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Ideas — and beach balls — were flying as students at the New York Emoti-Con event kicked off the day with an exercise in low-tech problem solving: use beach balls, inner tubes and foam pool noodles to design a simple game. Keynote speaker and game designer Ramsey Nasser instructed them. Credit: Jamie Martines

Austin Carvey grew up in Washington Heights, a largely Hispanic neighborhood in northern Manhattan, where he watched his neighbors struggle to advocate for themselves because they could not speak English. Now, he’s urging his peers to join him in using technology to generate solutions to problems in their communities.

Carvey is a senior at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College and the co-founder of the organization Young Hackers, which seeks to draw more minority and low-income kids into the hacker community in New York City. He spent much of his time during the eighth annual Emoti-Con showcase earlier this month fielding questions from his younger peers about the ethical implications of advanced technology and the applications of computer science training in the real world.

“It exposes students to different applications of technology,” he said of the conference. “When you start, it’s really just websites and web apps, maybe some robot stuff. But knowing you can really do anything with technology, it really opens up your mind and makes you more creative.”

Emoti-Con brings New York City students together to present their technology projects and network with each other. It combines aspects of high-tech coding and engineering with an emphasis on human-centered design and problem-solving. Projects on display at the event, held in New York’s main public library, included a robot built in the back of a Spanish classroom at Baruch College Campus High School designed to provide an energy-efficient way to clean subway tracks, and a radio podcast produced by middle school students in the Global Kids program at The School for Human Rights in Brooklyn examining racism in their community. The podcast, which unlike many of the other projects focused on using technology for storytelling, was awarded one of the top prizes for social impact.

Students like Anthony Winston, a 12th-grader at P.S. 256Q Gateway Academy high school in Far Rockaway, Queens, and a Mouse Design Fellow, designed a prototype for a device to monitor special-needs students and prevent them from leaving the classroom unattended.

“It was challenging, because I had to learn computer coding,” Winston said. “I knew a little but I had to learn more. And me, I like a good challenge.”

More than 300 middle and high school students, teachers and supporters from across New York City gathered at the New York Public Library on June 11 for the event. Emoti-Con is supported by partner organizations striving to promote STEM education in schools, including Mouse, Mozilla Hive New York, Parsons School of Design and Urban Arts Partnership. But the bulk of the organizing is carried out by Student Design Fellows, young people who volunteer to plan, market and execute the day’s events.

According to Marc Lesser, a co-founder of Emoti-Con, it is an event run by students interested in pursuing STEM fields, for their like-minded peers. The focus of the event, along with showcasing students’ projects, is giving them a chance to connect with each other and with professionals who can help them forge a path forward.

“Most of them are not going home and have aunts and uncles who are engineers and technologists,” Lesser said. “Most of them are going home and, in a lot of cases, are going to be the first in their family to go to college.”

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