“I love the chair, but it’s a hazard,” teacher Emama Akhter observed as she eyed a desk chair that a student had hoisted atop a classroom table.
“It’s supposed to be a hazard!” the student protested.
Akhter, the winner of two 2021 UFT career and technical education awards, had tasked her students — seniors at the Brooklyn STEAM Center, a career and technical education training hub for 11th- and 12th-grade students from across Brooklyn — with constructing an obstacle course for drones. On one side of the glass-walled classroom inside the Brooklyn Navy Yard, students were taping directional arrows on the floor to chart the drone’s path; on the other side, a loud buzzing noise filled the air as students piloted their drones using an iPad app.
“Hey, I did it. Sweet,” one student said with satisfaction as he gently landed his drone atop a stool.
It was just the sort of engaging, immersive lesson on which Akhter, a lead instructor in the computer science and information technology program at the STEAM Center, prides herself.
“My motto is to teach by not teaching. I believe students learn by doing,” she says. “Especially when it comes to a trade area — I can teach them about a computer network all I want, but they’re not going to get the theoretical concept until they’re playing around with it themselves.”
Akhter received the CompTIA Award and a CTE Educator Award at the union’s CTE awards ceremony, held virtually on Feb. 26.
Akhter knows from personal experience that hands-on learning produces results. A decade ago, she was a CTE student herself at Thomas Edison Career and Technical HS in Jamaica Hills, Queens.
“I genuinely hated technology growing up — I thought I was bad at it, that I couldn’t do it,” she says. “But one teacher really changed my entire perspective on something I never thought I was going to enjoy.”
Akhter joined the Success Via Apprenticeship program, a collaboration among the DOE, the UFT and the City University of New York (CUNY). The five-year program prepares graduates of CTE high schools to become CTE teachers themselves through participation in college courses, mentored teaching and industry experience.
Akhter’s work as a network security analyst at New York City Cyber Command — which works to protect more than 100 city agencies from cyber attacks — led to an interest in cybersecurity, which she’s now building out as a curriculum pathway for students at the STEAM Center.
“From working in the industry myself, I know that people may study information technology and computer science in college but lack the hands-on experience to set up the infrastructure and protect their platforms,” she says. “To prevent yourself from being hacked, you have to think like a hacker.”
So in Akhter’s program, students will practice “ethical hacking.” Juniors in the computer science and information technology program already build their own PCs, install software and network applications on them and secure their networks. When Akhter launches her cybersecurity unit, students will work in teams to attempt to break into servers and web applications and penetrate firewalls.
“There’s always a real-world aspect to what Emama is teaching,” says her co-teacher Damiano Mastrandrea. “She’s constantly bringing industry partners into the classroom so students see the intrinsic value in what they’re learning, and she always finds a way to make it fun and entertaining.”
High school juniors and seniors from eight partner high schools in Brooklyn split their day between their home schools and the Brooklyn STEAM Center, where they participate in one of five industry pathways: computer science and information technology, construction technology, culinary arts and hospitality management, design and engineering, or film and media. They get the opportunity to work alongside professionals in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, like Blank Technologies and Voltaic Systems.
“A big thing in STEAM is building social capital by working with industry partners, and ours are always impressed by how much our students know,” Akhter says. “It’s very important for them to learn professional skills and how to communicate.”
Akhter’s presence in the classroom also helps students see another side of an industry that is still heavily dominated by men.
“You don’t see a lot of girls and people of color in tech, and that’s definitely something I want to change,” Akhter says. “My goal as a teacher is to make sure kids have an environment they’re comfortable in, and the stigma needs to be broken that this is something only guys can do.”
For Carole Drabo, a senior in the program who plans to study business at Baruch College, that representation is important.
“I was the first-ever female in this class, and having Ms. Akhter as a teacher helps me not feel alone,” she says. “It makes me feel special to find my own way to stand out and show what I can do.”