Information science assistant professor engages families as designers and inventors through use of creative technologies

by Lisa H. Schwartz
 Sept. 11, 2017

Ricarose Roque is a fitting scholar with which to launch the Community Engaged Scholar Interview Series. Through her research, Ricarose explores how to design inclusive learning experiences that enable young people to create and express themselves with new technologies and media.

In 2016, Roque joined the faculty of the CU Boulder College of Media Communications and Information (CMCI) as an assistant professor of Information Science with a courtesy appointment in Computer Sciences. Previously, she was a member of the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab and a member of the MIT Scratch Team.

Since her days as a graduate student at MIT, Ricarose has led the Family Creative Learning Project. The project is a workshop series she collaboratively developed and implements at community centers that engages children and their parents to learn together, as designers and inventors, through the use of creative technologies. Roque's work with youth takes a special focus on those from underrepresented groups in computing. She recently received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to expand on this work and to explore creative computing experiences for younger children and their families in collaboration with Boulder and Denver Public Libraries. Currently, Roque is building her interdisciplinary research group.

On a sunny Friday afternoon in August, right before the first week of fall classes, I joined Roque to pose some questions about her community engaged scholarship.

Why do you do community engaged work as part of your research, teaching or creative work?

Through my work with scratch, a programming language and an online community where young people can create and share their own interactive stories, games, and animations, particularly the scratch online community, I saw kids all over world sharing their projects.  Some of the most active scratchers had parents who were engineers and programmers. It made me realize two things, that despite the narrative of the “digital native” families are playing an important role and not all families have a tech background but a lot of families are motivated to support their kids’ learning. I was doing a lot of outreach work with kids already so it thought why don’t we invite the families and see what happens. That is how the Family Creative Learning Project began.

Toward the end of the interview I asked Ricarose this question again, and asked her to reflect on how her experience and journey as a scholar has shaped her beliefs and practices.  

One of my challenges is that community engaged research is such a default for me, I don’t even think, ‘how do I design for equity” —it’s “how do I design?”. For me, when you are doing good design and good research you are taking these things [equity] into account. I take a lot for granted and don’t always talk explicitly because equity is so embedded in my work. But I realize that in good design there is a role for calling it out. Because people don’t always think that way. I hope in the future when people say they are a designer that equity and inclusivity practices are the norm.

It might help that I am an immigrant and grew up in lower income communities – I feel at home and it feels real to me. In academic contexts, I can feel like a visitor.  I have a personal commitment to wanting to work with communities who are under-resourced. In order to really work to address inequity you have to work in the community. You can’t be distant. You have to be engaged in the community.

I used to think that as a researcher you didn’t include personal motivation and reflection. One of my dissertation advisors kept pushing me to write about my own family. I did that as part of my dissertation and I have a blog post reflecting on my family’s immigrant experience and how that’s influenced me as a designer and researcher. I am glad I did it because now I can show it to others. It’s important to know your story.

How do you integrate your community work into your scholarship, teaching and creative work?

I am interested in the role of social support for learning with technology. My current work looks at how parents and families support their kids on how to learn and create with technology. I invite whole families to come together learn about Scratch, MaKey MaKey—creative technology tools for designing and inventing. Families learn more about their kids and their community. Through my research we have been able to learn a lot about how to assist parents in supporting their kids and what parents need in order to provide that support.

I use action and design based research approaches that involve people in the community as collaborators rather than research subjects. In these approaches, it’s important that your research is embedded in real world contexts. So, to design a learning experience or technology I involve the community or different stakeholders to inform the iterative design process.

The Family Creative Learning project is a product of a lot of students whom I recruited. I mentor students in the process of working with communities and families. In the course I am teaching this fall, designing for creativity and learning, I will encourage students to go into the community, but I am still figuring this out, it will be a light touch to start.

