Ethnic Media Briefing

Q&A: Creating Access to STEM Education for Students of Color


Above photo:
This team developed an app to guide bullying victims to resources. // photo: Allen Meyer

Ed. Note:
Since 2001, the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI), a Bay Area nonprofit, has worked to help students of color pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Late last year LPFI began hosting hackathons, two-day events that give middle and high school students of color the opportunity to build software applications in teams. NAM reporter Anna Challet spoke with Sumaiya Talukdar, the director of strategic partnerships and community engagement at LPFI.

How does LPFI support students of color in getting into STEM education and careers?

What we do is give low-income students of color who are underrepresented in STEM fields a rigorous, innovative summer program called the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy (SMASH). They start in the 9th grade and are in the academy for three summers, during which they take math and science courses at Stanford, UC Berkeley, the University of Southern California, and UCLA. The students who apply have an interest in these programs but don’t necessarily have access to technology, a rigorous STEM curriculum, or teachers who are qualified to teach subjects like computer science, and we’re able to provide those things.

Across the United States, about 23 percent of all college freshmen declare a STEM major or an interest in declaring a STEM major. The SMASH program doubles that rate for the students who participate.

We noticed that our SMASH program wasn’t attracting as many African American young men as we had sought to, and so we started our SMASH: Prep program, which serves African American males in grades 6 through 8. Only 45 African American students took the AP Computer Science exam in California in 2012. That’s a crisis. There are going to be twice as many computer science jobs as there are other STEM jobs in the next 10 years, and it’s a lucrative field.

Has LPFI been paying special attention to computer science given the statistics?

We’ve been working with Oakland Unified School District to bring the district more instruction in computer science, something that the district is incredibly motivated to do. We got approval from the superintendent to put together a working group and are going to be supporting the district in thinking through bringing computer science to students … Another thing we’re doing are the hackathons. The point of the hackathons is exposure. We thought that, first of all, students need exposure to computer science, and then once they’re excited about the field we can potentially set them up for a deeper dive into the subject.

The students blew us away with what they were able to do. They started out with little to no experience with or exposure to computer science. They thought about the challenges in their communities, and the root causes of those challenges, and then went out and surveyed and researched. Then, after that, they created mobile apps that addressed the root causes of the challenges.

What kinds of apps did the students come up with?

One of the groups created a mobile app that helped them create safe walking routes from their schools to their homes … Other students created an app to help restaurants with excess food coordinate with food banks. They were able to do this within a weekend. We didn’t know if that was going to be possible. Not only were they able to put together the apps, but they were also able to present in font of a panel of judges made up of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. We had to beg the students to leave at the end of the day. How often do we see this in schools, where students just won’t leave?

We really let the students take charge in saying what they wanted to build. These are not students that traditionally have access to computer science but could really utilize computer science to help their communities or themselves in some way. It’s the learned experiences of our students that inform the kinds of apps they create; what they came up with was an insight into the challenges they’re facing. If we leave it to Silicon Valley, we’re just going to get more social media apps. Silicon Valley wants diverse candidates because diverse candidates think of diverse ideas and solutions. It helps their bottom line.

The participants in our hackathons have been half boys and half girls. The SMASH program is also 50-50. There are just as many girls as boys who routinely express interest in math, science, and technology.

What are the biggest challenges to helping students see themselves as producers of technology rather than just consumers?

Our research says that it’s a lack of very early exposure to the field, first of all – the fact that you can do it, that it’s a possible career for you. If you grow up in a poor neighborhood, your school might be underfunded and lacking computer science teachers and a rigorous STEM curriculum. It’s not that everyone that gets exposure to computer science will become a computer scientist; it’s just that a lack of exposure is a terrible reason for someone to not enter the field.

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