Advocates for STEAM Gather at Tumblr, Talk Need to Reach More Kids

The prosperity of New York, and frankly the country, rests on the commitment to train more kids for careers yet to be invented.

That was a key takeaway from Thursday night’s #STEAMFWD panel at Tumblr headquarters in New York. Advocates for education in science, technology, engineering, art, and math discussed the need for dedicated efforts to teach a broader swath of the population, especially urban youths, such skills. The panel was a follow-up to an all-day workshop held last Saturday for high school students.

On the panel were Michael Wiggins, director of education for the Urban Arts Partnership; Nakisha Evans, director of workforce partnerships with City College of New York (CCNY); Lola Brown, deputy to the dean at CCNY Grove School of Engineering; and Luke Bauer, principal of the Urban Assembly Maker Academy. Preeti Birla, director of community, outreach, and partnerships for the office of innovation in the NYC Department of Education, served as the moderator. The event was hosted by the New York Tech Meetup, the Urban Arts Partnership, and the NYC Department of Education iZone.

The arts are starting to be grouped with science, technology, engineering, and math education—STEM is often pushed as the backbone of the innovation scene—because of the real world connection many youths have with music and other creative endeavors. “They love art,” Wiggins said. “They curate their lives from head to toe.” He wants to see more kids embrace the entrepreneurial spirit and develop their own content and products.

Despite media coverage of unicorn startups and their “rock star” founders, the general populace has yet to fully accept that more jobs require expertise in technology and innovation rather than older, legacy skills. Furthermore, the traditional career paths of prior generations are vanishing. “When I was raised,” Wiggins said, “my father said, ‘Go work for the company, they’ll train you and take care of you.’ Well, that world is gone. It’s gone and it’s not coming back.”

Meanwhile, as the digital divide gets wider between people who have ready access to high-speed data and services and those who do not, more youths are at risk of being left behind. “If you’re doing something at school, it cannot be supported at home because they don’t have the connection,” Wiggins said.

Lack of broadband access can keep urban youths from developing the skills they need for the jobs that will be available going forward. Furthermore, he said, these days companies may rise and fall quickly, requiring the workforce to constantly develop new skills and move nimbly from job to job. Knowing what kind of work will be available in the years ahead is also getting harder to figure out. “Eighty percent of the jobs in the future don’t exist yet,” Wiggins said.

Talk of bringing STEM and STEAM education to underserved groups, such as young women and minorities, needs to be followed by tangible action, though. Wiggins suggested the promotion of competency-based education and accreditation could create more pathways to higher learning for young people based on their abilities.

It can be a struggle to connect with youths who simply do not associate careers in innovation as part of their lives and personal identity. And sometimes kids are discouraged from trying to learn if they have trouble understanding the abstract ways in which math, science, and other lessons are taught. “When people failed, it was kind of taken as an indictment of their intelligence,” Evans said. “No one questioned whether or not this person needed a different way to learn.”

Part of the problem, she and the other panelists said, was a false perception that only certain people have the capacity to understand math, science, and other skills necessary to be creators, makers, and founders of companies. Even those who manage to break such stereotypes and get into the innovation scene might be confronted by an at times discouraging environment.

Evans said she was told, as a child, that her difficulties with math in the ninth grade probably meant she simply was not good at it. That swayed her to focus on social sciences instead. However, in college, a fellow student helped her approach statistics from a practical perspective. “It’s stuck with me to this day because I had something to wrap my brain around,” she said.

A reorientation of the way kids are taught may be necessary. Many schools across the country, Bauer said, focus on helping students pass exams to get into college and leading them by the hand to get accepted. “Because we’ve done a lot of the work for them in a lot of ways, they’re not set up with the skillset they need when they’re 200 miles away from home,” he said.

To be successful, Bauer said, problem solving and resilience to find solutions are as necessary as technical skills, if not more so. “Bosses and CEOs are not going to tell you what to do,” he said. “You’re going to get fired if you’re waiting for someone to tell you what to do.”

The frustration with the roadblocks to change was palpable last night. To be frank, talk of bringing more diversity to the tech scene comes up again and again and again, without much progress being made.

Wiggins said he wants youths to be creators and innovators, rather than just be consumers or docile workers. However, he also said marketing campaigns from companies that tout diversity and social justice do not always lead to real action—but it is a sign that this topic is not going away anytime soon. “Diversity and equity are different things,” he said. “Harlem is very diverse but it’s not fair. Power is what we’re talking about, and power is being a creative producer. What we need to do is put the power in young people’s hands . . . so they can make content and make money off of it.”

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