I have a strong commitment to get my work out in the world for everyone to access — not just for academia. It’s hard to do that. It’s a longer process…but it’s also another opportunity to continue the research and ask new questions. As you put something out there in the world and people start to use it, the research doesn't stop there, it generates more questions. It’s a big step. I find that it’s our responsibility. We have to make sure the work doesn’t stay within academia.

We have developed a facilitator guide for implementing the Family Creative Learning workshops, which has been adapted by educators around the world. For example, PBS Kids has done a nationwide adaptation that has raised interesting questions. Now we are learning what aspects of our strategies work in different communities.

How do you balance the demands/work of community partnerships with the demands/work of academia?

I’m still figuring this out (laughs).

Let me rephrase: What are some strategies you use, what are you learning about balancing the demands of each domain?

The number one thing that I have learned and continue to practice is that relationships matter and they are the top priority. That is always at the forefront. Logistics or research might suffer but relationships are the number one priority. If you have a strong trusting relationship things will go smoothly and will emerge in the kind of research that you do and the products that you make together.

It takes time. The pace of academia is challenging because takes time to build these relationships. One strategy I’ve learned as I get settled in at CU Boulder is finding and collaborating with people who have those rich connections as well as long and trusting relationships in the community rather than building them from scratch.

Sometimes the relationship doesn’t work out, or it ends. People don’t often talk about leaving partnerships. Of course, there is change in the community too, but I am interested in “How do we manage transitions in a respectful way?”. That was a challenge moving from Boston to CU Boulder Boulder. As I make new connections here, this is something that I am thinking and talking to others about. I would like to see more about the process for developing partnerships as part of the research. Writing about that process as a valued artifact.

Right now, I am building my interdisciplinary research group – The projects are so rich, there are many ways to contribute. There are lot of things I have to balance so it’s through students who will be on the ground more that I will be able to continue my work. I especially want to find students of color – for me it’s important that all students can benefit from this work but it’s especially interesting for the communities of colors I work with to see people who look like them. It’s beneficial for both sides.

What is your experience with / thoughts on / plan for tenure?  

As a relatively new assistant professor, I need to build my team and research group, which I’m tentatively calling the Creative Communities group. We will focus on supporting people to make things they care about, to develop as creators, and to imagine ways to shape the world around them.

The first few years are foundational – building the research group, partnerships, and publishing. Publishing a lot of the graduate work that I did and building relationships in the Boulder community. Midway through to start to develop things with communities and start to write about that. I am learning about cycles of work and how to balance that.

Regarding this work, what kind of mentorship do you received and how do you mentor others? Any advice for others who are interested in this work?

I owe a lot to my time at the MIT Media Lab. My commitment to getting the work out and into communities and to iterate off of that process was influenced by my work with the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab. The Media Lab had a motto  “Deploy or Die”, which was a problematic term and has since been changed to “Deploy” (after the director talked with President Obama). To me, it means, get it out there. Every student knew how to do that. It is just what you learned to do—even as simple as personal and project websites, having a social media presence—this is an aspect we often overlook because we are so focused on the next paper, the next conference. It’s something missing in graduate education: how to tell the story of your work for all kinds of people within and beyond academia.

For getting work out there, I really believe in photos and video documentation. The facilitator guide for educators was a student project. That effort was also with the help of students who were interested media and marketing. When we created the facilitator guide, we crafted a website, wrote blogs, wrote blog in Ed Week, Maker Ed and other places.  

One other way to think of it is that there are another set of partnerships to develop. There are organizations out there where there mission is to get these kinds of opportunities out. Find those institutions. For me that’s library associations, the Digital Media and Learning Hub (DML)...

For thinking about community partnerships I have contacted researchers who do this kind of work, both researchers and practitioners, to get advice on building partnerships, developing scholarship, respectful transitions and how to be an academic who does very engaged community work. The Office for Outreach and Engagement, Science Discovery and professors from the School of Education have been very helpful.

One of my dissertation advisors pushed me to do a self-reflection on my history and family. This was one way she was helping me process the relationship with my background and the work that I do. It’s important to know your story. It was nice to be pushed and write it down in a way that can be shared with others.