Building diverse IT Education Pipeline

Today is first day of school. I’m thinking about the new students going for the first time to the elementary school — are they scared, afraid? Or are they excited, looking forward to their education adventure? I remember my first day in the elementary school, and it was scary! Thankfully, I had a wonderful teacher, who made us feel comfortable.

I am also wondering how many of my kids will come back to our after-school Computer & Robotics Club?

The school where I am helping out with the after-school program ran by FamiliesFORWARD, teaching coding and robotics, is 99% African-American, and 95+% of the kids are under the poverty line.

I’ve seen for a long time the lack of diversity in the high-tech industry: not enough women, not enough minorities. But contrary to the gurus at Google, it was clear to me that if we want to change that, we have to apply the old programming GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) mantra and focus on making sure that we have the right input, i.e. we have to build a diverse IT Education Pipeline.

For the girls the stats were all there, and they were very clear:

1) 4th Grade: 66 percent of girls and 68 percent of boys reported liking science. 
2) 8th grade: boys are twice as interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers as girls are
3) College level: only 18 percent of all college engineering majors are female

For the minorities, I believed that the lack of exposure to high-tech was one of the main obstacle. You tend to follow the footsteps of your parents, or of the people who are respected in your community. As one of my Latino student told me: “Before I joined the Robotics Club, I wanted to be a social worker, but now I want to be an engineer!” This was later confirmed by Georgetown University research.

Let’s face it — if the kid’s parents have no idea about STEM, and the teachers teach only to the test, the kids will go through the school system with their only technology exposure being video games on their phone, and texting with their thumbs 😞

So three years ago I’ve started the “Code for Kids” initiative, to give kids from the underprivileged neighborhood an exposure to high-tech through coding and robotics.

At first I looked at a local High-School, but I quickly realized that this is almost too late, since most of the teenagers are not interested in learning computers, and therefore we expanded the pipeline downwards, to the elementary school. The thought was very simple: if I start with K1 students, I have 6 years to teach them computers, and when they go to middle school, they should be totally proficient with computers and robotics.

I also educated myself on the child’s brain development. It was fascinating to catch-up on the latest research about epigenetics, brain chemistry changes through puberty, etc.

The picture was getting clearer and clearer for me — if we truly want to have a diverse IT workforce:

  • we have to engage the kids as early as possible, with the strongest focus on pre-K through K-4;
  • we have to look for ways to get them excited about technology by letting them do what they want, and show them how computers can help them to achieve things faster and easier, and create as many “Aha” moments as possible;
  • our job is to find out what would make the passionate about something, because then we don’t have to tell them anymore what to do, instead we have to drag them away, since they would love to spend every minute doing “their” stuff;

I am a big advocate of STEM, but even bigger of STEAM, where we add Arts into the mix, because it is the Arts that drive creativity and innovation, as Sir Ken Robinson pointed out so correctly in his TEDx presentation. So what I’m telling the kids is: “I am not here to make you a computer scientist! If you like coding, we’ll do coding, or let’s try robotics, and see if you like to build things with your hands. But if you like painting, let me show you how we can do digital art; if you like music, let’s see how can we create electronic music, etc.

I am also making sure that the boys don’t overrun the girls by teaching them how to listen, and how to let everybody speak. Girls do appreciate it, because they are coming back, and actually I have more girls than boys in my K-1 — K-4 classes or our summer camp:

To build their self-esteem and self-confidence, I am trying to make them the heroes in school, posting their pictures on the wall, I’ve even photoshop their faces on the astronauts bodies in the image above, to inspire them to reach for the stars. I posted the poster on the wall in the school, and gave a copy for their parents, to engage and inspire them as well.

I don’t give medals for participation. There are competitions, and kids have to learn how to improve their individual skills, but also how to work better as a team, and we’re always trying to have mixed teams of boys and girls. I am basically teaching them what they will later experience in the corporate world, if they choose to go there. The keywords here are: building resilience and grit in the kids!

We’re also making sure to keep them excited by introducing new and cool technologies, like drones, which also helps to get the attention of the local media 😃

Thanks to our efforts, and the support from the school principle, Ms. McClain, we were able to convince the school district to designate the school as Ohio’s first High-Tech Elementary School:

But there is life outside of technology, therefore I take them to theater and ballet shows, so they can experience something different, something that normally they wouldn’t, coming from an underprivileged household.

However, as much as theater and ballet are great, I am dreaming about getting backstage passes for the kids for a Beyoncé concert and taking a picture of them with her, and making a huge poster for the school, because then all kids in the school will be begging me to let them join the Computer Club 😄

So if Google really wants to make a difference and wants to have more women working for them, they have two options:

  • poach women from other companies
  • invest into elementary schools, support strong IT Education Pipelines, and get Google Fiber to the poor neighborhoods, because many of the kids don’t have access to Internet

This is not a rocket science! With the statistics that I quoted earlier, it’s very clear that unless we fix the IT Education Pipeline by having 50% of girls at each education level, trying to have 50% representation of women in high-tech companies like Google is an illusion because the supply is just not there!