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Evolving Education: Youth Learning Models for the Digital Age
By Yosmayra E. Reyes, LCSW, and Vikiana P. Clement, MSc
Social Work Today
Vol. 20 No. 1 P. 6

Catching up to today’s technology can be daunting, and instilling drive in underachieving youth can pose a difficult challenge, particularly as low-level education can dictate future predictions of success. Creating unique ways to increase motivation and drive become integral to supporting learners as well as teachers. In our pilot project at Medgar Evers College, a leading urban community college in the STEM sciences in New York City, we focused on closing this gap through building motivation and drive. Here we taught coding to elementary school–age children using a combination approach with technology and behavioral health. We were able to motivate learners to self-learn and gain resiliency in education through nourished passion that persisted beyond the classroom, post one-year intervention.

Technology is actively revolutionizing the way we learn. Although traditional forms of learning have been ideal in instilling discipline and passion, new forms of learning are needed to increase digital literacy and provide our students with 21st-century skills so that they may become self-directed learners, engaging actively to adjust and monitor their studying techniques. Approaches to learning should focus on alleviating pressure to an already taxed educational system that has been forced to play catchup to meet the academic needs of our students, in light of many presenting psychosocial factors and different learning levels.

Project-Based Learning
We used a project-based learning style to introduce computer programming, focusing on performing calculations and using automated reasoning to solve weekly designed challenges. Project-based learning has proven to be a unique way to effectively optimize student achievement outcomes by increasing engagement and consequently, motivation in the learner (Vygotsky, 1978; Piaget, 1950). Throughout the literature, it is noted that project-based learning is the perfect blend of situated learning (the acquisition of professional or applicable skills in the workforce) and constructivist theories that posit how human intelligence is developed. In Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Brown and colleagues highlight that the least productive method of obtaining new knowledge is rereading text or massed practice and the more effective method is retrieval practice—the ability to recall facts, concepts, or events from memory. Every session presented a challenging problem and students were encouraged to use a computer algorithm to solve it in a multistep process. Once basic algorithms were understood, memory action items were created and visual scripts were then incorporated to assist in creating avatars, animation backdrops, and movement.

Students were introduced to deeper learning, defined by the U.S. educational system as a “higher order of thinking skills,” encompassing analytic reasoning, complex problem solving, and teamwork (Resnick, 1987). We attempted to increase skill through interleaved and varied practice, highlighting aspects of teamwork as a way to scaffold the subject material for both child and parent when at home. We did this by introducing key concepts in social-emotional learning to bolster any motivational hurdles we encountered in understanding the material. Focusing on social-emotional learning assisted the creative process when doing hands-on work in the simulation lab and easily engaged students who exhibited behavioral challenges that may have impacted learning. During class, social emotional learning consisted of active problem solving while improving social skills through group collaborations.

A strong curricular focus was designating time where students educated each other through scheduled consultations with other teams in the lab. Here, students focused less on solving the problem and more on learning other groups’ strategy in tackling the problem. Having students educate each other deepened their own knowledge and commitment to the classroom community by gaining experience through role-modeling and actively challenging their thought processes. During the active problem-solving stage, instructors incorporated short scripts and songs to assist in absorption of problem-solving language and increasing level of frustration tolerance. Managing anxiety levels was integral and required frequent check-ins during the beginning of the semester. Once the students incorporated language, social skill building became easier to scaffold and we noted a diminution of problematic behaviors.

Behavioral challenges consisted of sitting for longer periods of time, maintaining focus, and concentration. The incorporation of social-emotional learning provided seamless integration for behavioral interventions. Students who had difficulties focusing or staying engaged would go to our observatory lab, where they saw older students in an adjacent science lab and would report on key observations noted to the classroom. This provided immense entertainment to our younger students. They were able to role model and use expressive language to report to the group regarding their data. For our younger students, observing a scientist in training gave them a model to emulate and a sense of accomplishment when reporting key findings.

