How Student Tech Teams Encourage Inclusivity and Foster Leadership

student tech teams
(Image credit: 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay)

For about as long as he can remember eighth grader Tra Gaston has had a passion for fixing tech devices.

“My dad used to fix phones and he taught me how to hard reset them and stuff like that,” Gaston says. 

As he got older he began experimenting more and more with fixing old devices. Now he does this in an official capacity with a student tech team at Crawford W. Long Middle School.

“He's one of my tinkers,” says Renee Dawson an education technology specialist who oversees Tra’s student tech team. “If I have something that's just not quite working, right, he'll tinker with it until he gets it to work. Sometimes better than it did before.” 

The student tech team is part of the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools Program, which is a collaboration between Verizon and Digital Promise that seeks to equip every student and teacher at select middle and high schools across America with a device and internet access. The program also requires students to be involved in providing tech support. This is a win-win for districts because it helps tech staff while also providing students an opportunity for on-the-job training, says Michael Mades, technical project director at Digital Promise.

“It really decreases the burden on the district IT, and the school IT, to have a student provide that tier one troubleshooting,” says Mades, who helps oversee the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program. “Once [districts] identify the students who can really take this and go with it, then they can advance their skills into more of the higher level troubleshooting and support.” 

 Student Tech Teams: Learning Leadership  

Part of the mission of these tech teams is to recruit a diverse group of students. “We have students from all walks of our campus,” says William Page, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools Instructional Coach at Thomas Starr King School in Los Angeles.  “We have students who are in our special ed program. We have students who are identified as gifted. We have students who have had discipline issues in the past. I was very purposeful in targeting a very diverse group of students, and also students who aren't necessarily tech-inclined but who have an interest in growing as leaders.” 

Part of what makes teams successful are the ways in which students work together and learn from one another as they make video and slideshow tutorials and engage in other outreach efforts around technology in their school, Dawson says. “It's students working with students, which is really empowering for all of them because it's not just an adult telling them what to do; it's one of their peers.” 

Resetting More Than Just Devices 

The student tech teams can also provide an opportunity for those who have not found their niche in other areas of the school. One student on Williams' team has been identified as on the autism spectrum while others struggle with being shy. "We're trying to make sure that we are normalizing as much as possible, and being as inclusive as we possibly can, so that students see brilliance in in all," he says. 

Students regularly go to Dawson’s office to talk and relax, away from the pressures and stressors they might encounter elsewhere. “I actually become their safe space in the building,” Dawson says. 

Tra is among those students who regularly stops by even when he’s not fixing any tech. “There's always the days that he comes to me just because he needs to reset himself, and we talk and get reset in a better headspace,” she says. 

Starting A Student Tech Team at Your School 

Educators interested in learning more about starting their own tech team can find more tips here and learn more about the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools Program here

Tra says participating in the program as a student has been rewarding. “Every time we work on stuff, I learn something new,” he says. His advice for those thinking about starting a program or joining a team is short and to the point: “If they're interested, come on!” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.