Brooklyn Middle Schoolers Are Launching Homemade Boats to Test Their STEM Skills

Kanish Creary was the first student to set sail on the Phantom Ship. Dressed in a plastic rain poncho and life vest, Kanish confidently sailed toward the misty skyline of Manhattan on an Optimist pram, a 7-foot wooden boat adorned with a bright white sail.
It was a feat for Kanish, not only because it was her first time sailing, but because the boat she was riding in was built with her own hands.
Kanish is 11 and in sixth grade. She worked with a group of students from her school, J.H.S. 292, in Brooklyn, New York, to construct the boat. She likes to “give things a shot” so, with her Tuesday afternoons free, she signed up for an after-school program called Brooklyn Boatworks.
Throughout the school year, she and her classmates transformed four sheets of plywood into a sailboat, using saws, hammers, clamps and drills.
Kanish’s mother, Christine Creary, said at first she doubted her daughter could build a boat. Today, Creary’s proud to see her setting sail. “I’ve never seen her doing anything like this before,” Creary said. “So this is a new adventure.”
Huddled underneath a canopy to protect her from the rain, her mother smiled, waved and snapped photos of Kanish floating out into the harbor. Eight other boats bobbed in the water as students from Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn sailed into the harbor at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Kanish is one of 127 students to participate in this year’s Brooklyn Boatworks program. Brooklyn Boatworks is a nonprofit that brings a boat-building program to students in schools across New York City. This year, Brooklyn Boatworks worked with students from nine different schools, though they hope to scale the program in coming years.
Through the boat-building process, students gain hands-on STEM expertise and social skills. The program incorporates tool safety, map reading, environmental education, construction and project management. During the course of the school year, the students also go on field trips to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, South Street Seaport, New York Harbor School and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Education Center, where they learn about New York’s maritime history and local sea life.
“Our goal is not that everybody becomes the captain of a ship, the goal is that students feel successful to achieve big dreams to go after what they want,” Marjorie Schulman, Brooklyn Boatworks’ executive director told NationSwell.
The schools choose who participates, and it’s “usually it’s a mix of students who are achieving [and] who are not achieving,” said Schulman. Some schools hold writing contests for students who want to participate, while others hand select students to participate in the program.
“Not everybody thrives in a traditional school environment, so our model works for students who are traditionally successful in the school as well as those who aren’t,” Schulman said.
Groups of no more than 12 students build a boat over the course of the school year. This year, 11 boats were built by students in the program.
“It’s really a feat for them to be on the water and to be in the boat that they built and have the trust that it’s going to float,” Schulman said.
Their 30 weeks of hard work culminate in one day in June. The schools come together at Brooklyn Bridge Park for a graduation ceremony and to set sail in their completed boats.  

Brooklyn Boatworks
The program connects students with their surrounding environment. Students might not even realize they live on an island before Brooklyn Boatworks.

A group of girls huddled around each other, giggling and chatting by the water on Pier 2. They said they named their boat Pizza Sail because pizza is their favorite food. “And because the sail looks like a slice of pizza,” they exclaimed.
The STEM skills students gain from the program are important, but equally important are the social skills, said Schulman. The girls are best friends now, but at the beginning of the school year, they hadn’t all known each other. “Now we always say hi when we pass each other in the hallway,” said Aspia, one of the middle schoolers. Students learn how to be a leader and also how to follow one, Schulman said.
Pat Nason, an instructor, agreed. He said the goal of the program isn’t just to build a boat, but to create a safe space for students. A space where it’s OK to fail or take a break or be frustrated. As long as the students learn from those moments. Throughout the year, he watched as attitudes and confidence levels changed.
“There was a certain point where we realized we were near completion, and I could see their confidence levels get much higher,” he said.
The students’ confidence showed as Phantom Ship successfully floated along with the eight other boats with eccentric names: Savage Geniuses, Sea Okurrr, Get Wrecked. Students signed up one at a time to take a ride in their self-constructed boats. Each student was paired with a sailing instructor who helped navigate the winds.
Brooklyn Boatworks
Kanish (right) and her classmate work on their boat. Most of the students who participate have never used tools like hands saws, drills and hammers before.

