Who We Are
Why Technology
Why Africa

SISTEM one-on-one with Ms. Ashley Lane, Dr. Adam Hammond and Mr. James Crooks, founders of Artifice: A Chicago South Side Non-Profit Engaging Students in Coding and Other STEM Disciplines

Ashley Lane

Ashley Lane, CEO, holds a B.A. in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the University of Chicago. As the CEO and (for now) only full-time employee of Artifice, she manages all things administrative and then some. There is probably more schooling in her future, but for now, she is content to learn how to code alongside the kids at Artifice. In her mythical downtime, she enjoys reading about tech entrepreneurship and haute couture anything, going for walks, and dreaming of future travels.

Adam Hammond

Adam Hammond, Director of Education, has a Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology (UofC, ’01) and now teaches biophysics at the University of Chicago after spending 5 years in the Chemistry department at Cornell. His research involves advanced microscopy and fluorescence methods to study cells, the membranes that surround them, and the interactions between them. He is the Curriculum Director for the Biophysical Sciences graduate program and teaches the central practical course in that program. During the summer he opens up his lab for high school science projects and visiting college students from the area and from around the country. The best way to learn, at least for many of us, is to dive in and play with the subject, whether that means ideas, codes, or diodes. At Artifice, that is exactly what happens, which is why Adam is so excited to get to be involved.

James Crooks

James Crooks, CTO, has a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Florida, and is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago in the Biophysical Sciences program. As a researcher, he studies the molecular physics of the T Cell Receptor, a core part of the immune system, using mathematical simulations and machine learning. As CTO of Artifice, he directs the development of technological tools for Artifice's outreach efforts, and helps with curriculum and teaching, particularly the Bootcamp and Python programming modules.

Q: Tell us about Artifice and what spurred its creation? In addition, tell us about your programs including the population they serve.

All: Ashley used to work in resource development at a wonderful organization on Chicago's North Side that taught digital video to at-risk youth. In applying for STEM grants, she would lament that Chicago's very competitive pool of STEM funding often supported programs that neither gave underserved participants a "leg up" in STEM subjects, nor achieved a change in their career trajectories. After seeing one too many grants awarded to projects that failed to take advantage of the high earning potential of many STEM fields, she vented her frustration to James. They agreed that the ideal STEM program would teach tech skills - tech being the most meritocratic field at present - and that it would entail a long-term, project-based intervention. James's interest in sustainably raising the income level of neighborhoods like Woodlawn meshed with Ashley's experience, resulting in what he called his "socio-physics hypothesis." James then shared this hypothesis with Adam, who had very concrete ideas about its realization.
As a faculty member at The University of Chicago, Adam was frustrated by a different pattern in STEM spending. Specifically, that much of the good effort in outreach wound up helping those students whose parents work hard to find opportunities, rather than those students who most need access to alternative learning. Any program offered by UChicago understandably draws attention, and applications can be dominated by those students with the most involved parents. He saw that the ideas of Ashley and James could provide opportunities for any curious person, without the filtering effect of an application process. Artifice can provide an alternative learning environment to the self-selected pool of people who enjoy the environment.
Adam was additionally fascinated by the success that video game developers have had in motivating teens. In the case of games, the motivation is to spend time and money, but there is no reason that the same methods couldn't be employed to encourage advancement in a curriculum. Adam is hardly the only one to make this realization, and there are now many educators using "gamification" schemes in curriculum design. Building on previous work teaching chemistry to CPS high school students, Adam and James built the idea of skill trees and rewards as a motivating structure for the Artifice curriculum.
Because of the vision that spurred it, Artifice currently only serves low-income high school students in Woodlawn; we are hoping, however, to expand the audience in every possible way, as interest and instructor availability allow. We have heard from tweens and tenured professors alike that they would be interested in our programs. Through our "hackerspace" model, we hope to take advantage of this enthusiasm by having those who are able pay a monthly membership fee for access to our resources and instruction.

Q: Can you share with us Artifice's mission, philosophy and approach to STEM promotion?

