Connecting the dots to inspire young techies
A growing number of North Carolina tech pros and volunteers are pioneering to engage teens in the pursuit of STEM careers
"We have thousands of people in underserved communities with the brain power we need. All we have to do is develop it." – Jesse Bemley, BDPA consultant
By Dan Margherita
Senior Contributing Editor
'My primary concern is providing opportunity and challenges to talented individuals who are interested in STEM careers," says Kevin Robinson, principal service engineer for SharePoint technology at Microsoft Corporation (Redmond, WA). He is based in Charlotte, NC.
Robinson was featured in Diversity/Careers in 2011, and during the course of the interview, talked about how grateful he is for his exciting and fruitful career. "It is the source of my passion to see that every young person who wants to pursue IT as a career option gets an opportunity to do so," he said.
He spoke of the work that has to be done to recruit talented minorities into STEM careers. "How," Robinson asked, "do we connect the dots in helping young technologists in getting their start in the industry? This has been my personal journey, in which I am hoping to enroll a much broader constituency."
Robinson discussed some of those constituents and what they are doing in North Carolina to provide STEM programs for underrepresented populations. In July 2012, Robinson himself launched a website entitled www.agamechanger.com. He hopes it will become a "premium provider of education and technology services" in STEM.
Another example of work being done on this front is Citizen Schools, where Robinson leads a project and authored the curriculum for one of the schools. We talked to people involved in that and several other efforts that Robinson has had a hand in.
Cassie McIntyre directs external engagement at Citizen Schools North Carolina
Citizen Schools (Boston, MA, www.citizenschools.org) serves eight states and dozens of middle schools, helping to expand the learning day for low-income children. Citizen Schools provides academic support, leadership development, and apprenticeships. The apprenticeships are hands-on projects taught by volunteer "citizen teachers."
For three years, Cassie McIntyre has been director of external engagement for Citizen Schools North Carolina. "I build community relationships and identify corporate partners and organizations that will provide volunteers and experts to work with our students," McIntyre says.
"Most of the schools we serve are Title I schools," she explains. Title I is the federally funded program to help students at risk of failure and living at or near poverty.
"I'm out talking with anybody I can about the work we are doing and the help that we need," McIntyre says. "Focus industries include STEM, business and finance. In North Carolina, we focus on STEM, and fifty percent of our 2012 apprenticeships are in these subject areas, thanks to companies like Fidelity Investments, Cisco Systems and Bank of America.
"Not everybody can effectively teach middle schoolers for ninety minutes once a week," McIntyre admits. "Skills that we look for are passion for what they do, scheduling flexibility and willingness to work outside their comfort zone."
The North Carolina region of Citizen Schools engages nearly 400 students in Charlotte and Durham. At the end of each semester, students show the community what they've learned in a "WOW! Showcase."
McIntyre notes that more women are leading and teaching Citizen Schools projects, particularly in STEM areas. That's had a positive impact on the number of girls showing interest in STEM-focused college studies and even careers.
Dexter Robinson is an advisor at UNC-Chapel Hill, virtual host, and mentor
At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Dexter Robinson helps students evaluate their academic options and guides them through the maze of academic procedures. He is also a virtual host at a national website, www.knowhow2go.org. Created by the American Council on Education, Lumina Foundation for Education, and the Ad Council, KnowHow2GO helps teens prepare for college.
Prior to UNC, Robinson was an educational advisor for the Next Generation Venture Fund at Duke University's Talent Identification Program (TIP). "We worked to identify gifted students among underrepresented populations," he explains.
He was also a guidance counselor in an underperforming high school. "In an ideal situation, you want to start talking to students about college in seventh or eighth grade," he says, but adds that all is not lost if this awareness doesn't happen until high school. "There's some leeway as to when you come onboard; the main thing is that you are onboard."
His interest in helping young people is no coincidence. Dexter Robinson is Kevin's son, and his own academic experience was a happy one. Robinson is a 2006 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. "I've been working with students my entire career," Robinson notes. "I encourage students with whom I work to take an interest in their own careers. Don't sit back and wait for something to happen. Intern. Observe other people."
Markus Beamer is president of BDPA's Charlotte chapter
"At some point in life, everyone should reach back and pull someone else up, someone who is just starting out." So believes Markus Beamer, a data warehousing specialist with Bank of America (Charlotte, NC). He earned his BS in computer science from the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) in 2000.
Beamer is president of the BDPA chapter in Charlotte, NC, and a trainer and teacher for the BDPA Student Information Technology Education and Scholarship (SITES) initiative. SITES introduces K-12 students of African descent and those in other underserved communities to IT, and provides scholarships. The BDPA High School Computer Competition (HSCC) is one of SITES' programs.
"We need to create a steady stream of high-quality minority IT talent," says Beamer emphatically. "BDPA's SITES is set up to deliver just such a pipeline."
