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An exciting, rewarding experience for our youth

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An exciting, rewarding experience for our youth

By Afterschool Ambassador Gwynette Williams, director of Collective for Youth, Omaha.

When teens are struggling with issues they find difficult to talk about, how can they ask for help? Recently, my middle school students identified that question as a social issue they wanted to tackle. They knew their peers faced a variety of sensitive challenges, such as bullying, sexual assault and suicidal thoughts. As teens themselves, they knew firsthand how hard it can be to ask for help when you’re struggling. But they didn’t just identify the problem. Thanks to a pilot program from Facebook, they were able to use computer coding to craft an innovative solution: A “chat bot” that teens can talk to that directs them to the resources they need.

The backstory: The national Afterschool Alliance asked if I could pilot the "Engineer For The Week" program, a new initiative from Facebook. I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and asked students from our Morton Magnet Middle School Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands afterschool program. They readily agreed.

“Engineer For The Week” is dedicated to empowering youth in afterschool programs to learn about computer science & engineering, while spotlighting and tackling social issues. Over the course of a three-week “sprint,” teens identify a societal problem they care about, and then learn how to design and build a computer game or “chatbot” (a robot you can message back and forth with) to combat it.

Watching the students work on this project was incredibly inspiring. It reminded me how very passionate, focused and motivated they are around social issues they and their peers face. At the end of the day, the students were able to feel ownership of the topics they chose, which led to some very engaging dialogue prior to actually building the chatbot. I was blown away by the speed with which they were able to comprehend complex computer algorithms and then optimize them.

You can see the result of their hard work here. To interact with the bot, simply click the blue “send message” button. You can see for yourself how the bot creates a safe, anonymous space for teens to talk about issues they are facing, and then directs them to resources. For teens who are not currently struggling, it directs them to ways they can help others or the environment.

At that page, you’ll also find pictures of the students working on the project. These pictures were taken by students who were too young to participate but wanted to be involved in whatever way they could!

My students’ design won them a spot at the finalist table at the competition, held at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park! Only 20 teams were chosen from across the United States. Out of those 20 teams, fewer than five were at the middle school level like my students. I couldn’t be prouder of their achievement!

Teams met at Facebook’s headquarters and competed in a 48-hour team challenge where they had to design and build a game for social change. The Morton students worked alongside Facebook engineers to create a game and then gave a presentation called, "The Pitch," where they had to pitch their game to Facebook judges. 

Facebook was so impressed by the focus and drive from our three students that they want to partner with Collective for Youth on a larger scale. I am so excited about Facebook’s dedication to bringing opportunities like these to the afterschool space. Like all Engineer for the Week participants, my students got to chat with a Facebook engineer and they learned what a career in computer engineering looks like. They got hands-on experience in computer coding and learned valuable STEM skills. But perhaps most inspiring at all, they were empowered to use their voices and skills to make a positive impact on an issue that mattered to them. I can’t think of a better use for their out-of-school hours than that.

Interested in bringing EFTW to your youth or learning more? Sign-up here for the Fall Season

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