Workshops on wheels: Stanford Spokes travels to teach nationwide

Sept. 27, 2023, 10:08 p.m.

Stanford Spokes hits the road each summer to bike from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., teaching original academic workshops to communities across the country. The program’s six riders this year — Anna Wang ’24, Leo Glikbarg ’24, Alex Waitz ’25, Jordan Mattox ’25, Helen Tian ’25 and Victoria Ren ’26 — embarked on June 16 with a goal of educating diverse communities nationwide. 

Spokes was founded in 2013 by a group of MIT and Harvard students to bring student-run, non-profit and project-based STEM workshops to schools across the country. Every summer, seven MIT students bike from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco in the span of 80 days. Stanford Spokes joined this mission in 2018, completing the trip in the opposite direction, with Stanford participants ranging from rising sophomores to graduate students. 

Every couple of days, the students bike to a new location. To transport all of their belongings, they travel with a car that one or two members drive to the next location, where they start to unpack and set up tents. The group camps in each location or uses Warm Showers, a network for touring bikers to find friendly hosts, hot showers and a place to stay. 

Ren said the day-to-day schedule can vary depending on weather and expected distance of the ride. “We still haven’t figured out what our schedule looks like since some days are way too hard to safely bike for a long period of time,” she said.

On cooler mountain routes, a typical day often starts at 8 a.m. and includes 30-50 miles of biking. In the evenings, they either cook ramen or Kraft mac & cheese at camp or their host prepares dinner. 

During the hot periods of summer and in high heat wave regions, they change their routine by starting the day earlier around 6 a.m. and shorten routes to around 10-15 miles to finish by noon. With more biking in the sweltering sun, bikers could easily get heatstroke or heat exhaustion, Ren said. 

In between the bike rides, Spokes teaches workshops to youth. They select different places such as public libraries or non-profit education centers in underfunded or underserved school districts to ask if they are interested in hosting workshops, Ren said. 

Contrary to the MIT Spokes’ more STEM-focused curriculum, Stanford Spokes includes art and social sciences curriculum along with STEM. Each student develops an agenda and one hour lesson based on their academic background. 

Stanford Spokes taught six different workshops this summer: launching bottle rockets, art meditation, social networks in social communities, a camera workshop to look through historical lenses, introduction to internet and computer science and social identities — intersectionality. 

“Students get pretty excited and ask really good questions,” Tian said. “It is fun to be able to give students the space to talk and, for me, to learn about them, their lives and what is important to them.”

The goal of these workshops is to be hands-on, engaging and moving experiences. For instance, in the social identities — intersectionality workshop, Tian gives puzzle pieces to students so they can draw their identities. Afterward, she asks the students to combine them into one puzzle and talk about how complex the intersectionality is, as well as how different experiences create different identities. On teaching days, Spokes members wake up around 7 or 8 a.m. to reach the teaching site on time. 

“Teaching as much as possible in a day, appreciating the values of the community and bringing those values into the teachings are the things you don’t get exposed to at Stanford that much. It also helped me to affirm the sense that I want to be a teacher,” said Stanford Spokes alumni Parth Sarin ’23.

After teaching, members sometimes have time left to do both individual or group activities. Recently, they have gone to baseball games and watched the new “Barbie” movie. 

“When we were in Pittsburgh, where the trip was getting close to the end, I remember our hosts Eva and Olivia asked us a question. ‘Are you sick of each other?’ We looked at each other and we were like, ‘Yeah, I’m not sick of you,’” Sarin said. “This was a lovely moment of recognition that we had gotten so close and that we had come to accept that this trip is very joyous.”

According to Ren, having an open mind is an important quality in a Spokes member due to the unpredictability of each day. “Some days, we’ll get storms and we have to pack all the bikes in the van, which can be tricky to adapt quickly,” she said. “On other days, such as when we were biking in Nevada and Utah where there were insane amounts of Mormon crickets, just walking along and when you’re biking, they jump up.”

While Tian agreed with Ren on being open and going with the flow, she said that being team-oriented is one of the most important qualities for a Spokes member to have. “Fixing tires, pitching a tent and navigating a new city requires someone with a team mindset,” Tian said.

This year’s Spokes journey ended on Aug. 28. Tian reflected on the many lessons learned from her journey across the country. “I have a much better perspective on different parts of the U.S. now. When I look at politics and voting issues, I can much better empathize with people who come from very different backgrounds, social norms and exposures from me,” she said.

Emerson Swift is a high school student writing for The Stanford Daily Summer Journalism Program.Aslıhan Alp is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at'

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