Over the past couple of years, we’ve been exploring programs in NYC that work both within and outside of schools. In this post, we present a few key take-aways about educational program design and improvement from our conversation with Brian Cohen and Danny Kahn, founders of Beam, a program in NYC designed to “build communities of making and learning that enliven student curiosity, bridge the opportunity gap and prepare youth for the way the world works.” Beam was originally founded as a building-oriented summer camp and has iterated its approach to collaborative, project-based learning as it expanded into schools. It now operates after-school program, weekend programs, teacher workshops, and in-school electives and FabLabs.
Taking Beam as a case of how an out-of-school program devises strategies for expanding its impact by plugging into the traditional core of schools, Beam shows similarities to other programs in NYC that we have looked at, such as Outward Bound Schools, which has developed modular programs schools can select and add to their offerings, and Right to Play, which has sought to scale its impact through leveraging its niche in early childhood education and designing teacher professional development programs. Internationally, the pattern of developing a promising program outside of schools, that then has the potential to reach more students by “plugging in” to schools resembles the approach of Mehackit in Finland and Tandemic in Malaysia.
This week we share the first part of Beam’s story focusing on its origins as a camp in New Hampshire and its move to create an afterschool program and workshop space in Brooklyn. Next week, Part 2 focuses on the development of Beam’s approach to integrating project-based instruction and FabLabs into schools.
PROTOTYPING a promising learning experience in “open” conditions
Music industry executives, thought partners, and friends Brian Cohen and Danny Kahn founded Beam as a summer camp in 2005. Beam’s launch reflected both Brian’s memories of what he called an “idyllic” childhood camp experience and a shared concern that 21st century kids lacked the experiences in collaborative, hands-on making that could cultivate curious, capable, and confident life-long learners and doers. To put “making” at the center of each summer’s experience Beam camp focuses on a single, project —designed by a creative professional—that all campers and counselors helped to make a reality. Projects involve large-scale, multi-part, pie-in-the-sky creations like a giant Nexus Canopy in 2005— modular wood and canvas units that could be rearranged into theaters, mazes, and other spaces; Creatura in 2014 — a 20-foot human-powered vessel floating on the camp lake; and Pipe Tree in 2016 — a “fully-functioning, human-operated pipe organ” nestled amongst (and shaped like) the trees in the forest. Through the process, campers (and Brian, Danny, and the counselors) learn the relevant skills in areas such as woodworking and digital programming, have opportunities to dabble in skills beyond the needs of the project, and develop independence and pro-social skills more typically associated with summer camp.
These aesthetically and technically impressive projects made the joy of accomplishing something “bigger and better” than the campers could have imagined a central goal. “All we were worried about was getting the project done and getting it done well,” Brian explained, “because of the way kids felt when it was done.” Over those first few years of camp, Brian and Danny constantly reflected on and improved the Beam approach to project-based learning. In the process, they came to see the inclusion of an expert—the artist or architect who designed the project—as one key ingredient. The expert lent authenticity to the endeavor, provided professional insight to guide the process, and brought a sort of creative stardom that inspired campers. Beam camp also had the benefit of time and space of a few weeks set in the New England forest over the summer and relevant, real and high-quality resources, materials, and equipment.
Brian and Danny spent 5 years learning how to run a summer camp by doing it, just as their counselors and campers were learning creative, constructive skills by contributing to the project. In this time, the projects became more complex, and the relationship between the expert maker, domain masters, and counselors became clearer and more intentional. Still, as ‘cool’ as the projects were, it was hard to define what exactly kids were learning and Brian and Danny resisted calling themselves educators. Although one parent wrote a letter asking Brian what tangible benefits her child had gotten out of the experience, other parents and campers responded enthusiastically. Brian and Danny knew qualitatively that the experience was impacting campers and worth making available to students who couldn’t afford or didn’t receive a scholarships for the limited space of camp. When Danny and Brian came to NYC in 2011, aspiring to bring the Beam Camp experience to more students through schools, they continued to iterate their approach to a new set of time, space, and school constraints.
PURSUING SPANDRELS OF OPPORTUNITY
This iterative approach opens up an organization to spandrels of opportunity: challenges that force creative responses and unanticipated avenues for growth. As Brian reflected on their approach, he observed that “what we’ve learned are all the dead ends you can take when you do a project, you have to edit the project so they are getting something authentic…”
Brian and Danny encountered more ‘dead ends’ when they attempted to work with NYC schools. As they had with Beam Camp, they jumped into NYC planning to figure things out on the go. While they were incorporating as a 501c3 (a type of non-profit organization) and trying to figure out how to create school partnerships, they ran an after-school program inspired by the weekend-long Inventgenuity festival, which had been successful in attracting lots of families and school-aged children. They tried varying the workshop time and configuration (4 weeks, 6 weeks, 8 weeks) but found that it was harder to break from the model of an expert teaching kids skills for a small “table-top” project for a few periods. It lacked the magic of camp—the bigger imagination of an immersive, intensive project that tapped into kids’ curiosity and imagination and led to, by most accounts, transformative experiences.
it wasn’t clear how to start a relationship with a school and after-school or weekend program were not producing the same intensive, deep experiences as Beam Camp. Without anything Brian or Danny could have planned for, a serendipitous opportunity arose. While they were serving students through afterschool and weekend programming, Brian and Danny made a “fortuitous” connection with Rob DiRenzo, from the New York City Department of Education’s Digital Ready, a major initiative to expand technology use and student-centered learning in New York City schools. Rob was visiting the Invisible Dog gallery and, since it was an open space, happened upon Beam in the midst of a project with high school students. In Brian’s words, Rob “was interested in what we were doing, and we told him a story about this project we had done with teens, because that was the thing we wanted to do again, and he said, oh well I’m part of an initiative at the DOE that’s doing that exact thing.” As Brian explained, Rob “put them in a room” with funders, other local organizations and staff from the DOE, “and I realized we had stepped in shit because we had a plan to do the kinds of things they wanted to do with teenagers in schools and that’s where we started to have to figure out what we were actually doing.” That one meeting introduced them to their first funder, and Beam started working with Brooklyn International High School in 2012.
Brian describes Brooklyn International as an especially perfect “petri dish” for the kind of projects and youth development work that he and Danny were interested in. More than just a place to experiment, Brooklyn International also served as a kind of crossroads where Brian and Danny’s vision for Beam literally intersected with a growing demand in education and New York City more broadly to foster passion, and project-driven learning opportunities, especially in digital media. In fact, in 2013, Beam’s work at Brooklyn International was featured at the official launch of Digital Ready. The press materials included a quote from Brian, explaining Beam’s contribution: “Thanks to Digital Ready, students from Brooklyn International High School will learn programming, carpentry, metalwork and digital storytelling skills while building a giant interactive sculpture as part of our BeamWorks Project…We think this kind of mentor-driven collaboration enables teens to discover the value of meaningful work and passionate interests of their own…” From their origins as a camp in New Hampshire, Beam was suddenly front and center as part of a signature project of the largest public-school district in the US.