About This Cause
Annually, The Big-Brained Superheroes Club engages over 120 East African/Latino/Asian immigrant and refugee youth (ages two and up) living in the extremely low-income Seattle neighborhood of Yesler Terrace in drop-in afterschool creative discovery and technical skill-building. Meeting 200 times a year, The BBSC offers Big Brains over 500 STE*A*M project hours, plus adventurous learning field trips. With the skills they gain through the club, Big Brains traveled to events around Seattle teaching fundamental STE*A*M concepts, such as electric circuits and binary math to over 700 people in 2017. On a mission to tap into the hidden strengths that all young people have through Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics, The Big-Brained Superheroes Club is, at its core, about community coming together to create. We’re exercising our real-life superpowers (such as our leadership, teamwork, and persistence) to build a kinder, nerdier, more imaginative world.
On Mondays and Wednesdays from 5 to 7pm in The Big-Brained Superheroes Club, Big-Brained Superheroes drop in and engage in Big Brain Storm activities, which we loosely group into three interrelated categories: Recycled Robotics, Math and Spatial Relationship Skill-building, and Storytelling.
Activity: Recycled Robotics, involving:
- Circuits and electronics,
- Binary math, switches, and digital logic,
- 3D and 2D art with recycled materials
- Cardboard Godzilla
- Robotic Jellyfish
Why: Big Brains use recycled robotics as a platform to explore several useful concepts related to technological, human, and social development:
Ar-ti-cu-la-tion: In many ways, understanding how to build a robot can be analogous to understanding how we build ourselves. When we’re developing robots, we are thinking about their inputs (their observations and influences from the physical world), their desired outputs (the specific ways in which we want them to affect or influence the world), and their processes—both intentional (code) and unintentional (bugs)—that connect, or fail to connect, their inputs and their outputs. In our ideal world, Big-Brained Superheroes have infinite power over each of these elements of their own lives, and gaining that power can, if we do it right, start through analyzing and manipulating them externally—in this case, through building robots.
Connection: Sure, it’s perfectly fine to build fully independent robots, but we’d rather build robots that respond to and initiate communication (behavioral or otherwise) with each other or some other part of The Big-Brained Superhero Universe. In our ideal world, not only do Big-Brained Superheroes have ultimate power over how they observe, understand, and interact with the world as individuals, they think about the systemic affects of their individual actions and how systems in turn affect them. Placing our robots in an interactive world in which communication drives communication gives us a useful opportunity to discuss how our own communications influence each other.
Creativity: Creativity, generally, and metaphorical thinking, in particular, are ways in which human and social development have thus far diverged from technological development. We’ve learned how to create robots to analyze and interact with the world, but we haven’t yet learned to create a robot that can look at a pile of used cardboard and plastic packaging material and envision a robot. So, using recyclables to create our robots gives us an opportunity to exercise those more complex functions of our brains that make Big-Brained Superheroes creators of worlds rather than just products of them.
Activity: Math and Spatial Reasoning Skill-building, including:
- Building with LEGO, Magformer, and wooden blocks,
- Symmetrical art with recycled materials,
- Prodigy and Osmo
- Building Beyblades that compete to complete a circuit
- Making a Magformer microphone
Why: Though this activity class started out as a way to fulfill the immediate wants and needs of Big-Brained Super Shorties (Big Brains roughly 7 and under), it has evolved as a fundamental platform for engaging and nerding up Big Brains of all ages and interests. We’ve used the materials in all kinds of randomly fun ways, including in completing what we call The LEGO Challenge (finding an image in a book and challenging Brains to build it out of LEGO in a timed situation and then having the rest of the club evaluate their work), using the dots on the LEGO pieces to discuss how addition, multiplication, and fractions work, and making things float with Magformers. To name a few. These stations are always available to Big Brains during Big Brain Storms and thus can also serve as social play areas during project breaks.
Aside from all the immediate value that we see ourselves, we are persuaded as to the longer term value of these activities by the social science on them:
"Spatial skills are positively correlated with standardized test scores, motivation for learning, STEM major declaration, and number of science courses taken. Our analysis also indicates that the cumulative, informal training of childhood play has the ability to increase spatial reasoning. Spatial skill scores were significantly higher among students who played action, construction, or sports video games in childhood. Male and female students display significant differences in spatial skills, especially for mental rotation, with males outperforming females. However, gender disparities are fully mediated after adjusting for a variety of academic factors and whether students frequently played with construction-based toys."
(Anne U. Gold, Philip M. Pendergast, Carol J. Ormand, David A. Budd, Jennifer A. Stempien, Karl J. Mueller, Katherine A. Kravitz; Spatial skills in undergraduate students—Influence of gender, motivation, academic training, and childhood play. Geosphere ; 14 (2): 668–683. doi: https://doi.org/10.1130/GES01494.1)
For whatever directions Big-Brained Superheroes choose to go in life, their brains require preparation. Meaningful access to these toys can help make that possible.
Activity: Storytelling, involving:
- Videography, photography, and stop-motion,
- Writing and editing,
- Material art and science
- King Kong stop-motion animation
- Mixing and cataloging potions
Why: For starters, if we want to get people to our People, Planets, and PJs Party, it helps to consider what tools we can use to persuade them. And if we’re going to present our Jellyfish Robot at the Black in Tech hackathon at Facebook, we’re going to want to construct our presentation in a way that holds everyone’s interest. And we can go on and on about how good stories engage our brains in helpful ways (empathy, kindness, teamwork—all those superpowers). But all these practical considerations aside, we have a more basic rationale for integrating this category of activities into our Big Brain Storms. The tools and techniques used in storytelling can, when thoughtfully explored and applied, help our Big Brains become better observers, thinkers, and communicators.
A few completed Big Brain projects:
- Big Brain Binary Counter
- Digital Logic Lab
- Circuit Tree