Tisman Coleman said it was great to see his daughter out sailing. For most schools, the program functions as a two-hour after-school program. Coleman said every Tuesday, his daughter was sure to remind him that she’d be coming home late because of Boatworks.
“My child, the most she ever built was Legos,” he said. Now Coleman has a helping hand for tasks around the house. His daughter can now use a handsaw, hammer, drill and screwdriver like it’s second nature. “She’s already my little kitchen helper,” he said. “Now I can start making her help me with other stuff.”
Mike Sangirardi, a dean at I.S. 125 in Queens, New York, heard about the program from some of the participating schools.
Outside of the skills the students learn, they’re also gaining a better understanding of their urban environment. Many students don’t realize they’re living on an island, Sangirardi said. Some can’t swim and others have never seen the waterfront. The program gives them a chance to connect with their surroundings.
Sangirardi said as a dean he sometimes works with “students who are causing trouble.” By interacting with some of the same students at Brooklyn Boatworks, he gets to see those students shine. His favorite part is at the end of each session when the students gather around and reflect on how they’re feeling.
“They did something productive,” he said. “That’s better than being on their cellphones.”
The sense of achievement extends past the program and into their everyday lives.
“There’s this level of accomplishment that they can feel,” Schulman said. “And maybe it’s the first time that they’ve really felt success in the school year.”
More: Trading Pencils for Hammers: These Kids Are Learning Math and Getting Jobs Right Out of High School

Microsoft’s Secret Weapon

As a child growing up in a tiny town in the Midwest, Mary Snapp absorbed the importance of commitment to community from her parents. “Literally every night, my parents were out at some meeting, and my dad delivered Meals on Wheels to seniors,” she recalls. Today, as corporate vice president and the first head of Microsoft Philanthropies, Snapp leads the technology company’s corporate citizenship initiatives.
Recently, NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman sat down with Snapp to discuss the importance of companies providing a structure of support for social good and volunteerism.
GB: What is one approach or guiding principle at Microsoft Philanthropies that differentiates you from others?
MS: Microsoft’s Giving Campaign started 30 years ago when co-founder Bill Gates’s mother, Mary, told him that it was important to build philanthropy into the fabric of the company. We commit to matching employees’ volunteer time hour-by-hour and donations dollar-for-dollar. Last year, employees raised $142 million for nearly 19,000 nonprofits and schools worldwide. The program really encourages creative volunteering, such as Hacks for Good, where employees come up with ways to reduce demands for sex trafficking to things related to weather forecasts and water conservation. It’s really, truly unique.
For the past three decades, Microsoft has also been committed to supporting education. We believed 30 years ago, and we still believe today, that it’s really important for young people, especially underserved populations and girls, to learn science, technology, engineering and math. Our Technical Education and Literacy in Schools initiative started with one engineer volunteering an hour of his time several days a week to teach computer science at an underserved school. After a couple of years, he had nine other engineers joining him. This year, Microsoft employees are in 350 schools in 30 states team-teaching computer science alongside a teacher.
GB: Do you think what you’re doing to engage employees around social good is having an impact on employee engagement and enthusiasm, and the culture at Microsoft?
MS: I only have purely anecdotal evidence, but I think it does. For example, I recently met with some senior level employees who told me that they came to Microsoft specifically because of the ability to volunteer. And I’ve had a number of conversations with our data science lead who told me that his employees are constantly being recruited by outside companies, but they choose to work at Microsoft because they want to do things that give them purpose.

As corporate vice president for Microsoft Philanthropies, Mary Snapp leads efforts to expand Microsoft’s social impact around the globe.

GB: As you look forward into the world of corporate responsibility and philanthropy, what’s next for you and Microsoft?
MS: Two years ago, at the World Economic Forum, there was a lot of talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the cloud. Last year, most of the discussion was on artificial intelligence and robots. We realized that we have an obligation to talk about digital skills and jobs for the future, but that we also need to urgently think about middle skills — jobs that are beyond a high school diploma, but don’t require a college degree — as well.
Fulfilling this middle skills area is coming at a pretty fast and broad clip. We believe that, as a big technology company, we have a particular responsibility to help ease the transition that’s coming with technology. We hope to work in urban and rural communities to build out technical skill programs so that as we move forward, technology does not leave people behind.
GB: What advice might you have for someone at the beginning of his or her career that aspires to lead business in the direction of sustainability and responsibility?
MS: Many young people have to overcome things that I didn’t, but it’s still possible for them to achieve their dreams. These dreams may change over time, but they need to have persistence and an interest in continuous learning. And I’d be sure to tell them that they’re going to make it, because they are.

