Leveling with kids about leveling up

Guest contributor Alli Vaughn, parent of an alternatively schooled 14-year-old, is a local developer dedicated to cultivating a culture of inclusiveness and encouraging young people in their journey toward technical literacy. You can reach her at lvlupworkshops@gmail.com, @friendlyfulcrum on Twitter, and Lvl\U/p Workshops.

What if we leveled with students that knowing how to self-teach a new technical skill is at least highly beneficial, if not critical to a future career?

The White House recently released a directive to teach coding in every single K– 12 public school in the nation. That’s going to take a while to implement, and I believe it’s only half of the problem. Knowing how to recall a provided answer is not a highly valued skill in a world where everyone can look up facts and syntax, but understanding how to use what you already know to learn what you need to know is. Ask any programmer if they are still using just one language, framework, or version of anything since they first learned to program. The answer is almost always “of course not!”

The good news is that we can address this. In fact, businesses want us to. They spend a lot of money trying to train graduates about this.

What if I told you that developers often learn new skills by themselves, with only sketchy documentation, and due to the pace of things, manuals are often out of date?

Google “stack overflow” and you’ll be faced with pages of questions from new and seasoned programmers alike collaborating on learning new skills. Look a little closer: There isn’t really one single answer to any of the problems. This is the reality of development!

Don’t believe me? Go schedule a lunch meeting with just about any developer working on anything new, and you’ll get your answer. The good news is that the problem is pervasive enough that tech folks are working on better documentation when they can, but it’s going slowly.

What if the students whom studies show are most hesitant to jump into the upper echelons of technical literacy had a safe, encouraging, and inclusive environment to do so? How might that change the next 10 years?

Projections show that while the total workforce going forward will become progressively more minority-based and female-heavy, neither of these populations is currently on any significant growth trajectory for future technical career involvement, and we lose them in High School. At the same time, reports on future job growth indicate a sharp uptick in the need for these workers in the next 10 years, and current participants are mostly male and Caucasian. Austin is an up-and coming tech hub in Texas, and a rapidly growing tech hub nationally, with no sign of slowing down soon.

Austin, we have a problem. Even though we have a growing workforce now, we won’t actually have enough people to fill the jobs coming down that pipeline! The largest issue is not a lack of initial interest in cool technical stuff (after all, these subjects are very interesting in many ways) but rather a lack of continued interest, and we think it’s at least partially due to the lack of a welcoming culture.

Think about it: Nothing turns a person off like feeling that they don’t know enough, or they don’t belong.

The good news is that recent studies show that the creation of a welcoming culture and community around technical field participation just may be the key to sustaining long-term interest!

Spotlight on the Little Program That Could

Taking place this spring at Griffin School and Skybridge Academy, Lvl\U/p’s Intro to Full Stack Development is an after-school workshop series for high school students, adapted from the Rails Bridge Curriculum, and is designed to build confidence by fostering a small-group, inclusive, welcoming environment where students work through real-world fundamentals and processes used by software development professionals.

Many programs here and elsewhere simply aim to teach students to code. It’s a worthy goal, but it’s problematic, and I think there are more beneficial ways to accomplish the same thing. Lvl\U/p workshops turn the code school model on its ear, with a goal of students learning how to learn a new technical skill through discussion, activities, and, of course, hands-on programming. The structure naturally fosters a warm, welcoming environment where not only do students learn the basics of CS and a no-nonsense framework but they also learn about the relevance of technical literacy to their own goals. No matter what their future chosen field, the ability to map that understanding to learning a new technology is an extremely valuable skill going forward.

The pros have been programming longer, but they often need to learn new things each time they participate in a project. I believe kids are capable of learning these fundamentals, and I think they deserve for us to level with them about how important these skills are! Every student’s development journey is unique, as is the journey of each professional developer, but we each have a responsibility to change the culture, together.

Alli Vaughn

The future is STEAMy

Maggie Duval wears many hats comfortably: event producer, web developer, futurist, alt educator, mom. In her guest post for Alt Ed Austin she shares the news about her latest project, STEAM3, the conference and “Interactive Playground” that is shaping up to be one of the most interesting events of 2014.

