On Wednesday, I retweeted President Obama’s support of Ahmed Mohamed, the now famous Texas teenager whose homemade clock was mistaken by school officials for a bomb.
The story, as well as the tweet, had gone viral. Although painful, the story spurred conversation about education, which was encouraging. I, like the President, realize the potential of an inspiring science education. That said, it did not take a rocket scientist – although Ahmed is one in training – to realize that the story was also deeply rooted in institutionalized biases towards Muslims. So, I balanced the welcomed dialogue about STEM with the grim reality of the pervasive racism that ended with a 14-year-old student in cuffs.
I went about the rest of my week per usual, but despite staying preoccupied with work, I could not shake thoughts of Ahmed. His story remained above the fold. The account of Ahmed’s arrest was disturbing and traumatic; the response from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and MIT, among others, heartening; and, the eviscerating Twitter exchange by Richard Dawkins befuddling. Still, the amount of mental energy I had allocated subconsciously towards Ahmed indicated that his story went beyond news headlines and to something personal, even visceral.
My reaction ultimately makes sense given how much I love what I do. In the morning, I have the privilege of teaching computer science. In the afternoon, I strategize how to bring computer science education to even more students. If all goes according to plan, there will be thousands of Ahmeds in Oakland, California. And, the more I thought about it, I’ve already witnessed the advent of a few of them.
My students are creative and cunning. For example, last year the behavior of a few cost the whole of the student body open access to the school’s bathrooms.
Every time a student needed to go, they had to find an adult with a key. To say this arrangement was frustrating is an understatement; it conveyed a lack of trust and resulted in lost learning time as students with full bladders patrolled the halls in search of a security guard.
With this in mind, five students — Alejandra, Sandra, Eduardo, Jeremiah and Naylani — set out to fix the problem. They built a working prototype of a lock using an Arduino, a tono motor, and a few hundred lines of code. Their invention worked by using a “teacher” generated numeric key that, when typed into the keypad attached to the Arduino, opened the lock for five seconds. Then, it would abruptly close, making it the perfect one-time use solution of an administrator’s dreams.
The lock was never installed on any bathroom doors, but in sharing their technology, Alejandra, Sandra, Eduardo, Jeremiah and Naylani explained the impetus for its creation, thus making visible to the world issues that might otherwise remain unseen and unheard. Just like dialogue-starting media such as Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr, even just the discussion of their technology gave outsiders a unique insight into a rarely explored element of their world.
To be clear, there was nothing inherently dangerous about their lock. But, then again, nor was there a reason to be scared of Ahmed’s clock. My students have worked on myriad provocative projects, and with computer science and tech-related programs growing across the city, they will increasingly be in good company.
Is the world ready for Demond’s mobile app or Cynthia’s website? Will they use Chris’ invention or play Ernesto’s game? Until now, these youth have largely been excluded from the education that enables them to drive innovation. With that in mind, I guarantee all of the technology created by these students will display stunning ingenuity and critical social commentary.
A guest speaker recently told my students that once they learn to code and build, they gain a superpower. Students will know how to wield this power creatively. It is therefore up to the adults — particularly those in schools — to check their fears, biases, and assumptions; to remain confident that they are supporting a hero, not a villain. #IStandWithAhmed, one of many forthcoming teenage heroes.