Seeking to bridge the achievement gap in STEM areas, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation partnered with industry leaders to invite a group of 20 promising programming fellows from all over the country to the nation’s capital last week.
The 20 young people, aged between 15 and 25, won an annual competition conducted by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s Latinos On Fast Track program and the Entertainment Software Association, a trade association for the video game industry which also operates the prominent E3 tech convention.
The fellows were required to submit an original video game or app that served to address social issues affecting their communities. The program is intended to inspire minorities, especially Hispanics, to enter and build networks in the burgeoning tech world.
Hispanic students and young adults should not “feel like brown unicorns” in computer programming and STEM contexts, said Antonio Tijerino, president and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.
Now in its fourth year, the program plays a role in “reaching minority youth on their terms,” as video games are “the number one form of entertainment for young Latinos,” according to Tijerino.
Andrea Chaves, a teacher at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria in Queens, agreed.
A Spanish teacher with no computer science training or skills, Chaves learned about the gender and race gaps in STEM four years ago and decided to attack the problem by incorporating computer programming in her classes.
Four years later, Chaves has built what Tijerino called a “veritable factory” for middle and high school female programmers through her classes and the newly launched The Young Women’s Leadership School Tech Explorers summer camp, which has worked with organizations such as Buzzfeed, Bloomberg and RBC.
Two of Chaves’ students, 10th grader Jacky Jiminez, and 12th grader Alyssa Edmond, were present to meet with the nation’s leaders and share their creations as Latinos on the Fast Track fellows.
Jimenez, who created the web application “Finding Your Future; College and Job Opportunities,” is eager to connect students to as much information as possible to help them make informed academic and career decisions. She expressed excitement at the opportunities the fellowship is opening for her and the increased exposure for her idea.
Jimenez’s older classmate, Edmond, is developing the website “Your Personal Friend,” an online support system designed to link young people with a support system of peers and, if necessary, medical health professionals about problems they might have that are difficult to speak about.
Both Jimenez and Edmond are interested in futures in computer science, with Edmond expressing a particular interest in cybersecurity. Both are also quick to point to Chaves as a source of inspiration, noting that their all-girls public school provides much more support for STEM generally—and programming specifically—than those schools of some of their peers.
Each fellow receives $1,000 in grants and logistical support for furthering their creations, although as Tijerino pointed out, perhaps the greatest prize is being linked into a large network of like-minded and successful peers. This network includes former fellows such as Jay Flores, a board member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, a project manager at Rockwell Automation, and a TEDex speaker.
Tijerino also hoped the “ecosystem” that is being created will dovetail with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation’s larger initiative, Code as a Second Language.
The initiative, which already counts multiple former Latinos on the Fast Track fellows as teachers, is currently operating in 50 schools to address the fact that nine of 10 American high schools do not offer coding classes.
As Chaves explained, the first step to closing the achievement gap in STEM is actually relatively straightforward: “the key is to expose them.”
Photo: Alyssa Edmund (left) and Jacky Jimenez (right) among the young programmers selected as 2015 LOFT-ESA fellows (Photo by Leo Doran for Digital Education).
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.