Lane: Artifice is a Chicago-area organization with a bold new approach to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. We seek to use project-based, hands-on learning to endow participants with the tech and entrepreneurial skills, specifically, that will make them the masters of their own destiny. Using the skills they learn at the center to create community-based social enterprises, students at Artifice will build their portfolios while benefitting the community. Ultimately, we hope to combine tech and entrepreneurial competencies in a way that will sustainably raise the economic and educational prospects of the neighborhood and surrounding areas.
"Artifice" comes from the Latin for "made art", which is how we like to think of the digital world. "Artificers", in fantasy literature, are particularly powerful makers, tinkerers, and wizards - all terms used synonymously with hackers. In the tech and engineering worlds, a "hack" is a work-around for a problem. It is often used to describe the act of making machinery or technology bend to the hacker's will, rather than its intended purpose. We see the programs at Artifice as hacks that repurpose STEM curricula to solve the problems of structural inequality in public education and in the workforce.

Q: Your website states that Artifice teaches students how to design and build their own websites. Do you use coding in this process? If so, tell us about coding, what is it? Can you also, elaborate on the importance of coding and its applications?

Crooks: The first experience new participants have at Artifice is our Bootcamp, during which the students learn to build websites using HTML and CSS, which are markup languages that describe the content and layout of information to a web browser. HTML and CSS are not technically programming languages - they're incapable of performing computations - but they are computer languages written in code. The process of writing computer code is really just the process of learning to express ideas and intentions in a formal language that a computer can understand. We begin the participants with building websites for two major reasons. First, HTML and CSS are simpler languages than full programming languages, but are still immensely useful, allowing the participants are able to build something right away, which promotes student retention, while exposing them to the idea that a computer language can create a valuable final product - in this case, a website. Secondly, we want the participants to be able to advertise the skills learned in any future work they do at Artifice; by being able to build a website, they'll be able to build themselves a portfolio that will live on the web, so they can show the world what they've done and can do. After the Bootcamp, we teach participants more general programming skills, which allow them to work on software projects that run everything from dynamic websites to controlling robots.

Q: What academics skills, in terms of prerequisites, do students need to possess in order to code? Conversely, what academics skills are improved or enhanced with coding?

Crooks: One of the great things about programming is that it takes very little to get started, even though it is an intellectually challenging topic that touches upon an enormous number of other academic and practical subjects. Really, being able to spell and type reasonably well, plus perform basic arithmetic, is all that is needed to begin. Lacking those basic skills may make the process frustrating at first, but strengthening those skills is an added bonus of learning to code.
Logical thinking in general is a prime component of programming, and some inclination towards logical thinking certainly makes the process smoother, but that can be, and will be, learned by any student who sticks with it. On the other hand, computer science does delve deeply into the realms of mathematics and formal logic. Those who want to use computer science to push the machines harder will have to learn the core concepts underlying computing and their corresponding mathematical concepts. Learning to program will inevitably improve students' abilities to think logically, lay out ideas and structure arguments, and apply mathematical concepts.

Q: Considering Artifice's model, can you elaborate on how do entrepreneurial competencies fit with STEM and STEM related fields such as computer science?

Crooks: At the practical level, these are marketable skills, and tech is a field with a low financial barrier to entry compared to many other market segments. This means it is possible for students to learn web development, software programming, etc., and to use those skills to get a job, freelance for clients, or start a technology company without many of the structural hurdles that might otherwise be a problem for our participants. Once they have the tech skills, they only need to master the soft skills that are necessary for building a company or a career. Of course, there is a tremendous amount of work that goes into building a career or a company, but the barriers are still lower along the entrepreneurial path in that students will not have to worry about gaining acceptance into college based on their track record with formal education, nor about the student loan burdens that are the unfortunate precursor to many other career paths.
At a more psychological level, because these are valuable skills that the students are learning, we hope that it makes them realize just how much potential they have when they put in the effort. Whether they want to be entrepreneurs, college students, or employees of someone else's company when they leave Artifice, having solid, valuable skills means students can come to the table as equals with a client or employer.

Q: As a relatively new organization, can you tell us what are the biggest challenges that Artifice faced so far? In the same vein, what are Artifice's greatest successes to date?