SITES brings in students in eighth through twelfth grades, who often have no concept of programming, for six months of training. The program starts with the basics of Web applications and works up to database structures and more. "The best time to get students is in seventh or eighth grades," Beamer explains. "If you catch them here, they'll have five or six years to explore.
"Around May, we have a mini-competition to identify seven finalists, of whom five will go on to the HSCC.
"If you can get a child to do something on their own, it's even better," Beamer concludes. "I can teach someone how to build a webpage but the ones who go off and do it on their own have a deeper understanding of what is going on. That's what puts them into IT."
Iona M. Wilson is BAM's Charlotte co-chair
Iona M. Wilson is the Charlotte co-chair of Blacks@Microsoft (BAM) and a leader for BAM minority student day (BMSD) at the company's Charlotte campus.
"BAM minority student day is a nationwide event in its twenty-first year," Wilson says. "Eight to ten campuses participate, and students spend the day learning about emerging technologies, our products and a day in the life of a Microsoft employee. Then they write an essay about how they would take a Microsoft product and use it in a novel way, for something it wasn't designed to do.
"We originally targeted high school students but it's now open to students from freshmen in high school through seniors in college. We work with a lot of different colleges but we make it a point to include the many HBCUs here. There is a real desire on the parts of both BAM and Microsoft to make ourselves visible in those schools."
Wilson earned her BS in computer technology from Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) in 2000. "In my junior year of high school, I thought 'that computer thing,' as I described it, was what I wanted to do. There were no events like minority student day, so students here are very lucky.
"Education is important but we stress that companies are looking for both education and experience. I was lucky enough to have someone say, 'Try to get some experience too, so that when you walk into companies, you can say that you've applied your skills.'"
Wilson has been at Microsoft for eleven years. "I have a big heart for this," she says. "I'm glad that I'm able to use Microsoft as a vehicle and that they are willing to use it to help create diversity. It makes me really proud."
Melvin Rogers trains students for the High School Computer Competition
"I've been an assistant trainer with HSCC for two years now, teaching both Java and .Net," Melvin Rogers says. "Some people champion one language or the other but I believe that you should know them all. It gives you a broader range and allows you to be hired by anyone."
Rogers works in business real estate financing at Wells Fargo Bank (Charlotte, NC). He is a 1998 graduate of Voorhees College (Denmark, SC) with a BS in computer science.
"One of the biggest things we teach the five students chosen for the competition is how to work together," he explains. "You have five different people working on one computer. These five come from varying histories with five different opinions but they have to work together as one team."
Rogers adds, "A big part of IT development is knowing what to do if something breaks. You have to troubleshoot, and that also helps the way you build something. You have to think about putting something in there that makes it easier to fix."
He is critical of the way some computer education is taught. "The main reason I like doing this is that I hated the way teachers taught me," Rogers admits. "I did well enough to pass but I didn't always understand everything. You get to the point of remembering the way you were taught to do something, but when something breaks, can you actually troubleshoot and solve the problem?
"I try to use my personality in fun ways. You have to do it in a way that keeps students engaged."
Dr Jesse Bemley is director of the JEF program and BDPA consultant
Dr Jesse Bemley conceived and designed BDPA's HSCC and IT Showcase programs. He is founder and director of Joint Educational Facilities, Inc (JEF, Washington, DC, www.jef.org), an all-volunteer program that works with minority students who struggled in the traditional educational system. JEF was started in the basement of his home in 1982, and Bemley has built it into a program that mentors over 700 young people throughout the DC area.
"Across the SITES programs in BDPA, we're doing a yeoman's job," he says proudly, "but it's just a drop in the bucket in terms of what needs to be done from a national perspective."
Talking about the state of IT in the nation, he is concerned but optimistic. "We are behind in terms of the numbers we need in order to move back into the forefront of computing."
Bemley points out that IBM has four of the top ten supercomputers in the world, and that supercomputers are moving toward new levels of computing power, but that more people who can work at those levels are needed.
"We have thousands of people in underserved communities with the brain power that we need," Bemley believes. "All we have to do is develop it. That's where BDPA comes in, from low-level to mid-level. Then JEF comes in from mid to high-level.
"JEF comes at it from an academic more than a training perspective, teaching students how to do research and how to teach themselves to be developers as opposed to just users of the technology. There is an opportunity for people to help their country and, at the same time, to help themselves and their families," says Bemley.
Bemley is working on a plan for helping students who work hard but are not selected for HSCC. "Those other students came because they wanted to be involved in HSCC, but they didn't quite make the cut," he says. "That doesn't mean that we can't have other paths for them, but at the moment, we don't."
He also wants BDPA to encompass more STEM applications on the scientific side of IT without neglecting the work that it already does on the business side. "JEF has been promoting STEM since the 80s, back before it was even called STEM," smiles Bemley.
More connections needed
Each of these efforts is filling an important niche, but more is needed. North Carolina has Kevin Robinson connecting the dots for students in the Southeast. BDPA members and others are managing projects in their locations. It's a hands-on effort that means many people-hours of work, but the rewards, and the results, couldn't be more important.
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