It was a beautiful warm spring day, and I sat down with a black male student to discuss the problems he faced both at home and at school. During our conversation his film studies teacher appeared in the doorway and I invited him into the room as I thought he could provide insight into how Jahiem (not his real name) could pick his grades up. “Well you weren’t here for the last movie”, he said. “But you can look it up on Netflix and watch it at home.” The teacher then pulled out his laptop and showed the student how to log on and select the correct movie. There was only one problem, although Jahiem had a computer at home, his mother couldn’t afford internet service.
Jahiem was like a number of urban students, he wanted to do well in school, yet he was at a distinct disadvantage because he didn’t the net. I give his mother credit though; at least he had a computer.
School district administrators and university professors across the nation are currently touting the benefits of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. On one hand I agree with them; the industrial revolution is over and employers want people who know how to work on computers and know how to solve basic mathematical problems. But on the other hand, I am concerned that so many of my students do not have access to computers, printers, the internet, or even hand held calculators. Just about all of them have smart phones, but in today’s marketplace they will need to know more than just how to send a text message. We know about the achievement gap, but it is also important to point out that there is also a digital divide between rich and poor students.
But wait a minute, proponents of STEM want to decrease the digital divide, increase math proficiency and help give “kids a chance”. At first glance this approach is laudable. Nevertheless, I am keenly aware that not only do some of my students lack a computer at home; in some cases they don’t have adequate food, shelter and running water. Such issues must be addressed before STEM initiatives get started.
A teenager once told me how to “steal” electricity from a neighboring house or apartment. It was easy he said. All he had to do was plug in an orange electrical cord to an abandoned house that still had power. Another student told me about how folks will pay a jackleg electrician to restore power after it has been cut off. A lot of urban students have it rough.
I have seen kids press on despite the social, academic and technological challenges they faced. They knew how to download word processing apps to their phones, how to use the programs to type their papers, and how to go to a relative’s house when they need to print something out. Other kids saved their work to a thumb drive and e-mailed their assignments to their teachers.
I understand the value of technology, and in recent years I have developed an affinity for statistics. Yet, I struggle with STEM initiatives because so many other things need to be addressed before children can learn a new formula, solve a quadratic equation or turn a laptop.