Kaitlyn Lee, a recent graduate of Barrington High School who’ll head to Harvard in the fall to study computer science and math, is the kind of success story that U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th) says he wants to normalize in communities like Austin.
“Technology today is thinner, faster and more powerful than ever before, advancing even further every single day,” Lee said during a short presentation she gave to over 100 young people from Chicago’s West Side and western suburbs.
Her talk was part of a Youth Technology Initiative hosted by Davis on June 17 at Google’s chic new Chicago headquarters in the West Loop. 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 of others that will take place inside tech hotspots. Another will be held inside Microsoft’s Loop headquarters.
The summits couldn’t come at a more pivotal time, according to Bernard Clay, the executive director of Introspect Youth Services, a nonprofit that offers education and employment opportunities to West Side youths in places like Austin, Garfield Park and Lawndale.
“This summit is really good, because it gives kids that exposure to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, field,” said Clay, who said he brought a small group of young people from his organization to the summit. “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.”
Sabrina Chung, Lee’s best friend and 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 in response to the intimidation, Lee said, of being one of two girls in her AP computer science class at Barrington High.
Stephen Robinson’s saving grace came a little more serendipitously than Chung’s and Lee’s. It was the mid-1980s and he was a freshman at Orr High School. Robinson, an aspiring artist enrolled in art classes at the time, was carrying a portfolio bag as he walked a hallway when he was spotted by a drafting teacher.
“He asked me, ‘Young man, what are you doing with that portfolio bag?” Robinson recalled. “I told him I wanted to be an artist. Well, he goes, ‘You know you’re not going to make a lot of money until you die. Look at Da Vinci and the others. They’re all dead now.’ Well, I thought, I can’t wait that long. I need to make money soon to be able to contribute to my family.”
Robinson said the teacher encouraged him to take drafting courses at the high school and eventually advised him to enroll in a two-year college so he could begin working immediately. The teacher, Robinson said, pointed to a role model — a mutual acquaintance of theirs who was working as a draftsman.
The exchange, the Austin resident said, would set him on his way. He eventually earned an associate’s degree in design engineering from Triton College and a bachelor’s degree in industrial management and technology from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
For West Side young people like Zoe Mellum, seeing and hearing Robinson’s story of breaking into the engineering world has every bit of the dreamscape-like immediacy of 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.
Mellum, 15, of Austin, said she’s been interested in technology since she was much younger, but that being at Google “helped me realize how many opportunities are out there today.”
“You need these people and experiences to give your dreams focus,” said Robinson. “And to attach those dreams to reality, to make them real.”
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.
Moore was showing off Eragon, the award-winning robot one of her teams of young people made for a robotics competition in Australia. It was widely praised, she said, for its elegance and durability — but the robot was just the surface product of a much more comprehensive process involving a team of different people with specialized skills.
“The team is much more than just the robot,” she 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.”