Eric Meyers

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?

Eric Meyers

This series is aimed at getting to know exceptional UBC staff and faculty who are doing anything but the typical day to day. Discover the stories of these UBC Vancouver and Okanagan individuals, who contribute to making UBC an inspiring place to be.

Eric Meyers is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies — The iSchool@UBC — more commonly known as SLAIS. Before teaching at UBC, Meyers earned a Bachelor’s of History and Master of Science in Information from the University of Michigan. He taught in the K-12 system but quickly discovered he wanted to be a school librarian. He completed a library degree and worked as a librarian at both the elementary and middle school levels until he decided to enrich his career further by pursuing a degree in Learning Sciences at Stanford.

He fell in love with research and after receiving his PhD at The University of Washington, he began teaching at UBC where he incorporates his research on youth programming, learning spaces and technology focussed curricula into his teaching. Although it may seem as though he has changed career directions several times over the years, Meyers contends the idea of learning and information technology is the thread that connects all of his career experience.

UBC Communications and Marketing had a chance to talk with Professor Meyers about some of the interesting research and teaching he does in the community. His most recent project involves teaching preteens to code in public libraries using the low-cost Raspberry Pi microcomputer.

A DIY portable camera Meyers builds with grade six elementary students

Q
Why do you think it is important children learn to code even if they don’t pursue a Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM) career?

A: We hear from big tech giants like Google and Microsoft that every child needs to code. We are hearing from the government that we need to emphasize computer science more. A big part of that emphasis is to spur innovation and to also diversify our tech work force. But that’s not the only reason why people need to learn to code. We can’t all be computer scientists and many people don’t want to be, but learning to code can help you in a number of different ways. It’s not just about a set of skills; it’s also about a mindset. So many of our technologies today are like black boxes. Stuff goes in and stuff goes out. We are encouraged not to think about what happens in the middle. People don’t understand the settings on their phone. People don’t understand how their cameras work. People don’t understand when their devices are transmitting information and to whom they are transmitting that information. We are in a position where we are not thinking critically about our technologies.

In many ways the things we could be doing with technology could be envisioned by people who are not necessarily software engineers, but are everyday users of technology. More and more of our technology is pushing information at us. How do we make sense of that information? How do we critically examine what we want to get information about? How is that information generated, how will it be used to make good decisions? It’s about being an informed member of society. We could even apply coding to all kinds of things, from poetry to philosophy, to writing or to just engaging in politics and every day life.

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It’s not just about a set of skills; it’s also about a mindset. So many of our technologies today are like black boxes. Stuff goes in and stuff goes out. We are encouraged not to think about what happens in the middle.

Q
Could you describe what kind of projects you are developing in relation to the new British Columbia ‘coding curriculum’?

A: We started collaborating with local public libraries two years ago to develop a curriculum that would work with their informal learning programs. Our first pilot was widely successful. We got fantastic response from parents in the community. The day registration opened up for the twelve slots in the class, we had fifty people who wanted to get in. It all filled in a matter of an hour or so. The library said, well we need to do more! We need to run another session. That library now runs about 20 sessions of the program a year. Which is amazing. They have totally taken the program and run with it. We were really grateful for the opportunity to pilot the curriculum and work with them on the design of the program.

I would love to work more with the public schools. We are moving ideas of interest driven coding and crafting exercises into the elementary curriculum. We are doing some really neat projects like this Raspberry Pi camera project. We’ve done this with teens in the library. I also did it with grade six students at Norma Rose Point Elementary School. We worked with them for four weeks developing some skills in terms of coding and putting together technology. For example, like learning how wires work and how batteries all fit together. Then we had them build this camera project. They had to write Python script and make all the pieces work. It was a lot of fun! I think the kids really got a lot out of it. I really enjoyed working with them. Now we’re looking to see where we can fit more of this kind of teaching into the formal education system too.

