Marking 20 Years of STEM Education at TAF, and Planning for 20 More

Trish Millines Dziko is getting ready to celebrate.

For 20 years, the Technology Access Foundation, which she co-founded with her spouse, Jill Hull Dziko, has helped thousands of Seattle-area kids of color gain skills and experiences to unlock careers in the booming industry that has come to define the regional economy, and nearly all aspects of modern life.

There will be food and drink, music and dancing to mark the milestone at the organization’s headquarters, which floats like a high-tech treehouse in a park on Seattle’s south end.

But more important is the work Dziko and her team are doing to continue growing TAF, spreading its innovative model for educating children too often let down by public schools, and preparing them for careers in a technology industry voracious for talent—and increasingly focused on diversifying its white, male-dominated ranks.

Trish Millines Dziko

Dziko

TAF’s present and future include new fund-raising, partnerships with local companies including Expedia, a growing cluster of TAF-supported schools in the region, and ambitions to significantly increase the number of teachers and students it reaches.

That would build on the nonprofit group’s legacy that now includes some 5,600 students who have gone through an evolving slate of STEM-education programs in the last two decades, ranging from internships to community after-school programs to full-fledged STEM-focused schools.

One of these TAF alumni is Sherrell Dorsey, a writer and technologist who founded The Plug, a newsletter tracking the intersections of diversity, equity, technology, and business. Dorsey says she is finally seeing the tech industry wake up to what TAF and organizations like it have been doing since the 1990s.

“Trish diagnosed this issue, this problem of the lack of diversity in the world of tech—and science and engineering in general—in the ‘90s. And now the industry is saying 20 years later that this is high priority,” Dorsey says. “It always has been, but we didn’t have the tools or attention of today… There’s a sense of urgency on a national level that wasn’t there.”

As a high school freshman in Seattle, Dorsey came from a family that already embraced technology. Her grandfather had the latest computers and would pass last year’s model on to his grandkids.

Dorsey

Dorsey

Her interest was accelerated after she joined TAF’s Technical Teens Internship Program in 2000, she says. She attended classes twice a week, learning computer programming fundamentals and several programming languages, as well as network administration skills. She was connected to summer internships at Microsoft, local college tours, and help preparing for the SATs.

“There was this holistic approach to the experiences we were having as high school students, preparing us for college,” Dorsey says.

TAF is like family to her, she adds. And indeed, she has two cousins attending the flagship TAF Academy.

Solving Real Problems

The academy, co-managed by TAF and the Federal Way School District, teaches middle- and high-school students using TAF’s specific model of STEM education, built up over two decades of experience. Three other area elementary schools are transforming themselves using the STEMbyTAF curriculum and culture, supported by a full-time instructional coach from TAF, and resources for college and career readiness, education technology, and professional development.

Dziko says TAF’s STEM curriculum goes beyond an emphasis on just the hard sciences and math. It’s not just programming. It’s really about problem solving, using whatever tools are necessary, she says.

“At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is to teach kids to solve problems for their communities, or to create things that make things better for the world that they’re going to live in,” she says.

The interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum that TAF promotes in its schools and teacher-training programs emphasizes real-world problems. At Mount View Elementary in the Highline School District, for example, the soccer field was unusable because it was covered with goose poop. Students were told, “If you want to play, then you solve the problem,” Dziko says.

The project involves students researching the diseases goose poop can carry and ways to scare off geese, and then presenting solutions.

“One of the things that companies talk about often is they want people who can communicate, who can strategize,” she says.

Of the 485 students who have attended TAF Academy since it began in 2008, 95 percent graduated on time, and 92 percent entered college. TAF Academy is moving to a larger building, and aims to expand to 850 students in the next five years.

TAF students take tech outside. Photo via TAF

TAF students take tech outside. Photo via TAF

There is no shortage of interest from schools, but there are shortages of teachers ready to teach the project-based STEM curriculum, Dziko says. That’s why TAF is out raising some $7 million, in part to help expand its teacher training programs and sustain them until they begin to support themselves in 2022, according to TAF’s latest forecasts.