Generating Coding Fever in Tech-Loving Minority Teens

Alongside the glinting waves and pristine beachfront property, a surge of talent is transforming Miami into a tech hub.
The Kauffman Index rated the metropolitan area of Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach as the number one entrepreneurial area in America, and international tech startups are using the city for its geographic proximity to Latin America.
But in Broward County, just north of the white sands of Miami Beach, there’s a stark reality for the youth of color: They don’t have access to technology or entrepreneurial leaders the same way that some of their well-to-do peers do.
“In areas of high growth in the tech and entrepreneurial or small business sector, [minority] populations are completely left out of that activity,” says Felecia Hatcher-Pearson, co-founder of Code Fever Miami. “If you have an idea, oftentimes you have to leave your neighborhood in order to execute on that idea or get the right resources in order to make that happen. And that’s a problem.”
Hatcher-Pearson’s organization is bridging that digital divide — which she refers to as an “innovation desert” — by providing opportunities to young teens of color in coding lessons and pitching business startup ideas.
Since 2013, Code Fever has introduced more than 3,000 youth and adults to the tech ecosystem. It’s also served as host to more than 100 tech events, including boot camps and hack-a-thons.
This isn’t Hatcher-Pearson’s first attempt at bringing entrepreneurship to youth. After losing her marketing job at Nintendo in 2008 when the financial crisis hit, she moved back into her parent’s Florida home and opened an ice cream and popsicle stand in Broward County. She noticed that the kids in the community looked up to moneymakers: those selling drugs.
“Sometimes the first way [these kids] get introduced to entrepreneurship in their neighborhoods when they live in impoverished neighborhoods, it’s the guy that’s selling on the block, right? And if he’s successful, he’s getting a mentor, like someone showing him how to do it,” she says.
Hatcher-Pearson began pairing teens with entrepreneurs to learn how to market and sell sweets using extra stands she had laying around.
“We know what happens when young people can’t get their first jobs or don’t learn the basic skills on how to be self-sustainable, the entire cycle of poverty continues,” she says.
As Miami’s tech scene started taking off in 2010, Hatcher-Pearson recognized a similar lack of entrepreneurial mentorship.
“It wasn’t inclusive,” says Hatcher-Pearson, referring to the tech scene in Miami. “It didn’t include the black community or the Caribbean community in any of the activity, the resources, the programming or any of the spaces.”
With the help of her husband, Derek, the two started Code Fever.
The organization’s reputation is built on its ability to foster African American tech talent through its Black Tech Week. The summit provides multiple pitch opportunities to help finance burgeoning startups, class intensives geared toward making older generations more digitally native and education for teachers on how to bring in more technology into the classroom — a massive hindrance for students, Hatcher says.
“Oftentimes, their teachers don’t have the right tech training or tech confidence, and they’re the ones that are not doing a good job of allowing technology to be in the classroom,” Hatcher-Pearson says.
Ryan Hall, who heads the curriculum for Code Fever and Black Tech Week, says that based on his own personal experience, the role the organization plays in students’ lives is essential.
“I personally found that I was in a lot of these tech spaces, and I didn’t see a lot of people who look like me,” Hall says. “We care about taking people who are minorities and bringing them into the technology economy, because it has the ability to raise people out of their socioeconomic situation.”
Both Hatcher-Pearson and Hall attribute the program’s success to its ability to allow kids of color to integrate their own personal lifestyles and interests into coding. Code Fever accomplishes this by bringing in local black celebrities and creating hybrid projects that merge music and tech or sports and tech.
“Culture plays a major role in introducing students to [science, technology, engineering or math] fields,” says Hatcher-Pearson. “We have to introduce them to computer programming because… the current narrative is that the black and brown community doesn’t exist in tech, and we are pioneers in tech and innovation.”
The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the AllStar Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.
Correction: A previous version of this video stated that Miami is the birthplace of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He was born in Albuquerque, N.M. NationSwell apologizes for this error.
[button url=”” ]Vote for Felecia Now![/button]