Hammond: The ideas behind Artifice are immediately attractive. No one thought it was a bad idea to have a tech center in Woodlawn, or to have an after school program focused on web design and electronics, or to have the nation's brightest young scientists share their enthusiasm with low-income students for free. Like any good idea, the challenges come down to space, time, and money. Enough money can ease the other challenges, but Artifice was not launched by a grant or a donor, it is all sweat equity and in-kind donations.
The first challenge was undoubtedly space. The vibe of the place is vital to the success of the Artifice curriculum. Plus, without a physical place, there was nowhere to put donated furniture and equipment, and no way to begin a bootstrap process. Thus, finding space was an existential hurdle. We explored several possibilities, but it was the 20th ward Alderman, Willie Cochran, who got us the opportunity to talk to Dr. Rev. Leon Finney about the now-donated space. "Doc" Finney and the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation have been very generous, and are fundamentally responsible for the existence of Artifice.
Once we had a space, the next challenge was equipment. We had a tremendous response when we asked for donations of equipment from the University community. Of course, used equipment is a mixed bag. We were slowly bringing piecemeal systems online when, one day, a van arrived with 26 fully functioning computer systems! A department at UChicago was replacing an office full of equipment and they graciously gave us all the old ones. That was a banner day.
Our community (narrowly and broadly defined) has continued to be very generous. We have the best legal advice that one can imagine, donated by DLA piper. Community members have brought food to serve, and the Safe Passage folks have been helping to make sure our Artificers are safe. Teachers from Hyde Park Academy put in extra effort to recruit and usher over interested students. The Chicago Police Department has been checking up on the center at night. Finally, more and more people from around the city have offered to help teach or otherwise chip in. While space was essential, our biggest success is probably the outpouring of warm encouragement and assistance.
Challenges remain, of course. We still do not have the resources to do nearly all of the teaching that we envision. And time is always an issue, since we rely on volunteer hours from notoriously busy students. One success for Artifice is the fact that the faculty advisors of our graduate students recognize the value of the project and are willing to accommodate bits of time away from the salt mines of graduate school. Similarly, some of Adam's time is donated by the University.
This flexibility is due, in part, to the initiatives of the National Science Foundation, which has gradually increased the pressure it exerts on its funded scientists to have a "broader impact" beyond the central endeavor of knowledge creation. Several of our instructors, as well as James, were awarded research fellowships from the NSF, partially in recognition of their commitment to using science and technology to accomplish broader goals in society. That federal acknowledgement has a growing impact on attitudes in the Academy.

Q: In your opinion, what are the 3 main factors that educational policymakers need to consider in order to promote STEM education in underrepresented communities and bridge the digital divide?

Hammond: 1) Agency 2) Motivation 3) Flexibility
Students must feel that they are safe and in control of an environment before they can employ the concentration necessary for significant neural remodeling. If they feel like trespassers or like another number on a STEM grant application, they will sit around in defensive mode and never sufficiently engage with the material. That is why we care so deeply about the physical space of Artifice. The center is not provided for them, they are actively building the center for themselves. For completing the first major achievement of the curriculum, Artificers spray paint their name on the ceiling. Teens are amazingly able to try on different social roles and change those roles quickly. Studies show that long term career and life choices are selected through a process of experimenting with different roles as teens, almost like trying on clothes. Agency is the confidence that allows the students to try on the clothes of the future that you are offering in your program. Even if they always leave that role at the door when they leave, the opportunity to try out alternate futures is central to success in reaching more students.
Those teens who are capable of recognizing the long term benefits of education are probably going to find the education that will help them. The goal of most outreach is to provide opportunities to the larger segment of the population, for whom delayed gratification will not motivate educational diligence. Getting into college, getting a good job after high school, and avoiding bad grades are all examples of lousy motivational schemes for these kids. Motivation to participate needs to involve near term rewards. The hopeful truth is that motivation can be easy to arrange. Points, badges, titles, privileges, break time, etc., are all motivating elements that can be added to a curriculum. Peer teaching and teaching back are also powerful engaging forces.
Unfortunately, many of the people who could most benefit from STEM outreach suffer from a host of complicating factors, such as sleep deprivation and terrible diet. It is unreasonable to expect a group of teens to progress synchronously in learning a complex subject. A good design has to incorporate the opportunity to progress rapidly or take a nap on any given day and to avoid program schedules that will force the participants to get up early. Ideally, teens should be asleep until 8 in the morning. Providing some reasonably healthy calories can also increase the chances of success.

Q: What tips can you share with students that want to pursue careers in computer programming, STEM and other related fields? Also, what advice do you have for their parents?

