STEM initiative introduces high-tech careers to minority students

Posted: January 03, 2014

ZULIESUIVIE Ball was a senior at Central High School with excellent grades, a strong feminist attitude and a passion for writing.

One thing the 18-year-old Olney student didn't have was an interest in computer science. That changed, however, when a classmate invited her to a Saturday workshop on Java programming.

"I actually ended up growing to like it and what they were teaching, and became a part of it," said the soft-spoken, bubbly teen, now a freshman at Temple University.

Last summer, Ball completed a paid apprenticeship with the U.S. Navy in a research laboratory, which she hopes to do again this summer. "It was always interesting to me about what was produced, but I never considered being one to produce it," she said.

Ball said the spark came from the Pennsylvania Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA), a division of MESA USA, which was founded in 1970 and has helped millions of low-income students go on to careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through challenging courses, mentors and training.

Hosted by Temple, the initiative offers free Saturday classes, a two-week summer camp and support to after-school clubs in a variety of technology-based subjects. It focuses on African-American and Latino students, who are underrepresented in high-paying STEM jobs.

Ball said the program showed her that technical careers aren't just for geeks or the typical oddballs you see on "Big Bang Theory."

"I think a lot of young ladies, when you think of coding, think of the stereotypical nerd or just all day doing nothing," she said. "In all actuality, it's pretty interesting. A lot of people have ideas for programs to write, or apps, but not a lot of young ladies are able to execute that idea."

In 2 1/2 years, the program has served about 3,500 students in grades six through 12 in the School District of Philadelphia, including those in some of the district's lowest-performing high schools.

It already has yielded fruit. The senior mobile-apps team won the $5,000 grand prize at the citywide 2013 AT&T Edutech Hackathon. Four members of the computer-science team, including Ball, also received $3,200 and summer apprenticeships from the American Society of Engineering Education to work in U.S. Navy labs. And most recently, students in the program took home four team medals and 18 individual awards at the 2013 MESA USA National Engineering Championships.

"This approach is more than involvement. Involvement is STEM 1.0," said Jamie Bracey, who oversees the program as Temple's director of STEM education, outreach and research. "We took a different approach and we said we want to create a sense of identity that these kids own a part of this space so they're not just involved; they assume the identity of an expert."

'Need for further education'

An increasing emphasis has been placed on STEM education nationally in the last few years. The U.S. Department of Education says that only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in STEM careers. And of those who study those fields in college, only about half choose to work in such a career.

With the United States falling behind internationally - ranked 25th in math and 17th in science among industrialized nations - concern is growing that Americans will be at a disadvantage in the new global economy. To address the situation, the Obama administration has invested $265 million in STEM education, with a goal of graduating an additional 1 million students in STEM fields over the next decade, along with developing, recruiting and retaining 100,000 teachers.

The biggest proponent of Temple's MESA initiative is the U.S. Navy, a partner since the program launched there in May 2011.

"It started with the Navy realizing the need for further education," said Cmdr. Kevin Cheshure, STEM action officer. "We have seen fewer American students graduating with a STEM degree [or] an interest in STEM careers."

He added: "We recognize that it requires innovation and dependence on the competence of folks in our STEM fields."

Logistics, Acquisitions & Supply System Operations (LASSO), a two-week summer camp taught almost exclusively by Navy core officers, builds on skills in math, Microsoft Excel, teamwork and problem solving. Last summer, the Navy contracted with Pennsylvania MESA to organize the camp in three other cities: Chicago, Baltimore and Newark, N.J. This summer, it will be conducted in 12 cities.

"It's a great fit for bringing the STEM subject matter to these students," Chesure said.

Exposure and access

Driving the program are Bracey's high expectations - North Philly "is going to be the renaissance place for education," she said - and instructors who mostly are volunteers who believe in the mission.

"The reason why I got interested in this is because I'm a software developer and I go to conferences all the time and I'm looking at my peers in the field and I'm always the fly in the milk," said Tariq Hook, who is black and teaches the program's popular class in computer science and mobile apps. "There's a lot of Caucasian males in the industry, and there are very, very few African-Americans, period."

Hook said he started by teaching students how to create a noise generator on a smartphone, something they could show off to friends. Bracey challenged him to get the first class to develop mobile apps in three months, which he considered highly unlikely. Somehow, they did it in about a month and a half.

"Now that they're engaged, they want to know more about it," he said. "When you're in a group of kids, you start making competitions out of it."

Some students travel to local meetup groups with Hook to rub shoulders with people in the field. Also, in December 2012, urban retailer Villa sponsored a trip to Silicon Valley for 10 members of Hook's class to visit Google headquarters and attend a class at Stanford University.

"That trip provided a lot of exposure to people you might not otherwise have access to talk to," said Iyasu Watts, 19, who started as one of Hook's students and quickly became a student teacher. A freshman at Temple, he recently got a part-time job writing code for LeadiD, the Ambler firm where Hook is employed.

"They provided a really knowledgeable teacher [who] was really interesting, [who] opened up access to more information than you would normally have," he said.

The program is expanding to other Pennsylvania locations, with Chester, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg set to come online soon, according to Bracey. She said her goal is to reach 30,000 students per year like California MESA, but the challenges include a lack of state funding, a shortage of expert instructors and professional development for teachers. The initiative will host the first Google in Education Pennsylvania Summit on March 1-2 at Temple to promote student learning in K-12.

"The approach works," Bracey said. "My dream state would be to have more people who are experts in the field pair up with educators who are experts in classrooms to produce these same results. The challenge is that most large urban school districts still focus on remediation."

On Twitter: @ChroniclesofSol

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