Beam Center: From Summer Camp to the Core of Schools, Part 2

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.


Last week, we shared 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. This week, we focus on the development of Beam’s approach to integrating project-based instruction and FabLabs into schools.


POSITIONING THEMSELVES IN A NICHE where their approach can flourish

At the same time that they had worked their way into schools, Brian and Danny also found themselves embedded in a larger movement to support youth development and digital citizenship that has come to be known as connected learning: interest-driven, production-centered, and academically-oriented learning supported by human relationships and technology.  Rob suggested that Brian and Danny become members of Hive, a then-two-year-old organization that came out of the MacArthur Foundation’s work on digital and media learning and which overlapped with the interests of Digital Ready. Hive sought to create a network of media- and tech-driven youth development opportunities in NYC and offered grant funding and opportunities to learn from and collaborate with other organizations involved in digital learning and youth development. The convergence and buzz around connected learning was felt by Brian in every Hive meeting he went to.  As he explained, “I’m the oldest in the room by twenty years, I’m the only one with business experience. So, to me, I was in graduate school. I was, woah, I’m learning all this stuff, this jargon and – I learned what STEM was, what else was going on in the city along these lines, and what I didn’t realize, I was also learning something that was very cutting edge, this notion of connected learning. It made total sense to me, because we’ve been doing it in camp for a long time, so I felt a certain ability to participate in a conversation knowing none of the language but being able to describe what it looks like”.

From their work with Digital Ready and Hive and the discovery of convergent interests and goals, Beam uncovered a variety of opportunities that enabled it to expand its offerings both inside and outside schools. In the 2013-2014 school year, Beam became a contracted vendor with the NYC school system (this lowers the barriers for schools in participating with out-of-school partners) and reached 572 students, through its after-school, in school, and camp programs. In schools—at least, at Brooklyn International—Beam collaborated with teachers to create interdisciplinary units. Rob DiRenzo highlighted a solar lamp elective that Beam co-planned with BIHS for grade 9-10, “in which students created their own lamps while learning about electronic sensing systems, soldering, and plastic fabrication using reclaimed materials.” Beam launched an  Apprenticeship program, an internship-like experience supported by ExpandED Schools, another organization in New York City that worked to create expanded learning opportunities through facilitating partnerships between community-based organizations and schools. This enabled kids who loved their Beam experience in schools to deepen their skills through an after-school Beam program, and be able to go back to school able to assist with Beam courses and take on leadership roles with the in-school programs.


PLUGGING IN a program that fits the constraints and supports of schools

Throughout this evolution—from summer camp, to afterschool and weekend programs, to school electives, to internships and professional development, to—Beam found it was most successful (in terms of serving the most students with a sustainable, high-quality experience) when they can plug their program  into the structure of the school day.  Working with high schools like Brooklyn International, which had more flexible scheduling and course requirements, helped. However, Brian and Danny found that as a stand-alone elective, the Beam experience didn’t really take root in schools. Through a series of projects that meaningfully involved teachers from different disciplines, Brian and Danny found they could integrate a Beam project into the curriculum. One of the stand-out projects of this sort was the production of a Digital Poetry Machine, which involved the collaboration of the English and physics teacher. Brooklyn International students documented their problem-solving strategies and development of skills involved in producing and programming a wall of magnetic laser-cut wood words which could be arranged into short poems and posted to Twitter. These sorts of interdisciplinary projects, integrated into the core curriculum in collaboration with teachers, fostered deeper school partnerships. Brian and Danny also maintained, through interviews with us and conversations with Hive and schools, that they were not educators. They were self-described experts in collaboration, and so fully respected and enlisted educators as the experts in teaching and learning.

 By the end of 2015, Beam was expanding their focus to include middle schoolers and their teachers, in addition to enhancing the quality of their other projects. It piloted “Insight Into….”—free weekend workshops for middle schoolers—which was evidence of a budding idea that the Beam experience might be even more valuable if students could access it at earlier ages and then engage with Beam for more time (and, thus building more skills and more leadership opportunities) before college. It also piloted its Connected Teaching Fellows project with an inaugural cohort of 24 “teacher-designers” from NYC public middle and high schools. A year later, with a Hive Digital Media Learning Fund grant of $100,000, Beam partnered with the New York City Men Teach Initiative, which focuses on recruiting men of color to teach in public schools, to develop professional development that prepares these future educators to bring digital media and technology-infused projects into their classroom.

Through these programs, teachers and other educators had a chance to engage with materials and tools in the Beam studio, learn technical and design skills, have the support of a Beam domain specialist, and design a curricular activity. Brian’s reasoning is that “we needed to develop a tangible collaboration with the teachers by being part of the school day. The work we do in the classroom becomes the core of a new kind of school community. Instead of the regular stratifications—teachers, students, administrators, high-achieving students, low-achieving students—now you have a blending of roles, an accessible forum for achievement, an incentive for all to be learning and a common aspiration.” His reasoning begins to articulate a theory held by organizations like ExpandED Schools and Hive—that elements of informal education, such as mentoring relationships and learning through doing, were valuable within the school day.  Out of school learning opportunities like the projects of Beam camp can be hard to transfer into the regular school day because they often run counter to the the age-graded, subject based “core” of conventional schooling, but Brian and Danny continue to look for opportunities to change that core.

As another step in that direction, in 2016, developed its first in-school FabLab at Brooklyn International, “an advanced digital fabrication laboratory with cutting-edge tools and resources.” The FabLab’s package the tools, resources, and expertise that have gone into Beam’s projects in a form that fits current demands and funding opportunities. In 2017, it has plans to build 5 more in-school FabLabs in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Red Hook, Sunset Park, Downtown Brooklyn, and Gowanus with funding from Borough President Eric Adams ($100,000/schools, as part of an investment in STEM education). The key, as they put it, is for them to avoid “getting dusty”; rather, they have to makes sure the various initiatives — the projects during the school day,the Connected Teachers training, the FabLabs, and a new Beam Apprenticeship program which trains and pays for students to support and teach their peers in the FabLabs — are means to learning experiences rather than, as Brian puts it, a “shiny end” in itself.


Continually Prototyping and Responding to a Changing Landscape

Growing recognition brought with it resources that allowed Beam to expand its offerings further. It moved to its current location in a renovated warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which functions as a space for school and afterschool programs, workshops, professional development, and incubator. With twice the amount of space, and space completely customized to its needs, Beam was able to offer more programming. Danny describes the space as a “hub” and “lab” where instructors design and prototype projects to bring into schools, and where Beam can host programs like professional development with teachers and summer day camps for younger students. It also hosted out of school workshops—making themselves accessible to students who don’t happen to attend their partner schools, and making connections to people interested in becoming partner schools in the future; these workshops were often offered in partnership with various schools and organizations in NYC.

In conversations about the future of Beam, its work for youth in New York City is a priority. Beam Camp is seen as valuable only insofar as it supports the work of Beam Center—perhaps as a program incubator, place for staff development, or ultimate Beam graduate experience.  For Danny and Brian, Beam is still a young, learning organization that’s benefited from connections and conversations with like-minded organizations including Digital Ready and Hive. Brian reflects that, at this point, “we can’t say ‘here are the results’ but we can say that the way people react to us – schools, principals, students –  indicates to us that we’re on a path where a lot  be learned by researchers and other educators; it’s also a path that we feel leads to more equitable access to high quality learning experiences in public education.”

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