Hammond: The individual elements of the acronym STEM cover such amazingly different areas of endeavor that there may be no universally valuable advice. Students that already know that they want a career - who are thinking that far in advance - are already on a successful path. "Keep your eyes open for mentors" is my best advice. Ask about opportunities, take them, stay in touch with the people you meet.
As for the parents, that is the harder job. Even the most organized teens are constantly losing track of what they are doing. Students being late or absent from STEM programs is a constant source of annoyance for the educators involved, which impacts their expectations of your child. If you want to help your child make the most of an opportunity then you have to do the hard, unrewarding work of knowing what the expectations are and providing the little bits of support: the reminders, the emergency rides, the positive attitude. Sure, maybe you are enabling their bad habits, but if your teen has a real opportunity, you put that fight on the sidelines while they make the most of it. Harder yet, make sure they get enough sleep! All the science points to the absolute truth that teens need 9 or more hours of good sleep in order to have proper mental acuity and learning potential. Worse still, hormonal changes affect their ability to feel tired in the evening. Making them go to bed may not be enough. If at all possible, avoid programs that make them get up early. Discuss a "no LED screen" rule from 9pm to 7am every school night. Use it as a threat if they are not getting enough sleep.

Q: What resources does Artifice offer students who want to pursue careers and studies in computer science and in STEM?

Lane: At Artifice, we do not believe that learning should be removed from practice; one of our founding notions was that students should understand how skills connect with real-world employment opportunities. We want them to be able to monetize what they have learned as soon as possible, starting with work on freelance jobs within the community.
In addition to our hands-on exploration of tech and entrepreneurial skills, Artifice hopes to use its ever-expanding network to introduce students to mentors in areas such as personal finance, tech small business ownership, technological innovation and patents, FAFSA guidance and financial aid counseling, and college-entry programs. We aim to facilitate a familiarity with, for instance, the Collegiate Scholars Program at the University of Chicago, the Chicago Engineers' Foundation, and other institutions that could potentially benefit our participants in their careers and/or studies. Ideally, they will be able to make more informed decisions about both after having dipped their toes into the tech jobs market.

Q: Finally, tell us about yourself and your personal journey that led to the inception of Artifice: What inspired you to choose your current career path?

Lane: I was raised by a single mother who instilled in me the value of education as a means for achieving financial independence. The first in my immediate family to complete college, I graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in Latin American Studies and a minor in Human Rights. In my time on campus, I was active in immigrant rights and labor organizing. I was a co-founder of the University of Chicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights - an organization that works alongside undocumented and immigrant youth to improve access to, and services at, the University of Chicago and other institutions of higher education - and I had intended to continue to work toward equal access to education upon graduating. Rather than end up at an immigrant rights or legal aid organization as I had anticipated, though, life increasingly steered me toward at-risk youth and technology. It became apparent to me after graduating into a struggling economy with no knowledge of programming - the one skill that still seemed to be in high demand across sectors - that formal education, especially given its skyrocketing costs, is not always the best chance for would-be first-generation college students to better their prospects. While it looks different today than when I was in college, my involvement in Artifice is born of the same passion to give all youth a fair start.

Crooks: I learned how to build computers and troubleshoot them young, mostly because I wanted to play video games and we couldn't always afford the latest system. So, I learned to do it myself, and I learned how to get what I wanted out of the machines without spending much money. I learned to like solving problems from these early attempts to get more video game time for less money. In college, I studied mathematics, which gave me plenty of problems to solve, but also taught me how to break them down, and find commonalities and patterns between them. Artifice, for me, is an attempt to recreate these early experiences for others; create a goal and a prize, and make problem solving along the way a key part of the experience. But my own curiosity is also part of it; I want to know if we can make a neighborhood better by giving the youth an opportunity for both themselves and their community.

Hammond: I grew up wanting to be a scientist because of my grandfather (a chemist) and the influence of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. College was a shock. The lab sections of chemistry and physics were so formulaic and unsatisfying that I dropped out of science and changed my major to education. I was driven out of science by the way it was taught. Two years later, I got a work-study job making solutions for a faculty member's molecular biology lab and everything changed again. That was 26 years ago, and I have been a scientist, every day, since then. We are all different. Many people enjoy their college science courses, but they didn't work for me. For any of us to reach our potential, we need to have the chance to explore ideas, and explore those ideas in different types of environments. That is what Artifice is to me - the chance for people to come in and explore technology in a different kind of place. It happens to be the kind of place that works for me.

To read more ISTG Online Publication articles, please click here.

2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)