Redefining Geek Book by Cassidy Puckett book cover
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How It Started

I was teaching tech classes at Urban Promise Academy in Oakland, California (Photo of Cassidy with a student)

I wanted to know how to help my students learn & develop digital skills. (Group photo of Cassidy’s students)

(Image of two students with camera equipment in a classroom) So I studied what savvy learners do, in tech spaces like YOUmedia Chicago.

To learn more about the book visit:




Redefining Geek takes a close empirical look at what it means to be good with technology, unpacking what is often thought of as the “natural” ability of younger generations. Drawing on rich qualitative data and extensive quantitative data, Puckett finds that at the core of technological competence are five technology learning habits, including three general habits and two technology-specific habits.

The five key technology learning habits:

  • Willingness to try and fail
  • Management of frustration and boredom
  • Use of models
  • Design logic
  • Efficiencies

Using this redefinition and a measure called the Digital Adaptability Scale (Download PDF) , the book examines differences in these habits by race, class, and gender. On the one hand, findings show girls need help in developing the two technology-specific habits (design logic and efficiencies). These habits require explanation and/or are often hidden, suggesting girls experience gatekeeping where these insider tricks are not equally shared. On the other hand, findings reveal no significant differences in the technology learning habits by race/ethnicity or class, suggesting that many low-income and racial/ethnic groups experience gatekeeping of a different sort, going unrecognized and unrewarded for their technological talents.

Overall, Redefining Geek complicates digital divide narratives about who is and is not tech-savvy that can obscure gatekeeping dynamics and perpetuate the very problems they seek to address. Instead, the book calls for a deeper look at the engines that fuel gatekeeping and a society so driven by competition that it fails to fully develop and recognize its own talent. Puckett argues that by redefining what it means to be a “geek” as someone with strong learning habits—and equitably building, recognizing, and rewarding these technology learning habits in all kids—we can create a more inclusive and equitable technological future.

A portion of book proceeds will benefit Urban Promise Academy in Oakland, California.

For media inquiries, please contact: Carrie Olivia Adams, Promotions & Marketing Communications Director, University of Chicago Press, (773) 834-6084,

Click for an Excerpt from, "Redefining Geek."

It’s May 2004 and I’m standing next to a whiteboard at the front of a technology class in a small public middle school called Urban Promise Academy (UPA, or “ooo-pah”). The school is located in the predominantly low-income Latinx Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California. Walking to UPA from the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station, I pass clusters of men in dusty work boots—day workers— waiting for the trucks that pick them up and women selling tamales from red coolers on the corner. Vibrant colors adorn most buildings, street signs, and even the trash cans on the street. Music calls out from busy pupuserias and panaderías, the delicious scent of Salvadoran stuffed corn cakes and Mexican sweet breads filling the air, and families smile and wave as they notice neighbors across International Boulevard. 

It’s the second of the six years I will teach technology classes (web design and robotics) at UPA, and I’m close to completing a master’s degree from Stanford’s Learning Design and Technology program. I’m standing at the whiteboard, chattering away at a breakneck pace, scribbling hypertext markup language (HTML) tags on the board to explain how to format pages of a yearlong web project celebrating the school’s first graduating class. We’ve collected photos and quotes from each eighth grader about their experiences at UPA and are now format- ting the individual student pages and populating the website with con- tent. We are close to completing the project, my students are almost ready to move on to high school, and I am just about to graduate as well. It’s an exciting moment. 

Around me, the class munches on snacks. I explain how to hand code to structure each page, including where to add <table> tags. I say, “First you need the opening <table> and closing </table> tags, then you add code for the row, and each cell within that row like this . . .” I scribble on the board with dry-erase marker: 

<table> <tr> 






“That’s a table with one row with three cells. Get it? Anyone have any questions?” I look around the room and turn to Amairani, a quiet Latinx student with bright observant eyes, to whom I had just demonstrated the same task using a web design program called Dreamweaver.1 I opened the explanation up to the entire class, using hand code and drawing on the board rather than having the software create tags for them. I ask Amairani if this approach is more confusing than using the software and she says no—in fact, it’s simpler than figuring out the extra tags automatically added by Dreamweaver. With that, the class sets to work in pairs—one hand codes and types while the other reads off con- tent to add into the tables. 