The expansion can’t come fast enough for other technology and education leaders. Sheila Edwards Lange, president of Seattle Central College, which is adding a new tech-focused apprenticeship program to its slate of STEM training offerings, says Seattle needs programs to get kids in middle and high school interested and excited about careers in IT.

“Where’s the sustained pipeline that feeds kids—like TAF does—into college programs?” says Edwards Lange, who previously led diversity efforts as a top administrator at University of Washington. “There’s just not a lot of them.”

Dziko envisions TAF Academy and the transformation schools continuing to innovate and share best practices, locally and nationally. Her dream is to create STEM regions—clusters of STEM-focused elementary schools that feed into STEM middle and high schools.

“That’s never been done before, to my knowledge,” Dziko says. “That could be pretty amazing. And that’s what we have our sights on in terms of the big proof point.”

Industry Partnership

An important component of TAF’s work throughout its history has been strong connections to the tech industry.

Dziko started TAF after 15 years as a software developer and in other roles with tech companies including Microsoft. TAF has received strong financial support from the tech industry and other companies locally. But it’s about much more than money.

Over the last seven years, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has hosted TAF students during the academic year, and high school students from TAF Academy and elsewhere around the region for summer internships.

Dziko met with the Fred Hutch diversity committee, seeking out opportunities for her students. Beverly Torok-Storb, a member of the clinical research division and director of the internship programs, sought funding through an NIH grant, arguing in her application that “you don’t just create post-docs out of thin air. You have to grow them,” Torok-Storb says.

The federal funding, since supplemented with additional grants and private donations, helps place students in labs on the Center’s Seattle campus, where hands-on work with pipettes and centrifuges is backed by science education. Students who need it are offered free transportation and meals—simple things that can present big barriers, especially to kids traveling into Seattle’s tech centers from outlying communities.

TAF students in the lab. Photo via TAF

TAF students in the lab. Photo via TAF

Students have the opportunity to return for multiple years, taking on more responsibilities, forging deeper relationships with mentors and, importantly, developing a sense of belonging.

“These kids leave here thinking that they own this place and they’re confident that they’ll do well anywhere,” Torok-Storb says.

The success of the Fred Hutch program is providing a model for TAF to work with companies such as Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) and Expedia (NASDAQ: EXPE).

Expedia, in partnership with Coding Dojo, helped train a group of TAF students over the summer in the Ruby on Rails web programming framework. Beginning this fall, eight students will build websites on Expedia’s affiliate platform, with help from mentors at the company, focusing on both technology and business aspects of the project, and competing for a scholarship.

The Bellevue, WA-based online travel giant hopes to bring back the same students for apprenticeships, while also beginning a new cohort next summer, says Tarran Street, Expedia’s head of tech public relations, via e-mail.

“We’re trying to start a flywheel of tech participation where there are different phases for students to enter into, learn and grow based on their previous experience, and then come back to Expedia in a work capacity,” Street says. She adds that this is not “a one-off experiment” but part of a multi-faceted effort to diversify the company’s workforce and support the community.

“That’s a long-term view,” Dziko says. “For Expedia, what they see is, if I bring these kids back every year and I have this relationship, and I help them through college, I’m going to have some Expedia-ready employees, and I’m going to have some diversity built in.”

Even if companies don’t end up hiring directly from programs like this, they’re recognizing the benefit of investing in the STEM pipeline to their industries and communities as a whole.

“You can’t expect to get quality candidates into your companies out of college unless you invest in the pipeline,” Dziko says.

Companies looking for more specific returns on their investments should have an easy time finding them, Dziko says. It’s easier to recruit employees to regions with good public schools. Employees who mentor young people often have higher morale because they’re engaged in something meaningful beyond their day-to-day routine. And it’s good for the corporate image.

Role for Startups

Small companies, even startups, can get involved, too, and it doesn’t require hiring an intern or donating heaps of cash. (Many startup company founders say they want a diverse workforce, but don’t know how to build inclusive teams, according to a recent survey.)

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Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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