The Job-Training Program Giving City Kids a Reason to Hope

As urban areas across the nation experience renewal and transformation, Camden, N.J., is at the beginning of its renaissance.
The city — once known as America’s most dangerous — has been experiencing dramatic decreases in gun crime and violence, namely an 80 percent reduction in homicides during the first three months of 2017. That’s good news for Camden, which has also become a testing ground for tech nonprofits that want to help beleaguered youth find their way out of neighborhoods riddled with gang violence and into well-paying tech jobs.
But for Camden’s young residents, an increase in opportunity might not necessarily mean a better economic future.
“We had seen too many times in Camden, programs that had trained young people the same way, the same old skills, the same old methodology. Our young people needed something different,” says Dan Rhoton, executive director for Hopeworks ‘N Camden. “Our young people needed training, they needed healing, so that they could get a career that not only gave them a pathway to the future, but offered them sustainable opportunities now.”
Other nonprofits work to get minority students or young girls interested in tech jobs, but Rhoton says that the biggest challenge most of those organizations face isn’t getting kids interested — it’s that they don’t address the trauma that comes along with poverty or exposure to violence.
By using therapy as a means to address deep issues that can affect work ethic and personal integrity, Hopeworks has been successful in providing a steady stream of quality graduates that are career-focused and mentally prepared for work.
“Our young people have been hurt. Their legs have been broken, and yet we put them at the starting line with everyone else and tell them to run,” says Rhoton. “When they struggle, when they fall over, what too many programs do is they say, ‘Try harder,’ or they say, ‘You’re not motivated.’ If my leg is broken, motivation is not the issue — healing is.”
Hopeworks began 17 years ago under the guidance of three faith-based community leaders that “looked out on the streets and saw young people with no dreams, saw young people with no opportunities,” says Rhoton. The program was meant to address some of the biggest challenges in Camden at the time: getting teens from the tough streets of one of America’s most challenging and economically poor cities into more fulfilling careers in tech.
With a background working at detention centers and bringing education to those formerly incarcerated, Rhoton came to Hopeworks in 2012. At the time, the organization was experiencing problems, namely that it was only seeing a 10 percent success rate.
“We were bad at our job,” he says, adding that the low success rate was the catalyst for Hopeworks to focus on personal issues, such as abuse or neglect that can hamper a student’s ability to learn. “We decided that a 10 percent, or 20 percent, 30 percent success rate wasn’t okay.”
“Yes, young people need to learn technology, but if you can help them deal with what’s happened to them, then you can help them show up on time, you can make sure they’re ready for work,” Rhoton says. “It’s harder, it’s longer.”
Brandon Rodriguez, a 19-year-old student intern for Hopeworks and lifelong Camden resident, says that when he joined the organization, he was only looking for a gig learning graphic design.
“When you come into Hopeworks, you have this pre-conceived notion that you’re coming here for an internship, or you’re coming here to just talk to someone. You don’t think you’re gonna get as much as you get.” he says. “I’ve only been here for less than a week, about five days now, but the opportunities started flying my way.”
Student-turned-mentor Frankie Matas graduated in 2013. Today he works with incoming Hopeworks students.
“Everybody learns different. If some people need to show them a different way, I help them in that aspect,” he says. “Hopeworks noticed that about me, and that’s what got me to become the first youth trainer. It helped me become a better leader.”
That aspect of youth training and leadership is key, says Rhoton.
“It’d be one thing if someone who looked like me was teaching you how to code, but if it’s someone who, just a few weeks ago, was standing on the corner with you, that’s a powerful message about who can do it, and how you can do it,” says Rhoton.
To that extent, Hopeworks has been successful since Rhoton came on board. The program has seen a 300 percent increase in students going into college and employs nearly 50 students each year after graduation to work within their studios, which take in $600,000 in annual revenue designing websites, among other things. Other participants land part-time and full-time jobs in the tech market, says Rhoton.
“What we wanna do is we wanna make sure we change the equation,” says Rhoton. “So that our young people are not only able to change their lives, but they’re able to change lives in the next generation, as well.
The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the AllStar Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.
[button url=”” ]Vote for Dan Now![/button]

Profile: Hadi Partovi

As the son of a college professor who helped establish Iran’s Sharif University of Technology, Hadi Partovi has always had a deep-seated appreciation for teachers.
“Passionate teachers have been my biggest inspirations,” he says, noting that while he was always trying to pave his own path, he’s now doing something very similar to his father.
Partovi’s nonprofit,, provides computer science curriculum to tens of thousands of educators, empowering them to teach coding in their classrooms. The organization reports that more than half of all students participating in high school courses are African American or Hispanic and 37 percent are female.
Through the years, Partovi’s appreciation of the impact teachers can have on their students — and the world — has only grown. He illustrates this point with a story he recently heard about a junior high school teacher in Auburn, Wash., that he doesn’t even know.
According to Partovi, this teacher noticed that one of his students regularly missed school two or three days each week. Concerned, the teacher reached out to the child’s family to inquire about having him attend computer science classes (which were introduced into the school’s curriculum with the help of, Partovi’s organization).
The student started having regular attendance, and his father called the teacher to report that his son liked school, thanking him for recognizing the need for his son to be exposed to new subjects, like computer science.
“The student went from almost dropping out to learning code,” Partovi says. “That, to me, is the strongest example of a change in somebody’s future — because of the teacher.”
Hadi Partovi is a NationSwell Council member. In addition to co-founding, he is also a tech entrepreneur and investor.

