Taking it to the streets: interviewing on-site

Jun 18 2013

Screen Shot 2013-06-18 at 11.54.41 AMEveryone at Reese News Lab – STEMwire and Summer Startup staff alike – jumps at the chance to go on a field trip. Whether to do a user test or just to get coffee from Student Stores, field trips allow you to get up, walk around and get a new perspective on whatever you’re working on.

For STEMwire in particular, sometimes there are opportunities to report on a story nearby. When I heard about Wiley Middle School, a Winston-Salem public school piloting a STEAM curriculum with their sixth grade, I decided to give on-site reporting a shot. STEAM is a growing movement to add an ‘A’ for arts to the traditional STEM framework, and Wiley is right at the front of the curve as one of only a handful of schools running a STEAM-based program.

I tried to do as much legwork as possible beforehand. I emailed back and forth with the principal several times, indicating that I would want to interview both teachers and students and potentially take some pictures. I asked for the names of individual teachers running STEAM classes to set up interviews with them ahead of time.

Which, it turns out, was all for naught, because the principal got the entire STEAM teaching staff together to talk to me: I walked into a room with 10 teachers sitting around a table, waiting expectantly for my questions in the 25 minutes before the next period. I expressed my profuse thanks and tried not to freak out.

Things that didn’t go so well: Although I spent some time checking the levels on my mic and fiddling with placement, I was a little too shy to just ask the teachers to pick it up and pass it around every time they answered questions. I thought they would think that was weird; I ended up putting the mic on the table closer to me than anyone else and had to spend triple the usual amount of time transcribing the interview afterwards because it was so hard to hear everyone.

Things that went well: Because they were all very used to working together, the conversation flowed easily. I modified some questions on the spot and tried to go with the flow, asking them about things that they were clearly passionate about or had an opinion on. I walked away with a fabulous, light feeling in my chest. These teachers put so much into their work, clearly loved what they did and gave me an entirely cliché, wonderful kind of hope for the future of our education system.

Next, I got to follow the principal around during “X” period, where the students were all in different classes working on projects related to flight. Again, some of what didn’t go well was shyness or embarrassment more than anything. I spent fifteen minutes taking bad pictures, frustrated that I couldn’t get the camera to focus, before realizing that I hadn’t taken enough time to screw the lens on all the way. As we went from class to class, even though the teachers were totally welcoming and willing to show me what the students were doing, I felt like I was awkwardly interrupting their classes and avoided asking too many questions or talking to all of students.

It took many frustrating photos like this before I realized what was wrong with my camera.

I took way too many frustrating photos like this before I realized what was wrong with my camera. (Photo credit: Hetali Lodaya)

I left the school excited about everything I had heard and learned, but also worried about whether I had enough material that I would be able to use. The teachers and students had been so willing to let me in to see what they were up to, and I wanted to make sure I did their story justice. I can’t help but think in retrospect that I didn’t have as much to be afraid of as I thought I did.

So, if you’re going on a field trip, really go! Poke your head around, ask questions, make people repeat quotes. You truly have to find the stories – they won’t just magically make themselves apparent to you, and you might miss them if you’re not working hard enough.

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