A Summary and Review of Gear Up with Alice

by caitlynpickens

Two years ago, Tracy Taylor of Lake Forest College invited me to teach a workshop with her in Porcupine, South Dakota. The workshop, which she calls Gear Up with Alice (GUWA), is a sort of intervention program to help motivate middle schoolers on Pine Ridge Reservation to stay in school. I went with her and another one of her students, Anica Lin, in summer 2011 and had an amazing time teaching art and introductory programming to 11-13 year-olds.

This past summer, I returned to the Rez a second time with a fellow MSU graduate student, Jory Schossau, to teach the GUWA workshop again. Without Tracy to guide the art instruction, the project took a turn toward more computing. The combination of the lack of preparation on our part as instructors and the extremely lax environment of public school on the Rez resulted in a less effective program the second time around, in my opinion. We definitely encountered some troubles with hitting a wall in regard to using Alice as a teaching tool. We also experienced a lot of problems with fluctuating attendance on the students’ part, which is a common problem on the reservation. The computing resources were in disrepair because the tech employee at the school was leaving for a different job at the end of the summer. Two funerals were held during our two-week workshop. Funerals are held in the school since it is the largest place in the community for a gathering; therefore school is closed for at least a day and a half (and the entire weekend following) for funeral ceremonies. Basically, we encountered a ton of obstacles with our workshop, and Jory and I didn’t have enough experience to know how to overcome them.

Below I am including some ideas for directions that I think might be useful to this project.

Learning Objectives

Especially if this workshop is ever going to be expanded to a multi-campus setup, clear learning objectives should be defined. I know Tracy did a lot of curriculum planning when she originally designed the workshop 5 or 6 years ago. I believe the curriculum may have been lost over time. Further, Tracy has started including trained computer scientists as instructors. It would be useful to have the artists and the computer scientists sit down together and draft a list of explicit learning objectives again for the course.


So far, the assessment of student learning in the workshop is relatively nonexistent. Tracy has informal surveys that students complete at the end of the workshop, but these do not allow instructors to modify their teaching on the fly to suit student needs. I highly recommend that GUWA instructors use “minute cards” in the future. Minute cards are a quick and easy assessment technique… Give each student an index card. Have them write one thing they learned in the lesson on one side, and one question they still have on the other. It’s great to gauge the learning in your student audience.


The workshop has existed for some 5 or 6 years now, and technology has grown and changed over that time. In addition, Tracy now has me as a resource for her team, and I have done a decent bit of research on “best practices” for teaching introductory computing. It would be a good idea to reevaluate the teaching tools that the course is using (like Alice), talk about possible alternatives (like Scratch), and even brainstorm other possible modes of teaching (Python? command line programming? web design?).

The Future

As a last note, I want to include some pictures of the kindergarten class learning the alphabet and basic reading skills in the computer lab. I’m hoping that, one day, these will be our students. :]