Meet the Mastermind Behind an Innovative, New Way to Teach Math

In elementary school, Matthew Peterson struggled mightily with math. When an instructor explained a problem, Peterson would be so focused on figuring out the language that he forgot the beginning of the question. In a traditional classroom setting, “If you couldn’t follow the instructions from the teacher, you were lost. You had no way to learn on your own,” Peterson, who suffered from dyslexia, says. It wasn’t until Peterson’s dad started drawing pictures to help his son visualize math equations that he had the breakthrough that turned him onto how exciting, creative and fun the subject can be.
Seeing his challenges in school as an opportunity to be solved, the boy who once hated math went on to study engineering, biology and neuroscience in college. From there, Peterson began to think as an entrepreneur — creating, innovating, problem solving and ultimately, transforming the way mathematics is taught in American schools. “To me, it’s not acceptable that so many students exit the school system afraid of math,” he explains. Starting with a summer research program in 1994, Peterson spent a decade working to prove that math could be taught without language, which can create a barrier to understanding the concept. This is true not only for kids who struggle with language like he did, but for any student since talking about math using words layers two completely different ways of thinking on top of each other.
That mission ultimately became the Irvine, Calif.-based MIND Research Institute and its ST Math program, a series of games starring Jiji, an animated penguin that introduces math visually. Students must figure out how to help Jiji get past a variety of obstacles (each representing an important mathematical concept) by building bridges, filling in holes, and so on. “It is very difficult to create software that will translate into improved test scores,” Peterson, MIND’s co-founder, says. “People have been trying to do that for many years, and there is very little to show for it. But there is a very consistent result that games, especially visual games, can build spatial-temporal reasoning. What our approach does is build spatial-temporal reasoning, and then connect that spatial-temporal reasoning to mathematical understanding,” accomplishing what other software companies haven’t. In fact, schools that fully implement ST Math see up to three times growth in math proficiency.
Alex Belous, education portfolio manager for the Cisco Foundation (which has supported MIND Research Institute since 2004), says that when he initially reviewed their program, its installation and training strategy was predominantly in-person, which wouldn’t scale. “It was an ideal partnership, as we were able to assist with their conversion to a web-based and more scalable delivery method, adding courses and grade levels, as well as creating a teacher-dashboard that allows them to see where students are most challenged and give them relevant help to keep learning,” Belous says. “We’re proud to be part of something that is providing large impact and pleased that ST Math is likely to scale much further in the next five years.”
The United States lags behind other nations in math and science performance, ranking 29th in math and 22nd in science, according to the Program for International Student Assessment. By harnessing the power of the digital revolution, MIND Research Institute and Cisco are able to address this problem and prepare young people to succeed in science, technology, engineering and math fields that are critical to economic growth and global competitiveness.
That formula has proved to be remarkably — and consistently — successful. When MIND’s ST Math software launched, only 12,000 students used it. Today, the program reaches more than 1 million children in more than 3,000 schools across 45 states (including about 70 percent from traditionally underserved backgrounds). In the U.S., only 30 percent of kids leaving middle school are proficient in math. Impressively, students’ math proficiency has doubled or even tripled when using ST Math. “It’s not the students who are incapable of learning, it’s the environment,” Peterson says, going on to explain how the software creates a setting where students from all backgrounds can not only become skilled in math, but learn to enjoy it.
“Many people have this misconception that experiences are fun, but learning isn’t really an experience,” says Brandon Smith, MIND’s lead mathematician. A lot of learning software essentially takes the approach of designing a fun game and then trying to shoehorn some math into it, Smith explains. MIND’s games are designed from the ground up to focus on core math principles. They’re entirely visual — no words or numbers at all — and feature deliberately simple animation. “We don’t want you to be distracted by anything that is not the heart of the matter,” he says.
The result? A fun game where simply uncovering what the next puzzle is teaches kids the underlying concept. It also educates them on how to approach unfamiliar problems, how to think creatively and how to persevere and keep working on something difficult. ST Math enables students to learn at their own pace by giving immediate, personalized feedback on every answer — something that’s only possible using software, Peterson says.
Another positive outcome of ST Math is that girls often find more success with it than boys: an uncommon result among math programs. In the U.S., women are underrepresented in science and engineering fields (representing just 29 percent of the workforce compared to 46 percent of all workers), but programs like ST Math can generate the confidence and enthusiasm for girls to pursue jobs in those industries.
Technology not only makes that kind of learning possible in one classroom, it makes it scalable to thousands of them. “It’s not enough to just do a research program to prove that something is effective,” Peterson says. “If you want to change the world you have to make something that is scalable.”
“People use the term ‘innovation’ so often in Silicon Valley, but it is actually extremely rare to come across something that is truly revolutionary and actually effective and scalable,” Cisco’s Belous says. MIND’s technology demonstrates how the potential to scale and replicate is necessary for a solution to be sustainable and successful at addressing social challenges. Not only does ST Math transform math education, but also it has the potential to be applied in many other areas of education. “This completely new, non-language-based approach has the ability to capture every mouse-click of every child to see where kids are most challenged and refine the games appropriately to make them even more effective. It is fantastic for math education and student outcomes, but the fundamental innovation could potentially be applied to a far wider set of subjects.”
MIND’s games certainly have the potential to revolutionize how young children think about themselves. Studies show that most American students possess what’s known as a fixed theory of intelligence: a belief that “intelligence is something that you’re born with,” Peterson says. That mindset can hold kids back from learning math because they think if you can’t solve a problem, you’re not good at it. The kind of self-directed learning in ST Math reinforces the principle that when you stick with a problem, you get better at it.
Lisa Solomon, a principal at Madison Elementary School in Santa Ana, Calif., sees that tenacity in her students. ST Math software is used at three area schools, including Solomon’s, where nearly 100 percent of students are Hispanic and about 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. “It’s helping us to see what our students really can do,” Solomon says.
These days, when the growing opportunity divide reveals the sheer importance of a strong education, MIND Research Institute not only levels the playing field, it helps struggling students bound to the head of the class and achieve their greatest potential.
This was produced in partnership with Cisco, which believes everyone has the potential to become a global problem solver – to innovate as a technologist, think as an entrepreneur, and act as a social change agent.
MORE: This ‘USB Port for the Body’ Is a High-Tech, Pain-Free Solution for Amputees