Q
Much of your work focuses on ‘design literacy’ and ‘computational thinking’. Could you define these terms and explain what interests you about these subjects?

A: Design literacy means thinking about design from a critical perspective. You are unpacking the way design works, not just accepting it as a fact. It’s understanding the rhetoric of design to help you think critically about design. Similarly, computational thinking is about thinking as if you were a computer scientist.

Combining those two allows young people to think critically about their technologies and possibly envision alternatives or ways those technologies can solve new kinds of problems. How can we think of technology instead of just making people money? How can we think of it as decreasing inequality, or solving problems of social justice? Making technology can also be about making our world a better place. It can be about having richer relationships rather than impoverished ones. It can be about having more time to spend with people not on computers. Being savvy about your technology also means knowing when technology isn’t the answer or when it is the wrong solution to the problem.

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How can we think of technology instead of just making people money? How can we think of it as decreasing inequality, or solving problems of social justice? Making technology can also be about making our world a better place.

Eric Meyers
Q
How do you think children in the world navigate material online and how does it impact them socially and intellectually?

A: Children are growing up with technology in very interesting ways, ways that are not like my childhood. They are constantly bombarded with media messages through a variety of channels. They also have tremendous access to digital technologies at a very early age. These technologies are ubiquitous. They are mobile so children aren’t just watching television in the living room with a television, but instead they can watch television on their parents’ phone in the grocery store line.

This is true at least from our very privileged North American perspective; it is important to recognize that there are also children in North America who don’t have that kind of opportunity or privilege. But also there are probably six billion people in the world who don’t yet have Facebook. The billion who do are very much the minority in our world. Given that, I think we are facing some real challenges in terms of how we manage online information and how we understand it. How do we make sense of the information and use it wisely to make the best decisions? We need to start talking about this and having conversations about it in the home. We need to make this a part of growing up. While we’ve gotten really used to the idea that we can answer our email anytime anywhere, it’s also creating cycles of busyness. Constant availability means you’re constantly working. How do we create protected time and protected space for reflection?

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While we’ve gotten really used to the idea that we can answer our email anytime anywhere, it’s also creating cycles of busyness. Constant availability means you’re constantly working. How do we create protected time and protected space for reflection?

Q
How do your students inspire your research? What do you love about teaching?

A: My students are a constant inspiration to me. In fact the Raspberry Pi project came out of a student project in one of my classes. A student came to me and said I would really love to write on this. That student project then turned into an independent study, turned into curriculum, turned into a proof of concept pilot project, and then next thing you know it turned into a working program that is now being engaged with by hundreds of children every year. Which is really exciting. It started from a student project and student inspiration.

I love talking with my students because many of them are working out in the field with children in libraries. They bring in fantastic ideas and bring in cutting edge concerns and new media that I haven’t seen. I can’t keep up with everything, so part of what they do is not only filter things for me but they also catch some really great things and bring it to my attention. This allows me to see how we can incorporate that into our next round of thinking.

I’m excited by my field and feel that it is worthwhile. I think that’s the best kind of research — research that makes you feel good about what you are doing and also allows you to see some positive results and engage with people. I like to do the kind of work that brings praxis. It allows me to solve real problems and make real contributions to the community.

Eric Meyers is currently teaching courses at UBC in The Instructional Role of the Librarian, New Media for Children and Young Adults, and Library Services for Young Adults.

Meyer’s research has not gone unnoticed. In 2008 he was awarded the Jesse H. Shera Award and named to the inaugural cohort of HASTAC Scholars in the Digital Humanities. He won the ALISE/ Eugene Garfield Dissertation Prize in 2012 for his dissertation on middle school science information problem solving. For more details about his work visit his website.


Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partner: Eric Meyers, Associate Professor, UBC School of Library, Archival and Information Studies.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, Online Producer; Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC Photographer; Michael Kam, Web Developer; Lina Kang, Web Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Mormei Zanke, Writer.

Published: January 2017