I look around the room. Given the demographics of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and occupational fields, everyone here could be viewed as an unlikely participant.2 This disparity is particularly true in computer science, where sexist, racist, and classist assumptions about “natural” differences in techno- logical competence and “ambient” cues about who belongs in these spaces shape participation.3 Although not by design, we are all female. We are all from low-income backgrounds, my students much more so. Almost all of my students are first- or second-generation immigrants and come from homes where their first language is something other than English, primarily Spanish. The school and neighborhood have limited resources—which isn’t to say it isn’t a lively, thriving place. But based on the gender, racial, and socioeconomic makeup of my class, the school, and the neighborhood, we should (supposedly) not be engaged in what we are doing—playing with computers and coding—given that research shows we are the least likely people to be included in these aspects of STEM. 

Still, here we are—contrary to the statistics and what stereotypes might suggest—and here I am, a new teacher in a relatively new field, trying my best to lead my students toward an ill-defined end goal: technological competence. With so much potential around the room— the kind that I later come to understand as systematically unseen and undervalued—I want them to be able to pursue any form of technology learning to get them to wherever they want to go. But I don’t know how to support them. I need to know: What does it mean to be good with technology, how can I help my students achieve it, and how can I ensure that others recognize their potential? 


This book offers an answer to these questions, based on what became a decadelong journey to understand what successful technology learners do, including a way of completely rethinking what it means to be good with technology. The project started out as a way to better under- stand and support my students and other students like them. That remains a goal: to provide tools for parents and educators to help students learn. But I also want to shake up our broader cultural assumptions about “natural” technological ability—assumptions that devalue the talent of low-income, minoritized, and female students and push them out of STEM. We do that by redefining technological competence as something that can be learned. Tech skills and literacies are not natural gifts. Instead, there are learning habits that help skills and literacies grow. These habits are especially important as technologies and the skills and literacies needed to use them change. So, what it really means to be good with technology is to develop skills, literacies, and technology learning habits. 

These habits are critical but up to this point have gone unrecognized. In the chapters that follow, I describe the five habits I identified through a mixed-methods study that started with more than three hundred hours of observation and interviews with a diverse group of about one hundred tech-savvy teens in award-winning out-of-school and in- school technology programs and classes across the United States. Three of the habits connect to what research shows helps people learn in general, which I translate to the context of technology learning: 

  1. A willingness to try and fail
  2. Management of frustration and boredom 
  3. Use of models 

The other two habits are more technology specific: 

  1. Design logic (thinking about why technology is designed the way it is and how to use it for one’s own purpose) 
  2. Efficiencies (identifying shortcu


“Redefining Geek will serve as an essential guide for a generation of educators who are grappling with how best to teach and lead in this technological age. Puckett draws on a deep data set to redefine what it means to be competent with technology, bust a pile of myths much in need of busting, and offer clear steps for helping students develop the habits they need to succeed in life, work, and play. This book will guide how we tackle digital inequality and support the learning process of young people of all races, ethnicities, and genders for years to come.”


John Palfrey, president, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

“Through her solid research and her experiences with working with diverse student learners, Puckett does an exemplary job in helping readers understand and rethink what it means to be technologically competent. This is especially important considering our world is more reliant on technology due to the COVID-19 pandemic and having tech skills is essential. This knowledge and her guidance–coupled with a thorough examination of how our biases can further exacerbate the digital divide–is beneficial in designing tech educational curriculums and programs that are more inclusive and supportive to the diverse communities that they are serving. A must-read for any professional seeking to improve and advance technology education.”

Susanne Tedrick, author of Women of Color in Tech

“Puckett is a terrific writer with a broad, precise, empathetic, and thoroughly researched account of technology education and where it falls short. In Redefining Geek, Puckett carefully dispels myths about natural technological ability and grit that perpetuate existing inequalities. She offers practical and innovative ideas to make STEM more inclusive. Providing fresh analysis with new stories and actionable examples, Redefining Geek is a smart, engaging look at what needs to change about education in order to bring about technology that benefits us all.”

Joanne McNeil, author of Lurking: How a Person Became a User


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