Written by Faridodin "Fredi" Lajvardi, teacher and mentor at Carl Hayden High School
For over twenty years I have worked at Carl Hayden High School, a school whose demographic profile, according to conventional thinking, does not translate into high student achievement. While it was never my intention to build my career in a high needs, low socioeconomic community, I have stayed in large part because of the gratification that comes from seeing conventional expectation tossed on its head. I am an idealist who believes in education's potential to change lives.
When I first started working at Carl Hayden I was struck by the defeatist attitude of too many of the students. I was confronted with a pervasive tone of indifference and complacence. Coming from a family of physicians, I did not immediately identify with the predominately Hispanic working class immigrant population, where attending school is a compulsory part of life's routine rather than an avenue to fulfill higher aspirations. Missing school to tend to sick siblings so that parents would not miss work is commonplace, and most parents have no concept of college as a goal for their children. While putting food on the table and paying the bills is nothing to be demeaned, the inevitability of living on the brink of poverty must be challenged. I realized early on that this cannot be achieved within the fifty minute time slots that structure the school day.
In order to challenge our students' preconceptions about their future it is not enough to tell them about opportunities available beyond their immediate environment. They must experience it. Otherwise, for our kids, it remains unreal. Our Science and Technology Club is the vehicle that brings them into the larger world. Students compete in a variety of events, like the AUVSI Foundation's Robosub Competition, that require intellectual perseverance, creativity, and cooperation. Whether they win or lose, our students learn that they are capable competitors in the big arena.
While critics note that these activities occur outside the classroom under the “extra- curricular” designation, I maintain that this distinction does not diminish its educational punch. Increased self confidence from extracurricular STEM generalizes to the classroom, and engaging in real world challenges brings relevance and meaning to the content learned.
Extracurricular STEM can happen at any time at any school anywhere across the country. All it takes is for a teacher to step up and begin. So what prevents more after school STEM programs from forming? When I began my teaching career I was also an athletic coach and was paid for my time and efforts after school. When my focus shifted to the Science and Technology Club I lost that compensation. It speaks volumes about the priorities of our society when an athletic coach is financially compensated and a robotics “coach” is not. Until this changes we will not see sufficient numbers of teachers willing to extend themselves to the degree that is necessary to create strong after school STEM programs.
Another obstacle is an unfortunate mindset that leaves many teachers filled with apprehension. Teachers have told me they are not prepared to start a program because their knowledge base is too limited. The irony is that not knowing is actually an advantage because students, alongside teachers and mentors, participate first hand in the process of research, testing, and learning from mistakes. Students see adults acknowledge that they don't have the answer and then pursue a solution, working towards completion of a project that is meaningful and exciting. We are not dispensing knowledge so much as we are demonstrating the process of discovery. It is the emphasis on process that has made Falcon Robotics successful.
While administrators and academics debate the next effort at educational reform, extracurricular work with students allows us to side step these politicized issues as we take advantage of a degree of freedom not permitted in the structured class setting. I believe participation in after school STEM improves academic skills regardless of the philosophy or methodology used in the classroom. The opportunity to participate should be readily available, especially for those who do not have educated role models in their lives. But our system of education is not designed this way. It assumes a uniformity of needs among students, and in the end falls short of what is necessary for those in struggling communities to succeed.
So why do I do what I do? Like anyone, I enjoy seeing that my efforts result in success. And I have found that my teaching is enhanced beyond measure by STEM after school activities. My students have learned that you don't back away from a challenge because it appears daunting. Easier is not necessarily better. As a result, our students are resilient and passionate. Despite the 50 % drop out rate among engineering students at Arizona State University, so far none of our Falcon Robotics alumni have dropped out. It's not because they have the highest standardized test scores. It's because they are committed problem solvers who will no longer settle for just getting by in life. They are the kind of people that you want by your side when the chips are down and you find yourself stranded on that deserted island.