Identifying each problem in the student learner and strategizing on how to accomplish weekly tasks set a strong agenda for the instructors but ultimately created many gains. Some of our students, although verbal, were not fully literate, having been able to identify some words but not full phrases. Students were encouraged to collaborate, asking questions of their peers and using skills of observation to complete multistep processes. Many frustrations arose with some of our younger students in the beginning of the sessions. Most beneficial in assisting with feelings of frustration was student observation of older students. Through observation and reported feedback, students noted that problems may take weeks to solve and began focusing more on emulating appropriate behaviors and social skills building. For our more advanced learners, we established co–leads where they took pride in teaching their strategy to other students who had difficulty with assigned tasks. We quickly saw that students loved learning more from other students and had a tendency to pick up multistep processes quicker when consulting with their peers.

Breaking the teaching session to include active problem solving for the entire classroom and requests for student consults created an environment that helped the students become more proactive in their learning and responsible for finding their own solutions prior to requesting assistance from the teacher. Students were frequently prompted so that learning meant they were actively engaged in finding a solution through a multistep process. We discouraged students from finding quick solutions, highlighting for them that learning involves the use of all senses. Following our computer section where we learned algorithms, we did our hands-on lab where we focused on building prototypes. Here students were encouraged to create from a blank canvas or extrapolate from their earlier creation with a focus on scaling, measurement, and function. In this section, instructors made an active attempt to steer clear of helping students by strictly reenforcing our problem-solving strategy and need for co¬–student consults.

Throughout our problem-solving activities, students took notes to understand the concept of brain plasticity. We discussed how our brain expands and builds muscle through understanding new things. When motivation was low, this framing was particularly useful in instilling drive and helping the students refocus their learning. By midseason students were expressing the sentiment, “I want to have a brain that stretches and grows.” Here we were able to build a strong self-image through positive constructive thoughts. We requested frequent feedback from students to assist the class in identifying and managing feelings of anxiety related to learning.

Integral to our approach was the importance of students getting out of their seat when encountering difficulties. This, apart from creating physiological process to manage anxiety, also allowed students to understand the importance of using multiple angles to understand and tackle a problem. Helpful phrasing included, “Your way may not be working at this stage of the problem; why don’t you try his/her/my approach?” This enabled them to take part in collaborative learning, where they learned through observation of others and asking questions, successfully mimicking similar techniques. Students needed to frequently elaborate their processes, giving new material meaning by expressing it in their own words and connecting it with what students knew. The theory of multiple forms of intelligences by Howard Gardner, PhD, was highlighted throughout the semester, allowing students to self-identify positive learning traits that may be different from other students.

Helpful in managing levels of frustration and fear, which progressively lessened as the semester moved forward, was encouraging students to be comfortable not having an immediate answer. Students were instead encouraged to collaborate and to understand that learning and problem solving take time. Quick fixes usually have faulty structures, as noted with our 3-D domino maze. Every problem posed was understood via problem solving where many solutions were identified and tested prior to successful implementation.

One focus of our curriculum was targeting behavioral problems in underachieving youth. We worked on identifying key concepts to teach youth science, including how to frame conversations so that engagement occurs and how to differentiate the curriculum to incorporate learners experiencing behavioral challenges. During the onset of the course we had frequent behavioral concerns, such as getting up from the seat, crying when frustrated, and full-blown tantrums when students experienced technical difficulties. As co–leads we took advantage of these difficult behaviors to incorporate our learning vocabulary, work on constructing positive thoughts, and relating those thoughts to the creation of a positive self-image in the learner. A central aim in executing the program was to continuously make this abstract concept of learning more concrete for students. Our framing assisted in bringing forth the message that learning can be hard, but once fully engaged, with all your senses, learning can not only be stronger but last longer.

— Yosmayra E. Reyes, LCSW, is a psychotherapist providing mental health care to children and adolescents with emotional disturbances. She advocates for mental health integration in primary care settings and stricter adherence to evidenced-based practice supportive care.

— Vikiana P. Clement, MSc, is a software engineer and advocate for closing the educational gap within the STEM sciences for underprivileged youth. She plans to focus her current research at Harvard Medical University on further integrating medicine and technology through artificial intelligence with the goal of making advances in neurosurgery.


Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Piaget, J. (1950). The psychology of intelligence. New York, NY: Routledge.

Resnick, L. B. (1987). Education and learning to think. Washington, DC: National Academic Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.