others doing this work. Yes, collaborations are great, but the magic that happened during that week-long Innovation Lab was unbelievable. I met a lot of young people that I had no idea were in the field. I hope in the future you do that in a bunch of topics. I know it’s expensive and complicated, but it’s really rich. Now we’re leveraging this work and applied for a larger NSF SCCL grant.
How do you think about systems change?
The ways that people are thinking about Smart and Connected at a municipal level are very different from the reality of our population here in Corona, Queens. What matters to people, what should matter to people, what “smart” means and how you integrate that with the daily lives of an immigrant Latino community — there’s such a disconnect. We’ve been having a number of conversations with policymakers and stakeholders here in New York about the realities on the ground of what people’s lives are like. As a science center and learning lab at NYSCI, that’s the kind of thing we want to push, pursue, and instigate as a way of ensuring that communities like Corona are not left out. Their voice isn’t heard. This could be a participatory design piece, opposed to something coming up from on high and being dropped into the laps of people who then have to figure out how to use it. That’s what I’ve learned about cyberlearning as well. You really have to work from the bottom up and think about the different levers to get at good systems change. Small examples work and potentially go a long way.