GEMS STUDENTS DELIVER CONTENT TO THE WORLD

GEMS World Academy-Chicago recently announced an exciting partnership with Outernet, a local technology organization that helps deliver Internet-based content to users via satellite transmission. The two institutions have launched a global service project called Project Empathy, in which our seventh-graders build and deliver libraries of content for people who live in areas with little or no access to the web. Project Empathy challenges students to draw on multiple academic disciplines as they work, and it encourages them to develop a nuanced sense of their connections to people across the world. 

With the project underway, we spoke to two of its architects — Thomas Steele-Maley, the lead technology and innovation officer at GEMS World Academy-Chicago, and Thane Richard, chief content officer at Outernet — about what makes it such a unique and rewarding initiative. Here are their answers.
 
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1) How do you see Project Empathy fitting into the larger educational mission at GEMS World Academy-Chicago?
 
Project Empathy hits squarely the entire mission of GEMS World Academy-Chicago. The project is centered around inquiry, innovation and cultivating the dispositions necessary to be leaders in a connected world. Through the project, our Middle School students ask fundamental questions about how they and the rest of the world are connected through the Internet, satellites and life. The project is a fusion of technology coursework that touches all of the Grade 7 curriculum. In the course, students learn about emergent fields in global technology, ask pressing questions, seek answers, and apply their learning in new ways to solve next-generation problems. In partnership with Outernet, students create electronic receivers that will connect to satellites and receivers across the world in areas without Internet — they literally build and share digital libraries from space.
 
Along the way, our students take an in-depth look at how the Internet is built and who is actually connected across the world. They gain a working understanding of physical computing in our Design and Innovation Lab, as they build with Raspberry Pi and other DIY electronics. Importantly, they also interview peers in some of the most remote areas in the world, gaining a critical understanding of their similarities and differences —  the hopes and dreams they all share. This is critical design thinking at its best, and in a global context! During the project, students meet critical 21st-century literacy targets and immerse themselves in the study of technology and society.
 
We believe that this experience is an exciting way to learn — one that draws from every aspect of our curriculum and features a number of educational methods, including Field Studies, online learning, experiential workshops, gamification and project-based learning.   
 
2) For you, what is the single most exciting aspect of the project?
 
It's hard for me to isolate a single most exciting aspect as this project hits so many things we love doing here. But if I were to isolate one aspect, it would be the "real-world" nature of the project. For instance, in the first Field Study of this course, students were introduced to the type of entrepreneurial thinking and learning that goes into solving the world's most pressing issues.  They met designers, hardware specialists and  programmers who were dedicating their lives to making the world better. This is the disposition of the company we are partnering with, Outernet. We are connecting our students to intellectual, innovative and productive business people, global business people, who care deeply about the world's cultures, resources and interdependence. But at the core of the project, students are given time, resources and a real-world problem to overcome. This cultivation of “translocal understanding” will explicitly develop the key dispositions necessary to learn, live and work in extended partnership with others across the world. This is central to what we at GEMS think is important for education.
 
3) What has student reaction been like so far?

Students have been fascinated, passionate and interested.  They are asking excellent questions and obviously starting to understand the potential and gravity of the project.
 
THANE RICHARD
1) Why did Outernet decide to partner with GEMS on this project?
 
The entire thing was a wonderful exercise in purposeful serendipity. I have a second-grader who started at GEMS this year, and during a fall orientation of the school, I saw Thomas and Technology Coordinator Peg Keiner at a table, talking to people about GEMS' technology program, and there were Raspberry Pi units sitting in front of them. I asked what they used Raspberry Pi for and mentioned that the company I work for uses Raspberry Pi. The rest unfolded from there. Looking back, the fit is obvious. When I first saw GEMS as we were thinking about schools in Chicago, the emphasis on technological literacy was a huge draw. And not just, "Let's put devices in classrooms because that's what's hot in education now": It is purposeful. Coding and robotics from kindergarten? How many schools do that? It's amazing. And then there is the Outernet piece. Outernet is designed for use in the most disconnected places on Earth. GEMS might be the polar opposite of that. Seeing the application to GEMS students click when I started talking to Thomas and Peg made me realize that we had found an education partner who wants to push the boundaries of what's possible in a classroom.
 
2) Talk a bit about the role you see technology playing in worldwide service efforts going forward.
 
Volunteering or service and technology don't often go together. When I hear the word "volunteering" or "community service," I imagine myself physically out in the world giving out food to the homeless or picking up litter. The idea that really meaningful work can be done with computers and technology is still very new. So far, technology service efforts are either one-off or uni-directional: You donate a computer and don't know where it goes and the transaction goes from you to them. You don't get anything back — no connection is made. What is exciting about Project Empathy is that it is the first way I know of to put life-changing technology into a disconnected classroom and have an ongoing relationship once the device is installed. 
 
3) What is the most exciting aspect of the project, for you?
 
Seventh grade was my worst year of school. I experienced all the trials of early adolescence, and the kids at my school weren't very nice. I also vividly recall the feeling at that age of finally really starting to see the world and understand my place in it, but also feeling like I wasn't old enough to be heard or make a difference. What excites me the most is that Project Empathy is not only a fantastic learning tool, but the kids who participate are actually doing something very important. Just the other day I spoke to an NGO in Kenya that wants more content on Outernet for a girls school. Who better to have a voice in addressing that need than peers of those students who are fortunate to have Internet access? These seventh-graders will be making a real difference. Conveying that fact to them and getting them attracted to the feeling of community service, hopefully for the rest of their lives, is what excites me the most.
 
The GEMS Education community is excited about this opportunity to connect education across the world. Project Empathy is slated to run throughout the year, so please keep an eye out for more news. A website for the project will be launched shortly.
 
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To learn more about GEMS World Academy-Chicago, go here.