Illinois nonprofits hope mentors and real-world projects will improve diversity in STEM classes

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Illinois has the unique distinction of producing more top STEM talent than almost any other state, and it continues to produce a record number of STEM degrees each year. But when it comes to the diversity of STEM talent, it’s a different story.

A report from the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition found that in computer science, 16.7 percent of 2016 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral graduates were female, while 3.8 percent were Hispanic or Latinx, and only 2.5 percent were African American.

There are some bright spots in representation at the university level — over one-third of undergrad engineers and 29.5 percent of doctoral students at Northwestern University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science are women — but overall, the trend is not pervasive.

There are many reasons for this stunning lack of representation, and most of them start long before college.

For one, Illinois is last in the country when it comes to equitable public school funding, spending just 78 cents on low-income students for every dollar on high-income ones.

While there isn’t a perfect correlation between underrepresented groups and income levels in Illinois, students of color have been shown to suffer disproportionately from the funding imbalance. Reports of low-income schools struggling with chronic understaffing versus high-income schools not only providing iPads to each student but even cafeteria sushi are well documented.

The staffing problem affects underrepresented students when it comes to STEM. Although Chicago became a national leader by requiring computer science credits for graduation, there are not enough teachers equipped to teach those skills.

For Lance Russell, CEO of Chicago Tech Academy, this is an acute challenge.

“The hardest thing for many urban schools to do to make further gains in [STEM education] is to find highly qualified technology teachers. But there’s a reality that if I’m trained in computer programming, I can make a lot more money at a tech company than teaching programming. We have to get more people involved in teaching tech.”

Another core challenge Russell finds is that “You can’t be what you can’t see. For young people of color growing up in Little Village or Englewood, they don’t know what a UX designer is. But once they see it, their perspective completely changes.”

With 240 students, 97 percent of whom are African American or Latinx, Chicago Tech Academy focuses on providing students with project-based learning, real-world opportunities in tech companies, and a host of mentoring programs so that students can get the connections they need to succeed in technology — and help them see what a job in the field looks like.

So far, this curriculum is working, with 60 to 65 percent of Chicago Tech Academy high school students eventually enrolling in college, and 30 percent pursuing STEM paths.

Like Russell, Scott Issen, president and CEO of Future Founders, emphasizes the importance of giving underserved communities exposure to paths in entrepreneurship and technology. Future Founders runs programs and mentorship opportunities for both K-12 and millennial groups. Its mission is to get more youth involved in entrepreneurship, which often means STEM. These students typically come from under-resourced areas of Chicago.

Issen said of the student participants he meets in Future Founders’ K-12 programs, about half have never met an entrepreneur, and the ones who have don’t know growth-stage tech entrepreneurs.

Of the students who go through Future Founders’ entrepreneurial-focused programming, over 90 percent believe they can become entrepreneurs and express interest in coding classes, app development, and business formation.

“Our focus is to show students that they can create their own opportunity. They don’t have to go to school and wait for someone to give them a job,” Issen said.

Future Founders runs programs like Future Founders Discover, a six-week bootcamp run within Chicago schools and led by entrepreneur-instructors who teach students the ins and outs of entrepreneurship and facilitate an app-based final project and pitch day.

The nonprofit Illinois Science and Technology Institute (ISTI) — an affiliate of ISTC — similarly seeks to create connections between companies and classrooms.

The organization’s STEM Challenge paired 27 high schools across Illinois with one of 15 industry partners, including Microsoft, Motorola Solutions, Caterpillar, Baxter, and Uptake to solve tech-based business challenges as part of their educational curriculum. Half of student participants are of color and over 40 percent are female.

Echoing Russell and Issen, ISTC president and CEO Mark Harris emphasized, “There’s a disconnect between students and their perceptions of what a STEM job is and what the people who do STEM jobs look like.” Namely, students believe that STEM means working at NASA, but don’t think of companies like Google or Facebook

That’s why ISTC worked with Microsoft to create partnerships with three high schools. As part of the STEM Challenge, students were asked to solve artificial intelligence-related problems for Microsoft, which deepened their understanding of tech while also opening possibilities for careers in the future.

As Harris put it, “[Students] are used to having a teacher at the front of the classroom and an answer in the back of the book, but I think through problem-based learning, students have a whole new shift in what it means to learn. In this case, when they are presented with a complex, very interdisciplinary, real-world problem, there’s a light that goes on.”

The companies that participate in the program get the unique advantage of accessing the next generation of talent and planting the seeds of interest in what they do. ISTC works not just in urban communities, but also in rural areas of Illinois that may not even have broadband access.

“We’re blessed that in addition to collecting the data, our mission is to try to impact [the numbers] through advocacy and programmatic activities. We are going to continue to be intentional about serving urban underserved areas as well as rural areas … to grow the research and tech community in Illinois.”

Alida Miranda-Wolff is the founder and CEO of Ethos, a talent strategy firm for tech companies. By shaping culture and developing talent, she helps strengthen every company’s biggest asset: its people. With a focus on diversity, hiring practices, vision and values, and career pathing, she partners with tech leaders to make possibilities and aspirations concrete realities. Alida previously served as director of platform at Hyde Park Angels, where she was one of only two dozen Latina women in VC.

Originally published on VentureBeat on April 5, 2018

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