Tucked away behind a Pluckers and an assortment of Austin landmarks-turned-condos, sits a nondescript cluster of brick buildings which Texans would recognize as a school, but whose importance might elude non-natives. A browning field of grass greets onlookers, a commonality among public schools in drought-stricken central Texas. Girls in white, black and navy uniforms navigate among tan buildings using graveled pathways. The school hums with the bustle of young achievers at work. Founded in 2007 and named for a beloved former governor, Ann Richards serves a variety of young women (grades 6-12) from all over the city. Application to the school is a competitive process and requires that girls have met all state testing standards, attend school consistently, and have good grades. Still, 75% of students come from economically disadvantaged households, and students of color are the majority–a rarity among selective schools in Texas. From the time of their admission, students are familiarized with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math(STEAM). By the time they reach 8th grade, the girls have explored multiple fields including robotics, programming and green architecture. Their multi-faceted skill-set equips the young women with unique problem-solving abilities that extend beyond the classroom. “Making” is taught with extra emphasis here, and the teachers do so creatively. The modules set in place require the girls to develop ideas, create plans and execute projects using various computer programs, 3D and laser printing, and a large selection of tools.
I intermingle with the different groups, never working with one for more than 15 minutes, aiding them in any way I can. As I bounce around the classroom and workshop, I inquire about the various projects each group will be undertaking. I help unravel problems by loosening certain threads and offering new perspectives. I experiment with the materials alongside the girls, so we find ourselves exploring and testing our new skills in unison. This helps me strike a balance, enabling me to generate ideas and suggestions without dominating. I have built up trust with many of the students, which allows a more free-form flow of communication. We giggle and goof-off between bouts of intense thinking, analyzing, and processing in which all ideas are respected. I implore them to draw, write and research their projects, as well as read the directions, a task too often overlooked by the students, who are eager to finish.
As with any maker, especially students, frustration is common. Usually frustration can be eased through a series of pointed questions or a dialogue, though occasionally it can only be met by my backing off and allowing space for the girls to decompress and think on their own. Every week I find myself more at ease with my decisions. Initially on edge about everything, from which group I should help to how to help them, I have now developed a groove to help me navigate the ins and outs of assisting pre-teen girls with difficult tasks. I feel confident in my interactions and choices. I do my best to help–and often that’s just by being humble and willing to learn together.
Still, I do only a fraction of everyone else. Katherine Sauter, the skilled and brilliant woman who teaches the class, works around the clock, developing modules, grading and instructing the girls. Oren, who supervises the workshop, consistently stays longer than he has to so that he can provide more examples and directions for the girls being introduced to the large tools and equipment available. However, these dedicated individuals are stretched so thin that my assistance really does seem to make a difference. I’m available when Ms. Sauter and Oren are not. Although I cannot answer questions to the same ability, my approachability and earnest desire to help–as well as to have fun–finds me being sought out for assistance quite often. Remarkably, many of these young women look up to me. My age and honest communication with them have put me in the position of a role model, so I try my best to live up to that. I use the skills I have gleaned from my education to translate complicated subjects into something more approachable. I fall back on memories from some of my more difficult classes, like Chemistry and Genetics, and trying to decode that challenging subject matter. When I do convey the information in a way that clicks, it’s a rewarding feeling for all involved, and we all get to come away with something special.