STEAM Box Offers Disengaged Students a Path to Empowerment: Choice


STEAM Box Offers Disengaged Students a Path to Empowerment: Choice

By Roberto Gonzalez     Jul 5, 2017

STEAM Box Offers Disengaged Students a Path to Empowerment: Choice

This article is part of the collection: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

Fernanda Ramos is not exceptional—at least on paper. When I met her, she was an introvert trying to master English, like millions of students across the country. It took a full school year to even get her to join an extracurricular. But I also saw how smart and talented she was and knew if I could just get her to engage, she would take off like a rocket.

Students like Fernanda are the reason STEAM Box exists: to empower the disengaged and disenfranchised. STEAM Box is a youth-led nonprofit designed to allow students to explore their passions through science, technology, engineering, art and math projects. The key, however, is student ownership. Participants understand that they are the boss of the program and the projects we create; they decide the direction.

Take, for example, Fernanda’s first STEAM Box project, where she sent a weather balloon to space. After completing the project, which she choose, she shared her pride on with Telemundo (Spanish Language TV Station) during an internship she had. The reason that students like Fernanda take such Pride in their STEAM Box work is simple. It's because these are all products of their own hard work.

Fernanda glowing with pride

Pulling off the program hasn’t always been easy, but thanks to our team, students and commitment to student choice, we’ve been able to engage even the most resistant students, with the result to make any traditionalist think twice. Here’s our story.

The journey begins...

We all know, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So when I set out to design STEAM Box, I knew it had to be strong in every category—starting with the leadership. Enter Ms. Zawadi Hawkins, new principal of Rhode Island’s Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, a school infamous for low student engagement and graduation rates.

Ms. Hawkins and I knew each other from our days working in Rhode Island's Central High School, where she had been repeatedly overlooked for the role of principal. The reason was far too common: She is a minority, not only in terms of race and gender, but also in the way she thinks about students in our data-driven industry. Zawadi builds community by building people up, not by raising numbers.

After renewing our partnership, Zawadi and I immediately realized on two things. First, Alvarez High School could greatly benefit from the successes that we shared working together at Central High School, where we worked on wellness while centering learning directly around students’ passions and interests. Second, Alvarez needed a fresh start to improve its reputation and image. We knew STEAM Box might just be the answer.

How STEAM Box Works

It quickly became evident the strength of our program would come from the students. In this department we were rich, but we had to be thoughtful. Alvarez was known for having behavioral issues, but as I mentioned, we were committed to giving students autonomy. So we developed our own behavior model based entirely around positive reinforcement for youth to follow. In which, youth mentor other youth, and focus of attention rewarded youth development. This is quite possibly why the very same students who struggle regularly to succeed in classes during the school day find more success every afternoon with STEAM Box.

Students host a symposium on domestic violence

We kicked off the program by asking students what they wanted to focus on. The first students I met mentioned Japanese Animation. Not my area of expertise, but they were the boss. I was desperate to avoid a traditional animation club, though. Yes, they get to enjoy popular Japanese animation together, but every week we were also workshopping different skill aspects within the culture of Japanese animation. Mentors visited teaching the youth how to design costumes, edit stop motion animation, paint canvas art and so on.

While our other groups at STEAM Box were designing robots and aerospace engineering projects, this group was showing their animations at conventions. Last year the Animation Design program culminated in a lesson at their favorite animation studio, Studio Ghibli in Tokyo, Japan.

Bumps along the road

A revolution was brewing. In those first 60 days, our students had already started achieving so much. We were using technology-based lessons and methods to examine and try to solve issues like being able to monitor the toxic pond that was in very close proximity to the school. We also were already competing in National challenges at the school. You could already feel the shift in momentum at the school. STEAM Box was becoming that strong intersection between high quality programming, strong community partners and most importantly, it was developed by the youth.

Unfortunately, none of us expected the challenges that were coming next. Apparently, Zawadi Hawkins’ promotion was one of a “let’s wait and see” status. Within 60 days of the school year, the Providence school department announced that Alvarez High School would be closing. I was investing my entire professional life into this youth led science-based non-profit, so this came as horrible news. Was I taking Fernanda and similar students down with me?

Thankfully not...

The big pay-off

As the community was appealing to the school board for the high school to stay open, STEAM Box had achieved a major victory. By winning the regional Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Challenge, we were able to visit the school board with a map provided by Samsung. It listed four schools in the United States that were Innovation centers. Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, which had been previously identified as the lowest-performing and most-toxic school in Providence, R.I., was now on a national map of innovators by Samsung. We would go on to receive similar honors from Google, PBS and the Rhode Island Tech collaborative.

STEAM Box played a vital part in keeping the school open, but so did the students and the community. We succeeded together, and the school would move forward into a new era. No longer working against a dead-end reputation, we now felt a new found freedom to grow. To play! To do what we do best, create!

Our coding program has spun off a media program where students are podcasting, directing their own films and creating their own special effects. This group had excellent mentors like our friends at Telemundo, Poder radio, ABC and NBC. This group is currently ranked #7 in the world for its podcast in education.

A local trip to the eye doctor was a great reminder of how far we've come. The nurse recognized my Alvarez High School hoodie and commented about her time as a student in the school. She expressed her fear when she was a part of this community. There were fights and regular chaos. STEAM Box wanted to find out what how the current students perceive this school. It was clear that this once scary school was now a school that made people feel safe. The most common word used during the interviews was “family”.

I'm proud to report that Fernanda Ramos is one of those graduates. Tears may have been involved.

Collaboration is one of the foundations of STEAMBox and Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School. Please follow us on Insta, Facebook and Twitter under the handle STEAMBoxRI or visit us at and let us know what you think. Thanks!

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