Teaching Diversity in STEM, One Day At A Time

There’s a lot of talk about diversity in tech. Schools are attempting to even the playing field, trying to ensure that all students, all genders, all ethnicities and races have access to technology education. So that they can go on and enjoy successful tech careers.

By Jayne Leigh Hallock

However, several things can challenge this effort. The digital divide compromises the future of many students who have the smarts and the talent – but not the access – to succeed in technology. Then there’s the historical lack of role models in the industry, representation is just now ramping up.

A third challenge is that even students who might be inclined towards technology don’t want to pursue programming. They assume that coding is the only path to a career in tech. Adults in the working world might know that assumption is false – that there are many other career paths – but how to explain what those roles mean to students?

Easy. We don’t. Instead, Slalom Build’s own Dan Hamilton and Deborah Kewa skip the lengthy explanations and just simply…show them.

Dan first got started with kids via Microsoft’s TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) philanthropic program. Their motto is “Every student deserves the opportunity to study computer science in high school. TEALS helps schools build and grow sustainable CS programs through partnerships between teachers and volunteers.” He started as a volunteer in Seattle’s Cleveland High School AP computer science class, but at the end of that year, his assigned teacher told him that they were hoping to offer a project-based course for their seniors. Unfortunately, they weren’t offering a senior computer science class at the time. It was the perfect opportunity for Dan to get involved in something early, that would make an impact.

Every student deserves the opportunity to study computer science in high school. TEALS helps schools build and grow sustainable CS programs through partnerships between teachers and volunteers.

“They eventually asked me if I would be up for taking over as the full-time AP computer science teacher. When I reminded them that I had a full-time job at Slalom Build, they asked if I could find some way to make it work. Luckily, I was able to talk with my manager and figure out a schedule that would allow me to be able to take off early in order to get down there to teach classes.”

Dan enjoyed the experience so much he wanted to take it a step further. He wanted his kids to not just imagine a technology career, but actually live it, even for just a few hours. So, together with his Slalom colleague Deborah Kewa, he created “A Day in The Life of a Consultant.” Students would be able to see what tech consultants, recruiters, and other folks in the industry did all day.

Dan believes that there's something powerful about demystifying what the tech industry is and what software development can look like. If students don't know anyone, or have a window into how software development works. It's easy for technology to seem like a mystical, elusive thing that isn't for everybody. The powerful thing about the tour is helping students put a face or a story with the industry to say, "Oh, the people doing this aren't that different than me. I could do this.”

Particularly with the population at Cleveland. And in partnering with REACH on this, the team wanted every kid to see someone on the tour that looked like them. Visual proof that yes, there is a place for everyone in this industry.

The previous year, Deborah had attended the AfroTech conference and heard Google’s Director of Inclusion and Diversity speak. One of the challenges that was discussed was the need for children of color to get into STEM. It was explained that the pipeline starts from high school, because that's when kids are taught Calculus. In order to get into a prestigious university, students needed to have had begun Calculus early. So Slalom Build wanted to somehow contribute towards closing that gap and enabling more students to have access to these key subjects early in their education.

Deborah brought with her some experience from being on the Slalom REACH (Recruiting, Education, Authenticity, Community, Heritage) inclusion team. REACH was thrilled to have a connection already in place with a local STEM high school with 90% students of color. They’d been wanting to support local communities to help get more people of color into the tech industry, and Hamilton’s project fit the bill perfectly. With Deborah as the project manager and Dan as the tech subject matter expert, “A Day in the Life” was ready to go.

Aside from speaker presentations, the team also offered a cyber security game led by Nelson Nogales. Deborah explains, “We showed them how to... well, not actually hack into websites, but something like it. Obviously, we also talked about the importance of integrity and white hat hackers and things like that. We had them open up their laptops and walk through it and they did it all together.”

They lined up the speakers, set the agenda, created the educational games and then COVID hit. Walking around, office to office, cube to cube, just wasn’t going to happen. So the team did what most teams have had to do these days – go virtual! Although, this simple solution was not without its challenges.

“First of all,” says Dan, “the tour date ended up being the Friday after George Floyd was killed. We sent out an email to students telling them if they had the head space for educational stuff, great. If not, don't worry about it. There are bigger things for you to be worried about. Be worried about your mental, emotional wellbeing. Take care of your families. That comes before educational stuff.”

Plus, the team was very aware that virtual learning can exacerbate existing educational equity problems. The team already had a lot of kids that had to work, had other family they had to take care of, or just plain had bad internet connections. Even some of the kids who managed to attend went on and offline all day with bad connections. All told, the team ended up hosting nine out of the original 29 eleventh graders scheduled to attend the day. Four of them were female.

Despite all these hurdles, the day was a success. The students were introduced to Slalom employees working in various areas of recruiting, _build, RDT, D&A, BAS, and Salesforce, demonstrating the breadth of work at Slalom. The kids learned what a builder does, day to day, what kind of education is needed for each job, and even reviewed some of the impressive brands they work with.

After the "day of" ended, the feedback the team received was universally positive. Did they learn? Yes. But more importantly, did they connect? Another resounding yes. Not only is Hamilton receiving more career-based questions in his class, but the kids are asking if they can reach out to presenters they met on LinkedIn. They are making important connections, role models and – hopefully – mentors.

“A lot of the conversations with the Slalom Build employees that day, “says Deborah, “were showing kids the diversity. Both in terms of their educational background and their experiences as well as how they came to Slalom Build. I think that exposure was the biggest thing we wanted to show the students: that they didn't just have to be coders only. Technology is more than that.”

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