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Disrupting Class To Make Way For Technology


Education was another of the issues the president touched on last night. Over the past few months, we've been talking a lot about the STEM fields - that's science, technology, engineering and math. We've been placing a particular focus on the shortage of blacks in tech because blacks make up just 5 percent of America's scientists and engineers, that according to a study by the National Science Foundation.

During our recent NPR Blacks in Tech series, we heard a lot of suggestions from rising stars in those fields about how to close that gap and level the playing field for people of color. One suggestion came from Patrick Gusman. He's a teacher at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, and he teaches students to develop tech applications and incorporates disruptive or innovative technologies into lesson plans. And we wanted to hear more about that, so we've invited him back to talk with us again. Patrick Gusman, thanks so much for joining us once again.

PATRICK GUSMAN: Thanks for inviting me.

MARTIN: And I also want to mention that his school collaborated with us throughout the NPR Blacks in Tech series. He's executive director of the Equal Footing Foundation. So first, could you explain to us what disruptive tech means?

GUSMAN: OK. First of all, just a little clarification. Disruptive innovation is a term that was coined by Professor Clayton Christensen at the Harvard University Business School. What this means is it's something that disrupts a market and creates all new supply chains. The way that it does this - let me give you an example. So the mainframe computer was there, largely inaccessible by a lot of people. That was then transformed into the personal computer, and now we have it everywhere. That is a disruptive innovation.

MARTIN: Yeah, or cars, right? Cars.

GUSMAN: Cars. The Model T was...


GUSMAN: ...One of the first...

MARTIN: Made you put away your horse.

GUSMAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: Right. Exactly. So we get that - so disruptive technology, you kind of think instinctively that's how a lot of teachers and parents react to technology because they see it as a disruption from the main business of learning. And you're trying to sort of change people's ideas about that. Talk a little bit about that.

GUSMAN: So what's really important in the school setting is that our kids now, because everything is changing so rapidly, that they have the ability to be problem solvers. So what we do is we expose them to a number of these disruptive innovations - whether or not it's drones with Jeff Bezos trying to change delivery - so that they can think about what they can do to be the next disruptors.

MARTIN: You know, in fact, one of your students, Miles Peterson, came and visited with us during our NPR Blacks in Tech series, and we know that kids are excited about technology. I mean, we know this because that's often the thing that they're, you know, they are the first people to be attracted to. I just want to play short clip from the conversation we had with Miles.


MILES PETERSON: Recently, people came to our school, and we got to try on the Google Glass. And that was very, very cool. So, I mean, being able to try it on and then, like I said again, how it works and then that makes you not want to become a consumer but make more. And you come up with ideas, how to make it better and you work with other people, software developers, to find out how you can put your idea to work.

MARTIN: But how can people who are not at places like Howard University Middle School that have specific, you know, access and relationships with the tech world - how can they start thinking about this? I mean, 'cause as you can see from - you know, a lot of parents and teachers, they think of tech like fire, you know, something to stay away from or something that is just inherently a problem. Like, they envision sort of kids kind of plugged into their devices, you know, texting each other and not doing their math, for example.

GUSMAN: Well, one of the beautiful things now is because of another disruptive innovation - which is the whole way that we are providing instruction and educational opportunities that we can reach more people. So for right now, there's Khan Academy, and there's a lot of other of these types of things where lessons about specific subjects can be accessed all over the Internet. My daughter, for example, uses something called Crash Course. And it's like, what's Crash Course? And I was studying with her biology, and it's these very simple sort of messages about subject matter available on the Internet for free, accessible by everyone.

MARTIN: How do you respond to the - another issue that people often raise about the use of technology in the classroom, which is this is a way to kind of reinforce the inequities that already exist, you know, that some kids are going to, you know, have access to iPads. I mean, there are a lot of independent schools in the Washington, D.C. area, where fourth- graders are being issued iPads or tablet computers as a matter of course. And then other places, kids don't even have access to, you know, the complicated calculators that people use for higher-level mathematics. And people say this just reinforces the digital divide. What do you say to that?

GUSMAN: Well, what I say is that we need to rethink our whole process - and maybe this is going to be provocative - but we have to think of a laptop or iPad as something that's like pen and paper. We can debate about other issues, but it's like pen and paper. And until we get over that and we say that this is essential for all children, we're going to be running behind.

MARTIN: How would you encourage people to think about this issue for themselves in their own homes, in their own classrooms? I mean, is it your argument that, what? You know, stop being afraid, bring the technology in now and you'll figure it out, stumble your way through it - or what?

GUSMAN: So earlier, you mentioned the horse and buggy. And I'm sure there were a lot of people who said, oh, well, I'll get more exercise if I ride a horse. The fact of the matter is that if you do not have a laptop computer or some sort of device, you are not in the game. And we now have to think about that in terms of our kids, saying if we want them to compete - if you go into any major college, you'll see all the kids out with their laptops. So are we saying that poor kids then just all of a sudden have to learn how to operate in that type of mentality? No. It needs to happen very early. Everyone needs a laptop or some device in order to be part of the competition now.

MARTIN: How do you address, though, the, you know, the fears that - I think a lot of us have seen this. I mean, you go out to dinner. You go out to a restaurant, and you see a kind of a roundtable of young people. And they're all on their devices, and they're not talking to each other. And I think the fear a lot of people have is people are losing the ability to interact on an interpersonal level on a consistent basis because they're all involved with their own devices. How would you address that?

GUSMAN: The way I'd address that is by saying, there's no substitute for good parenting. There's no substitute for good teaching. And so a device is there. It's an essential device. But then parenting, teaching, all those have to step in so that those devices are used effectively.

MARTIN: Is it your bottom line that people should bring the devices out now? Don't wait and try to figure out how to incorporate them into the learning now instead of waiting kind of for the perfect plan to take place. Is that - is that your thought?

GUSMAN: That is my thought. And it should be coupled with a lot of good instruction, but they have to have them now because you'll be setting your kids too far behind if you wait for the perfect situation. It's just like pen and paper.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, you know, education is one of the ongoing concerns of this president. You know, he opened his State of the Union address last night by talking about kind of teachers and going the extra mile. Is there something in policy you feel that should be talked about as a way to advance this country's continuing presence in tech? Very briefly, if you would.

GUSMAN: Very briefly. So the president talked about innovation centers. We have some of the greatest innovators like Elon Musk of Tesla. Those people should be brought into the classroom.

MARTIN: Patrick Gusman is a teacher at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science. He's the executive director of the Equal Footing Foundation. He was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Patrick Gusman, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

GUSMAN: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.