It was Brittany Orr’s first time at Google’s chic new Chicago headquarters. The 19-year-old graduate of Proviso East High School wants to break into computer coding and network security, but could see herself checking in at the high-tech, 10-story office building with wraparound views of the Chicago skyline.
“I like it here,” said Orr. “I wish I worked here, actually.”
She was one of at least 100 young people from the western suburbs and Chicago’s West Side who attended the June 17 Youth Technology Initiative hosted by U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th).
Davis said the tech summits are designed to bring young people, particularly minorities and young women, face-to-face with leaders in business, technology and government. The summit at Google, his office noted, is the first in a series that will take place inside tech hotspots. Another will be held inside Microsoft’s Loop headquarters.
The congressman said he hopes to make stories like that of Kaitlyn Lee, a recent graduate of Barrington High School who’ll head to Harvard in the fall to study computer science math, routine in schools like Proviso.
The summit couldn’t come at a more pivotal time, according to Bernard Clay, executive director of Introspect Youth Services, who brought a small group of young people from his organization along with him to Google.
“We’re in a race to get as many African American kids involved in STEM as possible and we need to step up the pace,” Clay said.
Sabrina Chung, Lee’s best friend and a co-presenter, fleshed out the opportunity ahead for the enterprising student of color who decides to forge a path in the STEM field.
“The number of computer science jobs will triple by 2020, so just the sheer number of computer engineers we need by this time is huge, and we are not fulfilling the number of jobs that we need,” said Chung. “This still leaves 25 percent of the estimated 1.35 million jobs vacant, which is really, really scary. So we just need engineers to fill these jobs. The salaries of these computer scientists is twice the national average.”
But it could be difficult for minority and female students to realize the high pay and prestige of STEM careers, many of the summit’s attendees noted. Just responding to those challenges takes its own kind of innovation.
“You’ll have many, many, many challenges,” said summit presenter Dyani Cox. “But I encourage you today, while you’re here, to not focus on your challenges, but on your endless possibilities. You can do anything you want to do because there are people to support you.”
Cox, who heads up Black Girls Code’s Chicago chapter, eventually overcame those high hurdles to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering.
Chung and Lee took matters into their own hands and started a computer coding club for girls to overcome the intimidation, Lee said, of being one of two girls in her AP computer science class at Barrington High.
Proviso Township District 209 board President Teresa McKelvy said she brought along around 24 district students to Google. McKelvy said the trip is one part of a more comprehensive plan to expose students in the district to career paths in the tech field.
“Education is moving to blended environments,” McKelvy said. “Most of the children know way more than we did at their age, but technology is here to stay. So we have to keep investing in them and in their education, and provide them with the tools and career paths so they know that options are available We’re trying to put them in contact with organizations like Google and Microsoft to show them the way.”
In addition to networking with leading technology experts, the students also got hands on with one of Google’s newest ‘it’ gadgets — the Google Cardboard viewer, a pair of binocular-shaped cardboard eye pieces that are this century’s DIY equivalent to the View-Master — and a robot named Eragon.
Jackie Moore, the founder of Chicago Knights Robotics, an organization that promotes STEM learning among young people by, among other activities, taking them to robotics competitions, said technology is a metaphor for life in a modern society.
Eragon, Moore said, was built by one of her robotics teams for a competition in Australia, where it won awards for its resilient design. The robot, however, is merely the product of a much more comprehensive process involving a team of different people with specialized skills, she noted.
“The team is much more than just the robot,” Moore said. “In addition to building the robot, we have to market the robot, recruit students, raise funds and develop an online presence via social media. The way we do robotics is really very holistic. There’s probably not a subject in a class you’ve taken that doesn’t get addressed.”
Davis reinforced Moore’s metaphor before sharing a high-tech experience of his own.
“In this summit, we’re trying to teach young people not only about technology, but about life,” he said. “Society now is so data-driven that technology is the absolute wave of the future. I’ve seen people using robotics to perform surgery and it’s nothing unusual, you know. The doctors were getting ready to operate and rather than putting on rubber gloves they were pecking on the computer.”