Telepresence Robots Break Down Barriers for Those with Physical Disabilities

Ron Carrico began Kavita Krishnaswamy’s private tour of the San Diego Air & Space Museum near a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, describing the torturous 33-hour flight across the Atlantic in such a way that isn’t printed in history books. As the two made their way through the facility, Krishnaswamy, a doctoral candidate in computer science, waved hello to fellow patrons and paused to see the planes hanging from the ceiling. The only thing atypical about her visit was that she wasn’t technically at the museum, which is located in Balboa Park, Calif. Extraordinarily, she was more than 2,600 miles away sitting in front of a computer in Baltimore County, Md, controlling a five-foot-tall, roving BeamPro robot equipped with a wide-angle camera and a 20-inch screen that projected her face at eye level.
Originally built to automate industry, to ease business interactions for remote employees or to simply entertain, robotic technologies are taking on a significantly nobler purpose: assisting those with disabilities in their day-to-day lives. Text-to-speech capabilities on iPhones allow the blind to read anything online. Doctors and therapists use robots to make virtual rounds to patients who cannot physically leave their homes. And at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, which received a $25,000 grant from the NBCUniversal Foundation, people with severe disabilities can use innovative “telepresence” BeamPro devices to partake in a historical and cultural adventure they’d never be able to experience otherwise.
APPLY: The San Diego Air & Space Museum is an NBCUniversal Foundation 21st Century Solutions grant winner. Apply to the 2016 program today.
The museum keeps two robots charged at all times, ready to give BEAM tours to those who can’t make it to Southern California. Katrina Pescador, the museum’s archival director, saw the robotic technology’s potential after the manufacturer held a conference nearby, quickly signing up to offer virtual museum tours to people who are hospitalized or mobility challenged. “I want people to have the freedom to experience the world and not be locked up some place,” says Pescador, whose daughter has a disability. “But it’s also important that people in the world see other people with disabilities. All of us need to be interacting together.”
The device provides those with physical disabilities a unique opportunity to explore the world in a way that clicking through images on Google never can. The BeamPro allowed Krishnaswamy, who has spinal muscular atrophy, to enjoy a rare experience of free movement. “It gave me an immersive experience like I was physically there,” she recalls. “I could move around. I had the ability to turn. I could see people and interact with people,” she adds. “Just moving around on my own without any limitation and seeing somebody eye-to-eye: that’s really a new experience.”
Pushing application of the technology even further, Carrico’s colleague Ross Davis is attempting to use the BeamPro for virtual school field trips. Davis, the museum’s education resources coordinator, believes it’s the ideal way for budget-conscious schools to engage students. Educators can log on and within seconds, get kids excited about the physics involved in getting 1,500-pound object soaring through the air. “We want to make it easy. We like easy,” Davis, a blunt former Navy pilot, says. (Offering top students a chance to command a robot is a sure-fire way to motivate a group of kids, he adds.) Even better is a virtual field trip’s ability to host low-income children. “We want to bring in the [kids] who wouldn’t get to visit, whose parents are too busy and don’t have time or money to buy tickets,” Davis says.
The school tours are still a project in process. Davis has tried at least three times to connect with one classroom, but the San Diego public school system has a firewall he hasn’t yet been able to circumvent. Once that basic connectivity issue is fixed, Davis has big plans: He envisions integrating 3-D diagrams, YouTube clips and sound bites into his guided tour to bring some of the aircraft hanging in the museum roaring into motion. From there, he’ll offer telepresence tours to anyone in the nation — enabling those with limited financial resources to have the same learning opportunities as their wealthier counterparts.
If the school visits work as well as Krishnaswamy’s tour, the program will be a success. Months later, she still raves that, “It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.” A graduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Krishnaswamy studies how technology can assist others with disabilities like herself. The BeamPro is a prime example of what she wants to develop: a device that let her experience life in a different way.
As Krishnaswamy viewed the exhibits with Carrico, she thought about how quickly technology advances. In 1903, the Wright Brothers could barely keep a plane off the ground for more than a few seconds. Fast forward to 1969 when men rocketed into space and landed on the Moon. In a way, it’s fitting that Krishnaswamy is using a robot to experience the history of progress on display. In comparison to how fast she can jet into the museum from across the country, a trans-Atlantic flight feels like no big deal. If Lindbergh could see the BeamPro today, surely he would feel a twinge of jealousy.
The San Diego Air & Space Museum is a recipient of last year’s 21st Century Solutions grant powered by the NBCUniversal Foundation, in partnership with the NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. The grant celebrates nonprofits that are embracing innovative solutions to advance community-based programs in the areas of civic engagement, education, environment, jobs and economic empowerment, media, and technology for good. Apply here for a chance to be one of the 2016 winners!

