MIT PhD student enhances STEM education in underrepresented communities in Puerto Rico

Taylor Baum (front left in blue) stands with some of the Sprouting a STEM Community 2023 participants and volunteers at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. Photo credit: Kris Brewer / Center for Brains, Minds and Machines

Taylor Baum knows that access is everything. So the fourth-year MIT PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has been working in recent years to enhance STEM education in underrepresented communities in Puerto Rico.

As the founder of social impact venture Sprouting, Baum has been leading programs to facilitate community between K-12, undergraduate, post-graduate students, and teachers of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, including two recent workshops, one in 2022 and the latest in May 2023.

Making an impact

In the summer of 2022, Baum organized Sprouting’s first large five-day hackathon for teachers and students in Ponce, Puerto Rico, with the goal of empowering educators to teach coding and computer science to their students. The hackathon began with virtual training for teachers, followed by students and teachers working on an applied project together, and ended with an in-person presentation of their work.

Forty teachers and 80 students from middle and high schools signed up for the hackathon, emphasizing the ever-present urge in Puerto Rico to explore computer science and STEM in general. Additionally, 10 volunteer teaching assistants from around the world assisted in the hackathon, with speakers attending from different nonprofits and organizations in the area. The event was supported by a grant from the MIT Center for Brains, Minds and Machines (CBMM), with Neptuno supporting internet services and a speaker, and Amazon Web Services (AWS) providing food, prizes, and another speaker.

“Our goal was to provide teachers with the skills and materials they need to teach coding and computer science in their own classrooms,” Baum says. “We believe that by providing teachers with the tools they need, we could ensure that all students have access to quality STEM education, regardless of their background.”

Baum decided to host the hackathon in Ponce, the island’s second-largest city on its southern coast, so that it could serve a Puerto Rican audience that doesn’t get as much attention with STEM events, which are often hosted in the northern capital city of San Juan. Sprouting organizers recruited participants through Facebook groups and communities of local public school teachers and students on the island.

With previous experience teaching in Puerto Rico, Baum understood that residents have faced a number of day-to-day challenges from government corruption to a decade-long financial crisis to natural disasters. Despite this, she saw the obvious talent and potential in every student and teacher she interacted with, and wanted to put on a high-energy, impactful event that would benefit the community without straining or burdening them. The hackathon was an opportunity for her to give back to the community and make a real impact on the future of education.

“We were thrilled to be a part of this initiative,” said Baum. “We believed that it would make a real difference in the lives of teachers and students in Puerto Rico, and the participants took full advantage of the event, showing clear potential and passion for progressing technological education on the island. We were grateful for the support of CBMM, Neptuno, and AWS, and we look forward to seeing continued results of this event in the future.”

This hackathon is an example of the continued desire that Baum has for enhancing coding education for underrepresented communities. She has also taught machine learning in Uruguay and has been working on her Spanish language skills to make it more comfortable for the folks she is working with by holding Sprouting events in their native language. She now gives lectures entirely in Spanish to reduce the engagement barrier. Like the students working to increase fluency in their coding languages, Baum shows that getting out of your comfort zone can lead to incredibly rewarding experiences. 

Taylor Baum (center) instructs participants during a 2023 workshop on control theory. Photo credit: Kris Brewer

Growing a community

With the success of the first workshop in 2022, Baum organized a second event that was held last month “Sprouting a STEM Community 2023” (SSC23), in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.

SSC23 continues the journey toward a sustainable effort to support computer science education in underrepresented communities. The fully Spanish lessons that were provided to the teachers during the event are meant to be used in their classrooms after the event, thus the teachers were able to take back the knowledge and skills gained from the hackathon and continue teaching coding and computer science to their students.

This year’s event was sponsored by a grant from the CBMM and hosted by the Department of Biology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. Neptuno provided internet services, ensuring each workshop ran smoothly. Each morning started with two to three lectures from faculty, postdocs, and graduate students with presentations pertaining to their field. Many faculty presentations included sections on how rewarding a career as a scientist can be and how it can make a significant impact on not only oneself, but also one’s family, one’s community, and the world at large.

After a social break, participants split into volunteer teaching assistant-led groups for interactive workshops consisting of a range of topics from control theory to the cardiovascular system. The format of the workshops emphasized active learning methods commonly employed at MIT, ranging from group discussions to guided tutorials to group exercises. One popular exercise teaching control theory consisted of participants taking turns guiding a “blind human robot” (a fellow participant with their eyes closed) through a maze of desks to retrieve a water bottle using only (verbally spoken) program commands such as “forward 2 meters, turn right 90 degrees.”

“SSC23 was entirely organized by volunteers,” says Sprouting Program Manager Paloma Sanchez-Jauregui. “What was most inspiring was seeing how volunteers and teaching assistants were willing to altruistically put in hours of work to make this event happen, even when they had final exams and full time jobs. During the workshops, we saw the participants guide others in solving the workshop contents that Taylor built. Seeing my own community become mentors with their peers made me really happy and proud of being part of a caring and passionate community”

A new addition to this year’s event included the creation of the Sprouting Ambassadors program. As the program website describes, “Sprouting Ambassadors will commit to unlock the existing potential present throughout the communities they grew up in, in turn growing as a leader and activist in education. Sprouting will fund a trip to MIT for the ambassadors to learn more about research in STEM and, more importantly, help them organize a Sprouting event so they can become mentors in their own community.” Thirteen applicants from this year’s Sprouting event were selected and will be coming to MIT’s campus this summer.

This year’s event was a success drawing about 150 participants, volunteers, and speakers from around the island continuing to emphasize the talent and passion for technological innovation in Puerto Rico. With the event being fully in-person this year, all lectures were recorded, live streamed, and posted to the Sprouting website video page, with captions in Spanish, for those who could not attend in person and allow for continuing use of the materials.

For her continuing work on Sprouting activities, along with her academic pursuits, Baum was recently honored as an MIT Woman of Excellence sponsored by the Office of Graduate Education, and awarded the 2023 Seth J. Teller Award for Excellence, Inclusion and Diversity from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

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