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Gear Girls Tech Club Thrives at LREI
Thursday afternoons in the technology lab at LREI you’ll find middle school students dissecting computers, tinkering with circuits and motherboards, and creating their own interactive games using coding apps. One thing you won’t find here? Boys.
Gear Girls, LREI’s all-girls, after-school technology club made up of about 15 middle school girls, formed last year when a few female students found that the boys’ voices were overtaking their technology classes and clubs. At Gear Girls, the environment is special. The focus is less on who gets the right answer the fastest, and more on including many voices from the group.
“We don’t have the girls raise their hands. If you see that someone wants to say something, you pause and you let them say it,” explained Clair Segal, LREI middle school technology integrator and one of the club’s three female facilitators. “It creates a sharing space for the girls and reminds them that we are all listening to them.”
The group learning approach guides how the Gear Girls solve problems. During an assignment to make a circuit from copper wire, after one group got their circuit to light up, they turned to the other groups to suggest possible solutions to their versions. “As the teachers, we really aren’t the leaders,” said Gear Gears facilitator and LREI lower school technology teacher Celeste Dorsey. “The girls help each other in a way that makes it feel like a sisterhood.”
Gear Girls explores many sides of technology. “I like Gear Girls because we do something different every time, like taking apart computers and programming,” said sixth grader Gwen. The girls love the tactile task of using mini screwdrivers to disassemble older model laptops and investigating how they work mechanically and electrically. Some of them even spent their winter break pulling apart their old toys and their parents’ old, chunky cellphones, explains Julia Wilson, a Gear Gears facilitator and LREI technology associate.
The idea of students using technology to explore and discover on their own is planted early in the LREI lower school curriculum. Instead of logging screen time, in the younger grades teachers focus on using technology purposefully when it authentically enhances student learning. “We believe that to learn to use technology well, children learn best by doing—with all the mistakes and effort that comes with the territory,” said Lower School Principal Namita Tolia. 
In technology classes, lower school students are introduced to programming with programs like MicroWorlds and Lightbot and middle school students continue to code with programs like Scratch and CodeCombat. Robotics is offered beginning in fifth grade after school and combines many of the computer skills students learn in technology and science classes with design and construction.
Gear Girls also builds enthusiasm for the engineering field, a national trend to get more young women interested in careers in computer science. The girls are very aware of the effort. “Gear Girls is about getting girls to be in tech. That’s important because there’s not enough women in technology,” said fifth grader Olivia. “I come to Gear Girls because most girls aren’t engineers and I want to change that,” said fifth grader Oni.
The club also gives the girls the opportunity to see themselves as the community's tech leaders. In December they used their expertise in coding programs like Tynker, Lightbot and Scratch to lead teaching sessions during LREI’s Hour of Code, a one-hour introduction to computer science and code for LREI students and parents.
Female role models in the STEM fields have visited the group, including Bitly software engineer Jenna Zeigen and Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox. What’s up next? The girls are planning a weekend field trip to explore 3D printing at the MakerBot store and are having larger discussions about their digital footprints as they prepare to attend an Intelligence Squared debate on the right to be forgotten online.

Social Impact Designers Partner with LREI
LREI’s “Choosing to Participate” social justice project is the cornerstone of the eighth grade humanities curriculum, and this year, a new collaboration with designers who want to change the world—that is, masters students from the School of Visual Arts Design for Social Innovation (DSI) program—is adding innovation to the projects.
DSI faculty and students are working closely with LREI students on research methodology, design thinking and fieldwork strategies. Earlier in the school year, eighth graders formed groups around a social justice topic of interest and are studying the topic in-depth while meeting with individuals and organizations that are making a difference in the community. DSI students have helped LREI students discover the best research methods for their projects.
The masters students are social impact designers of all kinds, studying how design can function at a strategic level within business, government and the social sector to solve major challenges facing humanity and to create a positive impact. This fall, they led interactive workshops for the eighth graders aimed at helping the students understand how to gather information "in the field.” LREI students received a research methods "toolkit” with multimedia interviewing tips and talked about interviewer bias and developing deep research questions with DSI students.
As the eighth graders head out into the field and gather research, they blog about their findings and the interview process on the Social Justice Project Blog. Some field projects so far include, interviews with film director Dan Lohaus, juvenile incarceration photographer Steve Liss, and Martha Brooks, executive creative director of L’Oréal Paris. Eighth graders also welcomed to campus Ashley Coneys, project organizer at the Police Reform Organizing Project, attended LREI’s Speaker Series on mass incarceration, and interviewed LREI high school students committed to social justice causes. 
While many of the students’ blog entries are focused on fact gathering, some are more observational. A group studying veterans’ issues visited the New York VA Hospital and commented, “We were surprised by how many people were there for help. We also noticed it seemed dark and sad.” Read more entries on the Social Justice Project Blog and follow the students on Twitter @SJProjectLREI.
All of the research leads up to LREI’s annual Social Justice Teach-In on March 4, during which the eighth graders plan and run a set of workshops and assemblies for the rest of the middle school around their topics. “Through the research and teaching process, the students come to better understand the rewards and challenges of active citizenship and the need for all individuals to choose to participate,” said Middle School Principal Mark Silberberg.
The collaboration with DSI also gives middle school students a unique opportunity to witness graduate-level work. To prepare for their workshops, they visited SVA and provided feedback on workshops piloted by the DSI masters students for their own course projects, which addressed topics like water management, gun control and educational equity.
“It is our hope that the relationship with DSI provides an additional opportunity for our students to gain insight into how they can choose to make the commitment to social justice, activism and innovation a part of their life's work,” Mark said.

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