Benjamin Franklin high school is a wonderfully diverse, urban public school in New Orleans, Louisiana where I teach Introduction to Engineering classes. Recently, we collaborated with Red Hat for an electrical engineering project where students, led by Red Hat members, built Conversation Machines made from LEDs and buttons. I wanted to share a few takeaways that really stood out to me from the process and the lasting impact that it had on our classroom and our students.
The actual machines the students built have now become a part of our daily classroom routine. They are an amazing way to get instant, easy to see feedback from all students. High school students are perpetually afraid to speak up, minus a few brave ones, so having a nonverbal way to give quick feedback is priceless. We use the machines to answer review questions, to say if they are ready to move on or need help, and to guess a fun fact about a classmate each day. The machines make it easy for them to participate, but also serve as a more meaningful way because the students built them on their own.
While Franklin always has the best students, we don’t always have the best materials, and working with Red Hat has changed that. We never have electronic projects that the student gets to keep, as we have to reuse them each year. The gift of real electronics they can keep and share with their families means so much to us. Red Hat provided the electronic supplies, but even more so, the experience that allows students to see themselves as tech leaders. They opened our small classroom community up to the larger world around us and expanded students’ mindsets about what they can accomplish. The machines have also increased participation and feedback in the classroom, showing students how open source can make a real difference in their lives.
Even more impactful than the machines themselves is the chance to be seen. The poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”
It is critical for STEM educators to provide opportunities for all students to see themselves as successful in the tech and engineering world, and Red Hat helped do this. During our online meeting, they used cookie recipes as an analogy for open source software and asked for student favorites. I watched as a student typed “alfajores” in chat, which was instantly recognized and celebrated by the Red Hat employee in Chile who was leading our lesson.
Moments of connection like this show our students that they are needed in these fields. Red Hat gave them entry to the world of open source, which empowers my students to continue working in tech and become contributors themselves. It became an accessible world to them, where they could be a part of something bigger. For so many of my students, the world is closed to them because of lack of privilege or opportunity. Open source immediately smashes all of those preconceived notions and tells my students that they have full access.
If people don’t recognize that these students can be leaders, and if they aren’t encouraged to be in the room, how will things get better? How will we fight racism being coded in artificial intelligence? How will we narrow the income gap? If you only get one kind of tech worker, you’ll only get one kind of product. If you want innovative, diverse products you need a diverse group. Red Hat is helping Ben Franklin make that happen, and I am so thankful that they are a part of making the tech world more diverse and accessible.
Co.Lab, presented by Open Source Stories, is a learning experience that introduces young students to the power of collaboration, community and open source. Using open hardware and open source methodologies, Red Hat mentors teach students why being open is a better way to work together and a more effective way to solve problems. Since its launch in 2017, Co.Lab primarily existed as in-person events that shared the principles of open source and collaboration with more than 700 middle school students in 12 countries.