Can Nemo and Dory Revolutionize How We Teach Math in America?

There’s one reliable way to quiet unruly kids: turn on a Pixar animated film. Teachers using class time to watch a movie is usually viewed as lazy, but a new online curriculum hosted by Khan Academy taps into children’s enthusiasm for these animated films to teach STEAM subjects (science, technology, engineering, arts and math).

Pixar in a Box, as the virtual curriculum is known, contains interdisciplinary lessons that parallel real design challenges facing Pixar’s animators. The classes, which are narrated by Pixar engineers, lend credence to teachers’ arguments that school lessons will be applicable to students’ eventual careers, even if the tough math problems don’t seem relevant now. Concepts like patterns and randomness, for example, could end with students crafting their own computer-generated dinosaur skin models, and a class on weighted averages and Pascal’s triangles results in a model character from Monsters, Inc.

Underlying each lesson are the principles of project-based learning: tying theoretical concepts to real-world problems. In doing so, Pixar in a Box’s creators believe students will be more engaged, as they pursue projects they care about rather than being forced to complete assignment after assignment. “A lot of time, when kids ask the question, ‘When am I gonna use this stuff?’ teachers don’t have a good answer,” says Tony DeRose, a Pixar senior scientist. “We want to give them authentic content that they can teach in the classrooms, showing how we addressed creative challenges we faced in the studio.”

In Pixar in a Box: Season 1: Rendering, students learn how technical artists at Pixar use ray-tracing and other mathematical algorithms to calculate pixel color and generate the final frames of a film, as seen in “UP.”

So far, teachers have reported that their students love the collaboration, which gives them an easier way to illustrate the Common Core curriculum. (Pixar employees also enjoy being a part of the program: “Now my parents will finally understand what I do,” is sometimes heard in the offices.)

Brit Cruise, the curriculum’s lead designer, says the collaboration with Pixar is also changing the way Khan Academy makes content. Normally, most of their lessons are one-off modules, but this curriculum ties several concepts together into an interactive narrative experience of how something gets made. He sees the collaboration with Pixar not only as “a chance to make something which I could send back to my younger self,” but also as a way to inspire millions of students to pursue STEAM careers in which they entertain (and teach) the next generation.

MORE: Investing in Future Innovation: This Visionary Program Gets Students Hooked on STEM

Investing in Future Innovation: This Visionary Program Gets Students Hooked on STEM

