Uplifting  
each other.

Instead of allowing family issues,
social challenges and anxiety to divide
them, these girls support each other.


By Ray Roa

Ray Roa writes about music in beautiful Tampa, Florida. His work has appeared in Creative Loafing, Tampa Bay Times, Daily Beast and Consequence of Sound.

Unless you’re from Kentucky, you’ve probably never heard of Prestonsburg; it’s a dot on the map with less than 4,000 residents. But for three weeks in the summer, Prestonsburg is the center of the world for 80 middle school girls participating in Verizon Innovative Learning. Located at Big Sandy Technical Community College, the immersive, hands-on program teaches girls how to program robots, create designs via CAD software and bring augmented and virtual reality projects to life with their Verizon devices.

The girls are from different ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some of their parents are attorneys and others work for the local hospital or school.

But once the girls are together in the program, they don’t self-select into cliques. Instead, they uplift each other as they navigate social fears and learn how to collaborate, find confidence and feel empowered to work on STEM projects as a team.

 

Not afraid to ask “why.”

Seventh grader Abby “AJ” Justice is always smiling. It doesn’t matter if she’s re-configuring the wiring on a robotics project or belting out a pop song at lunch. At Verizon Innovative learning, AJ is free to program robots and pose questions about why her littleBits coding isn’t working, without fear of ridicule.

“At school, the answers are either right or wrong. It’s different at Verizon Innovative Learning. We’re asked to think about the why and the how of things,” AJ says, noting that this approach has helped her become a better problem solver. Verizon Innovative Learning gives AJ a sense of purpose. She’s a little bit of a mama bear to the girls and unofficial recruiter of sorts too, bringing her bestie Addison Webb and other Adams Middle School classmates into the program. Although family circumstances forced AJ to change schools, she and Addison are still close. They openly admit how much they rely on each other.

 

From shy girl to focused student.

AJ’s enthusiasm is infectious and her positive vibes touch everyone, including Addison. “I’m a shy kid… I had a lot of anxiety,” seventh grader Addison says, while pointing to AJ. “Before this camp, I wouldn't have been able to talk to you. If you were trying to talk to me last year, I would’ve had [AJ]  speak for me.” AJ nods in agreement. “We take care of each other,” she says.

Addison admits that a stressful home life (she’s one of nine kids) caused her grades to slip. But it always helps to have a supportive girl squad on deck. Abby and the girls Addison met while attending Big Sandy’s Saturday sessions that lead up to the three-week program, encouraged her to focus on her studies. There was a noticeable turnaround. Her grades improved and Addison listened to speakers who stressed the importance of going to college. Higher education became something new to focus on. “I’m either going to UK or Morehead State University,” Addison says confidently.

 

 

Guiding and inspiring girls to be “world changers.”

Influencing girls to study and pursue STEM careers is a feel-good mission for Verizon Innovative Learning program director Traci Tackett. The longtime educator is a longtime advocate for placing advanced technology in rural schools and deleting the digital divide. During morning assembly, Traci, who’s been running Verizon Innovative Learning at Big Sandy for two years, offers the girls uplifting anecdotes that inspire them to be “world changers.”

That may sound like a simple missive, but it isn’t. Traci is keenly aware of the challenges facing her girls, especially the ones with less resources or the ones dealing with bullying or anxiety, like Addison.

That’s precisely why Traci starts the girls’ day on a motivational note. She circles the room to make eye contact with the girls, reminding them of the importance of curiosity, critical thinking and investigating solutions. “[A question] doesn’t tell the person what you don’t know,” Traci says, removing the shame around not fully understanding a coding concept. “It’s telling them what you want to know.”

 

Besties replace fear with confidence.

It’s not easy for a girl to raise her hand and announce that she doesn’t understand something. But when fifth grader Layla Vannoy started asking questions to troubleshoot issues with a 3D printer, she replaced fear with confidence. This was a huge leap for the 10-year-old who admits to having trouble learning at Porter Elementary School.

“I never liked electronics, but now I wish we had these at school,” Layla says, clicking her way around the CAD program on the computer. It’s more fun here because you don’t have to take homework back home. The teachers are more understanding.” She adjusts the dimensions, before uploading her work to a USB and rushing it to a nearby classroom. There she calibrates a blue box that brings her digital vision to life. She gushes about her accomplishment to sixth grader Sidney Tackett, who shares her approval by making a funny face.

“Sidney taught me how to be outgoing and introduce myself to people,” Layla shares. “Now I don’t feel as alone as I used to. I’m more open to people. I take chances and I’m willing to learn new stuff.”

 

 

Bridging the digital divide with art and tech in Prestonsburg.

The classroom where students love taking chances belongs to art and technology instructor Leslie Heinze. Her room is a colorful mash-up of analog and digital worlds. The Greatest Showman soundtrack plays as girls huddle around a giant plywood mural to paint green fish, yellow stars and blue birds. 

Another group holds up their Verizon devices to a mural to activate an augmented reality piece. Electronic bees zip around a painted honeycomb and a baby dances when the device hovers over a diaper. Pleased with the results, the girls smile and high five each other.

 

Prestonsburg native Leslie Heinze didn’t have anything like Verizon Innovative Learning growing up. Like many of the girls in the program, she felt misunderstood and different from everyone in town.

So she headed to California for college and career. Leslie says looking at her students is like looking in a mirror. “When I left, I learned that I wasn’t different. I was just different for this place,” Leslie says, lowering the music.

Verizon Innovative Learning, she says, whether the girls realize it or not, bridges the digital and economic divide. It’s also subtly changing the narrative for women growing up in a former coal town, and introducing them to new careers, like engineering. Leslie is grateful that the girls don’t have to leave Prestonsburg, like she did, to find and become supportive and tech savvy young women.

Middle school is a huge transitional period for girls, scholastically, physically and emotionally, and to have these girls uplift each other and develop self-confidence is pivotal to their development. “I feel like I can be better in a partnership. I’ve learned teamwork,” Sidney says. It’s not perfect, but I’ve learned to accept other people’s ideas and how to work through problems.”