In honor of National STEAM Day — highlighting science, technology, engineering, arts and math — Apple held a conversation on Nov. 8 with five panelists working to bring innovations to their respective communities. While STEM focuses solely on hard science, STEAM incorporates the humanities, to encourage students to use creativity in their problem-solving.
Apple has always promoted apps as a vehicle for developers with an interest in problem-solving. One panelist described apps as an equalizer and a vehicle for technology to make change where it’s needed.
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Antonia Torres, a bilingual fifth-grade teacher in Uniondale, N.Y., is not an app developer herself — yet — but she spoke favorably about using iPads in her classroom. She came to the United States when she was 16 and spoke no English, and she now teaches a class where the students are predominantly bilingual.
“Having an iPad was the best gift [my students] will ever have in their life,” she told the audience. “Why? Because it gave them the power to speak. It broke the language barriers.”
According to American University’s School of Education, including technology in the classrooms — especially when students are young — can “increase student engagement, help teachers improve their lesson plans and facilitate personalized learning.” Torres, who is working with children with differing language skills and learning capabilities, has seen firsthand how vital technology has been for her students in reducing the struggles and uncertainty that she had to go through.
One student had behavioral issues. Nobody cared to spend time with him, she recalled, “not even his own peers.” “We became very, very good friends,” she said. “I decided to teach coding, and I was showing him the steps. And while I went to a different group, he comes to me [and says,] ‘Look, I’m creating a coding program.’ And at that moment, he was my teacher.”
Susie Jaramillo went into app development for the same reason: to connect children with diverse, engaging stories that would not only reduce disparities in representation in children’s entertainment but would also keep the kids on track with their school curriculum. This became especially pertinent after the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused “enormous learning losses” in schools.
Jaramillo’s app, Encantos, is an interactive storytelling app that she describes as a “celebration of culture, language and learning.”
Another panelist, Adam Taylor, also identified a gap in the educational content available and accessible to his community. He founded the company Langston LLC and developed Black, a multifaceted news and culture platform for Black readers with a focus on stories that resonate with the community.
“Black is really about creating something that I didn’t see in the world,” he explained. “I find that with the digital divide, with the mainstream applications, we were losing out on our voices. And I think with my work and the work that I’m in, hopefully, this divide can lessen.”
A common theme voiced by the panelists was addressing some sort of divide or gap that they noticed in their communities — whether an education gap, a language barrier or just the sense that they were being overlooked in mainstream media.
One 18-year-old, Joshua Tint, felt unseen when he was grappling with his own gender identity growing up. His app, Discover Me, helps users who are questioning, trans or gender-nonconforming figure out which names and pronouns they prefer, by entering different names and pronouns in sample text. Tint was selected as a 2022 Swift Student scholar and won recognition from Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook.
“My experience on the internet is that, while there are a lot of great spaces for people online, oftentimes the internet is vastly different and worse — like openly hostile to queer people,” Tint said. “So the idea that you can go on your phone and have a normal, accepting experience as a queer person and a validating experience … I thought was very powerful.”
Studies have found that transgender youth are less likely to face suicidal thoughts and behavior when people use their chosen name and pronouns.
“We build spaces for everyone to express their identity online and for technology,” Tint added. “If we fail to do that, we’re essentially just widening the digital divide, and we are moving over the divide that exists in the physical world into the digital world.”
Amanda Southworth, creator of the nonprofit Astra Labs and the app AnxietyHelper, also used her upbringing in an unstable home with mental health issues to build support and solutions for others in similar situations.
In 2015, at 13, she built a mental health app that was launched in the App Store. It grew out of her experience dealing with her own suicidal thoughts and distracting herself with Apple’s Swift’s coding tools, and she thought nothing of it until she started getting user feedback.
“I started getting messages from people who were like, ‘You stopped me from that,’ or ‘That was very helpful,'” she recalled.
While experts agree that mental health apps are a great resource for people who are struggling, they note that they are not a replacement for professional help. Many mental health services, however, are not accessible for members of certain communities, particularly low-income families and people of color, because of the social stigma, cost, a lack of awareness or the scarcity of appointments available.
Working with her following on Tumblr at the time, Southworth decided to see how many LGBTQ kids, specifically, would be interested in a mental health app that was designed for them.
She received 25,000 responses, 96% of them asking to use the app, she said. “You can talk about your mental health, and that’s one part of changing the world and one part of activism. But programming was another part, where not only do I talk about what I’ve been through, but I’m creating a tool that helps people because there’s no legislation getting passed.”
Her work illustrates the vital intersection between the humanities and traditional STEM studies for creating solutions. It’s one thing to recognize a gap in the market, but Southworth added a human element to her app by making sure it had features that LGBTQ users specifically wanted or needed.
While the liberal arts don’t get much attention, Apple’s Tim Cook has been an advocate for STEAM learning for years now, arguing in 2018 that the “intersection of liberal arts and technology” should be made a mandatory element in the school curriculum.
“That intersection is where we can amplify learning and creativity,” he explained.
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