GIVEAWAY: As part of Alt Ed Austin’s 2nd anniversary celebration, we have two pairs of Interactive Playground passes to give away—each good for one adult and one student. There are lots of ways to enter the drawing; you’ll find the entry form at the end of the post, along with a special discount code for all Alt Ed Austin readers who want to attend the whole shebang. Thanks, Maggie!


I’m very excited about a new project I’m working on that weaves together my four great loves:  alternative approaches to education (including STEM/STEAM), mining the brilliance that lives at the intersection of art and technology, futures studies, and emerging technology. Called STEAM3 (Science + Tech + Engineering + Arts + Math “cubed”), it will take place in early March and is the first public event of its kind to present a comprehensive look into the future of experiential learning. It will provide an interactive stage for the exploration and demonstration of the emerging approaches, formats, technologies, and learning models that will redefine education over the next decade.

The buzz is huge around STEM in education, which focuses on bringing kids up to speed on science, technology, engineering, and math skills by masterfully blending holistic and cross-disciplinary approaches to teaching and engagement. However, many are finally acknowledging the importance of the arts in that equation, hence the “A” in STEAM. The “cubed” part comes from our desire to address the whole child, explore alternative approaches to education (which as a mom I’ve been passionate about since my own childhood), as well as engendering a positive, empowered approach to what’s coming toward us in the future.

I have developed the event with professional futurist Derek Woodgate of The Futures Lab, who is also Consultant in Residence at the Digital Arts and Entertainment Lab (DAEL) at Georgia State University. I serve as CEO for two divisions of The Futures Lab, Inc., Learning Innovations in Future Education (LIFE) and the Future Entertainment and Events Lab (FEEL). The latter was formerly known as Plutopia Productions, Inc., which I also headed up, and we produced numerous “sense events” at SXSW Interactive and beyond.

For this unique two-day event held in Austin, Texas, we’ve assembled some of the world’s foremost experts in the field of future education as well as the most innovative and immersive demonstrations and exhibits of emerging educational technologies in what we’re terming our “Interactive Playground,” featuring such areas as the Living Classroom, Make Magic, Interactive Storytelling, and the Game of Learning. Special panels and demos will address topics such as alternative approaches to education, avatars for learning, “education is art, art is education,” girls in engineering, and more.

The family-friendly event is for parents, kids, and educators certainly, but also for artists, instructional designers, “makers,” instructors/trainers, content creators, mobile development designers, researchers, and more! And this is only the beginning of our journey. It will continue through a number of similar events that we are planning for Atlanta, Georgia; Belo Horizonte, Brazil; and Manchester, UK, as well as through an online post-event portal and virtual and in-person salons.

Our Keynote Speakers include:

There will also be talks and demos from MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, Nano Art by Cris Orfescu, Experimental Geography by Nato Thompson, and Algorithmic Art from Joel Kahn. And don’t miss Art, Technology, and Augmented Reality from Marvin Neibuhr and Dr. Bruce Niebuhr, Gamification for Learning by Billy Joe Cain, and Makerspace, a space for young children to learn about STEAM-oriented topics with Joseph Lopez, Head of Faculty of Convergent Media at the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio.

Conference and Interactive Playground
March 1 & 2, 2014
UT Commons Learning Center
JJ Pickle Research Campus, University of Texas
10100 Burnet Road, Austin, TX 78758

VIP Party for conference ticket holders
and special guests only

Saturday, March 1, at ATX Hackerspace
9701 Dessau Road, Suite 304, Austin, TX 78754

More information and tickets are available at steam3.com. Full Conference + Interactive Playground + VIP party tickets are priced at $99.95 until December 31—and Alt Ed Austin readers get an extra $10 off this special rate! Just use the coupon code ALTEDATX at checkout. Feel free to share with your friends. On January 1, the price goes up to $124.95. Interactive Playground–only tickets range from $7.50 to $25.

This event is sponsored in part by The Futures Lab, Inc., Learning Innovations in Future Education (LIFE), Skybridge Academy, and ATX Hackerspace.

See you there!

Maggie Duval


Enter below to win one of two pairs of adult + student passes to the STEAM3 Interactive Playground on either day!

a Rafflecopter giveaway