Tom Akiva became interested in out-of-school-time learning (OST) over his 8 years working at and later directing a summer camp in rural Michigan. The camp targeted youth with high potential but low performance in their schools. Kids left the woods intrinsically motivated to create poetry or design science experiments. Tom saw them making connections, opening their ways of thinking about learning. He says, “It’s increasingly clear to those of us who study OST that kids learn everywhere. We need to pay more attention to the learning happening outside of school, how the programs work, and how we can provide high quality offerings.”

At the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, Tom began researching the correlation between program quality and youth engagement, evaluating over 1000 youth in 65 programs, where he found that active skill-building practices for staff predicted cognitive engagement from the students. Here in Pittsburgh, he studied a Sprout-funded youth leadership program and found that involving youth in the programs was an effective method of improving quality.

As a new faculty member in Psychology in Education at the University of Pittsburgh, Tom continues his research in OST with an empirical study of the Digital Corps that he’s preparing for publication in the journal After School Matters. For the early stages of his project, Tom is interested in the Corps members themselves. His current study asks three questions:

  1. Are there people with the technology expertise who also have the ability and motivation to deliver content to kids effectively?
  2. What factors enable these folks to deliver this information in afterschool workshops?
  3. How are the teens and tweens experiencing these workshops?
Tom Akiva

Tom Akiva

As the Digital Corps wraps up its pilot year, Tom and his research team are finding interesting, if unexpected results. For starters, they’ve learned that the majority of the Corps members are youth workers or educators, taking on the Digital Corps as a source of extra income. Program manager Ani Martinez says this fact speaks to the great need for support and training for educators working in out-of-school learning programs. Over half of the Corps members described themselves as already comfortable teaching and communicating with kids. So a base knowledge of how to deliver content to youth is not their main hurdle–instead the Corps members are wrestling with challenges familiar in OST, like how to handle drop-in students and how to adapt lessons to work for different age groups and in different timeframes.

Due to the nature of many of the sites, particularly libraries, teens come in and out without a set schedule. It’s hard for the Corps members to teach multi-week lessons not knowing who will be there to learn each week. But then, it’s hard to develop robotic programming skills in Hummingbird in just one 90-minute session. Through a series of round-table discussions, Tom has observed the Corps members debate and collaborate to figure out solutions.

These round-table discussions are facilitated by the researchers, but they also double to build community for the Digital Corps members. Tom has seen that the atmosphere during the sessions is friendly, which is important for those working in an industry without much opportunity for such professional development. “I’ve seen Ani Martinez create a comfortable and productive experience that carries over into the classroom and workshops the Corps members go on to teach,” he says.

The Corps members are also wrestling with the ways lessons are being delivered in Digital Corps workshops. Tom has noticed a tension between offering structured, how-to lessons about the digital tools versus presenting open-ended projects as a way for students to learn. The Corps wants the workshops to engage students in ways traditional school environments cannot, but at the same time wants to effectively deliver the information so the students can build their digital literacy. Tom says, “They are debating ideas education science has looked at for years. Will ‘discovery-based learning’ work in this context? The idea of the project is to remake learning, to shake up teaching. It’s interesting to watch them debating methods to provide small amounts of structure that supports kids in their learning.” Ani notes that the program is still nascent–these sessions help everyone strike a balance between program needs and member backgrounds as they get to know each other as a community of digital learners and educators.

As the program shifts from summer programming to afterschool sessions during the coming school year, Digital Corps members are eager to apply what’s come up in the roundtable discussions and surveys. “Our data can help to tell the story of what works well for the Digital Corps here in Pittsburgh,” says Tom Akiva, “and hopefully we will learn things we can apply to both future sessions of this program and eventual implementations elsewhere.”