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Today’s Leaders: Youth in STEM

September 30, 2015

Did you know that African-Americans and Latinos make up only 3-5% of the technology workforce, while white employees make up 71% of leadership, according to data aggregated by Silk? Or that women only represent 28% of workers in science and engineering, even though they make up nearly half of college-educated workers according to the National Science Board? The number of women with computer science degrees was actually rising until 1984, where it plummeted. The data speaks for itself. We know that our society, and the tech industry, needs to be more inclusive. What better way to embed values of inclusiveness, than to start at age sixteen?

Yes, sixteen. Youth are important members of our society and quick adopters of new technology. We believe that they can be champions of inclusion for future generations.

Luckily, over the past several years, Silicon Valley has bloomed with new startups, nonprofits, and programs that involve more youth in STEM.  Programs like Black Girls CODE, for example, enable young women of color to learn basic programming in languages like Scratch and Ruby on Rails. Another program, Hack the Hood hires, trains, and equips youth of color to build websites for real small businesses in their communities.  

To coincide with the increase of these initiatives and include youth in this important dialogue, we gathered an exceptional youth panel at the Tech Inclusion Conference. We caught up with two of our panelists, Gisela Kottmeier and Kai Morton.

12139908_895881047160506_2944100298179671744_oGisela, a recent graduate from Lowell High School, is actively engaged in the coding community. Her accomplishments include completing programs with Square’s Code Camp, MissionBit, Make School, Hack Reactor’s Prep Class, and HackEDU’s Hack Camp. Gisela even developed a mobile app that is best played when on your daily commute.

When asked what tech inclusion means to hear, Gisela indicated that it is about moving beyond the stereotypes. Her optimism and hope for diversity inclusion shines through. “Everyone should be able to work in tech,” she says. “Gender, ethnicity, or whether you have an ivy league education should not create barriers. This means that we need to create a mindshift. In addition, your own mentality must be that you don’t have to be a certain type of person in order to excel in technology.”

12068744_895880973827180_8535805058185070288_oKai is a rising Junior at Bishop O’Dowd High School. She has participated in Black Girls CODE, the Enza Innovation Academy, and several other programs, enabling her to develop her programming skills in Javascript, Java, HTML/CSS, Ruby, and multiple basic and intermediate gaming platforms. Kai worked with a team to develop a mobile app for recruiting female athletes.

She shares that inclusion “means seeing people that look like you in the tech field. It’s not a unanimous vision of a male, white, nerdy coder. It’s a wide spectrum of diverse backgrounds and cultures. It’s a diverse and open platform for everyone.” She also thinks that it makes good business sense for the industry, sharing that “as the tech industry diversifies, companies will be better equipped meet the needs of more people, which should hopefully make them more successful.”

More and more youth looking for a hands-on experience to apply their education to practical applications are benefiting from coding programs. Mentors can play a vital role in spurring interest and opportunity for youth in STEM, while also beginning the conversation about inclusion.  

11947726_884254074989870_1503185461863604888_o Dr. Mary Jean Koontz, Founder and CEO of STEMKids, who moderated the youth panel, Youth in STEM: Today’s Tech Leaders, shared that social inclusion is a big contributor.

“Whether the people in your social group are of your same ethnicity, culture, age, socioeconomic level, education… we often find ourselves interacting with people that we feel we can most easily relate to. We should think about who we naturally develop bonds with, and how we can encourage ourselves to develop bonds with others we may not so easily come to know.”

Dr. Koontz also indicated that the onus should not just be on youth. “Youth may be more attuned to collaborate with others at a younger age. However, it’s not just up to youth. Older adults have a responsibility to promote the cross-pollination of ideas and learning. How can everyone from a 14 year old to a 75 year old take conscious actions to broaden their own base of social inclusion? What can they do in their lives, everyday, to connect?” These are big questions, but not ones that should be ignored. Mentorship or project-based programs for youth at tech companies, or programs facilitated by nonprofits, could help encourage engagement with a more diverse community.

Gisela and Kai worked with mentors through their programs and internships. The most important things that they learned? You are capable of getting there. Gisela learned that “it’s not just busy work, the job will always be interesting, and there will always be ways to improve.” Kai shared that she was motivated to keep going at it. “They give you a look into the future that you could have. This drives you to make something great.”

Finally, our young panelists wanted to impart their advice to other youth who are not sure where to begin. Look into what resources may exist in your community or school. Just go out and get involved.

Gisela’s advice? “It may seem intimidating at first, but you should start attending events and pursuing opportunities. Once you start, more opportunities will arise.”

According to Kai, “As a young person, it’s sometimes hard to be motivated enough to achieve our dreams. It may seem too far out. But you can achieve your dreams right now, at this moment. You can start anytime.”

Take it from our youth leaders. Start your journey in tech inclusion today. It’s not too late.

Tune in to the conversation on Twitter at #Techinclusion15 for tweets from the conference. 


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