In calculus class, you’d never use the phrase “star student” to describe Chris Deyo. He was slow to complete assignments about strange-sounding concepts like solids of revolution and related rates, staying behind to get extra help as his classmates jeered that the subject just “sucks.” To them, all they needed to know was enough to pass the test. After several after-school sessions, Deyo learned upper-level math well enough to tutor his peers. But instead of teaching straight out of the thick textbook like many teachers do, he showed how the lessons related other subjects. “The same kids who were saying they hate math could do it and were good at it when taught in a method that they identified with,” he noticed, causing him to wonder, “Is it really math or the way we’re teaching?”
Feeling accomplished, Deyo headed to the University of Texas at Austin with the thought, “I love [teaching and math] so much, I should try to make a living out of it.” There, he signed up for UTeach, a national program training math and science majors to become high school instructors. After graduating from UTeach last spring, Deyo began teaching math at a charter school in Austin. Frequently seen wearing a bowtie, the 23-year-old Deyo doesn’t look much older than the seniors in his calculus class. But he hopes to get them interested by teaching in ways that suit them, rather than just lecturing to teens that have tuned him out already. “From a young age, I realized those are the teachers that are making a difference,” he says.
Bored and intimidated by math and science, American teenagers are disengaged from the classes that prepare them for today’s tech-driven labor force — making UTeach needed now more than ever. The United States ranks a disappointing 35th in math and 27th in science out of 65 countries. Recruiting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors who often arrive at college with no intention of teaching, these undergraduates “represent the most promising pool from which to draw future teachers,” says Kimberly Hughes, director of UTeach Institute, who expanded the UTeach model from eight Texas colleges to 35 more partner universities nationwide.
No high schooler is eager to do math problems without end, which is why UTeach trains its teachers to create hands-on, collaborative, real-world projects (a teaching method dubbed “project-based learning”) that are exciting to both educators and pupils. Recently, instead of solving systems of equations on the whiteboard, Deyo divided his class into groups and asked them to develop the problems themselves. Groups came up with equations that involved splitting pizza, controlling the amount of money spent on clothes and even comparing Spotify, TIDAL and other music-streaming services. “We try to be a student-led program, where students are taking initiative for their own learning,” Deyo says, speaking with a fast cadence, the enthusiasm about his students emanating in quick sentences. “They are coming up with the questions they want to answer.”
In response to the shortage of STEM professionals in our country, UTeach has already certified 2,676 instructors and is certifying 6,280 more in the next four years — just one of many ways it’s placing valuable 21st-century skills at the center of today’s education.
Case in point: Manor New Technology High School, a secondary magnet public school in Manor, Texas that employs only UTeach educators for math and science classes, is using project-based learning to instill a love of STEM in an unlikely student body. Unlike most STEM-focused magnet schools, Manor New Tech opened in 2007 to provide 21st-century-learning skills to economically disadvantaged minority students. These teenagers are statistically expected to be behind their white peers in biology (26 points for blacks, 16 for Hispanics), as well as in algebra (13 points for blacks, four for Hispanics). Yet, Manor New Tech eradicates the achievement gap to match state test scores in math and far exceed them in science, despite comparatively lower scores in the surrounding district.
Impressive? Yes. But for schools nationwide to replicate those results, a huge influx of passionate STEM educators is desperately needed. UTeach-trained instructors staff at least 1,120 schools in 34 states, but 43 states and the District of Columbia are short math or science teachers. Filling that gap will only happen as UTeach expands, Hughes believes. “Leveraging the universities in our country as places from which to prepare excellent math and science teachers is key to addressing the shortage of teachers nationwide,” she explains.
Statistics tell the numerical story of UTeach’s impact. But Deyo’s ability to convince math- and science-loving young people to be teachers is how the program truly creates a lasting impression. Problem solving ignites a passion inside Deyo, but more than that, he loves “seeing other people appreciate and fall in love with math and see the value in it. That’s what makes me want to teach.”
“Math, as a whole, to me is one big puzzle,” Deyo says. There may be one final right answer most of the time, but there are so many ways to arrive at it. UTeach may not be the only way to improve STEM education in America, but it’s clearly one of those vital pieces.
This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson Give a First Grader Terrific Advice About Saving the Earth

Why should parents allow their kids to bang on pots and pans and jump into puddles? Because Science.
That’s according to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson during an appearance at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. When a pigtailed young girl from the audience asked the brilliant scientist, “How can first graders help the earth?” Dr. Tyson responded in a way that’s sure to inspire in her a lifetime of love for science (even if mom or dad might initially disapprove).
Tyson: “When I was in first grade, I was curious about a lot of things. So here’s what I want you to do. When you go home, and you start poking around the kitchen. Have you ever opened the cabinets and pulled out the pots and pans and started banging on them?…Did your parents stop you? Tell them to not stop you.”
“Because you’re just being a kid and you like to explore things. And your parents don’t like it because it gets the pots and pans dirty and because it’s noisy. But for you it’s fun and you’re actually doing experiments: What does the wooden spoon sound like on the aluminum pot or the metal ladle sound like on the steel pot? And they all make different sounds, and it’s fun, right?”
“Okay, another thing — if it’s raining out, and there’s a big puddle — what do you want to do with that puddle?
Girl: Jump in it.
Tyson: You wanna jump in it, and so do your parents let you jump in it?
Girl: Ya — no.
Dr. Tyson goes on to explain that jumping in puddles is a science experiment because you’re creating a splash crater.
So kids, the next time you get in trouble for making a lot of noise or a big mess, just tell your parents that Neil deGrasse Tyson made you do it.
DON’T MISS: Can a Plush Toy Robot Get Young Kids Interested in STEM?