This article is reprinted from SPNN's blog,  February 26.

How CTEP is supporting the next generation of STEM stars

by Lisa de la Cueva, Community Technology Empowerment Project


It blows our minds here at CTEP when we see bright young teens try out, and master new technologies. Our eyes light up when we see a teenager code a zombie computer game using Scratch, doctor a picture in Photoshop, design and print a 3-D model of an octopus, create a robot, or shoot and edit a film in Premiere.

These are the kinds of skills more Minnesota employers will be looking for in the coming years. It’s a popular topic in policy circles these days, and the subject of an upcoming forum on science technology, engineering and math (STEM) and closing the achievement gap.

As Allison Liuzzi pointed out at the recent MN Compass annual meeting, employers will be looking for candidates able to apply science, math and engineering to new technologies. According to Liuzzi, a research scientist at Wilder Research, Minnesota is falling short at providing those qualified young candidates in STEM fields. That’s why MN Compass and a team led by Boston Scientific and other STEM stakeholders, have developed a STEM “cradle-to-career” framework that provides policymakers and practitioners a vision for strengthening STEM education and workforce.

This will be hard, but it’s not impossible. Their research suggests that many teens are not very interested in STEM fields and not enough high-schoolers have the necessary skills to pursue STEM majors in college. It gets worse when you break this down by race and ethnicity. Additionally, as Marilee Grant of Boston Scientific has pointed out, we have a pretty small pool of Minnesota youth who are both interested and able to pursue STEM careers.

How can we engage youth?

The STEM cradle-to-career framework got CTEP thinking about what we do to engage youth in technology and why. We partner with community-based organizations doing work in three areas: youth programming, adult basic education, and employment readiness. Seven of our 35 CTEP members provide youth with technology-focused programming in libraries, media access centers, and community based organizations.

We see the urgency of developing basic science and math skills in our youth - but we also see a pressing need to spark teens’ imaginations, to inspire an interest in STEM fields. CTEP members are doing their part to raise tweens and teens’ interest in technology and equip them with tools that will make them more employable, and importantly, jazzed about what technology can mean for them, their self-esteem and their careers.

We wanted our CTEP members to reflect on the link between empowerment, ability, and interest in STEM fields for teens and tweens. We asked: How have you seen technology inspire youth? How do youth see themselves differently because of your work with technology? How does your work with technology make youth more interested STEM jobs?

Below are some of their condensed responses.

Jordan Thompson
CTV North Suburbs

Students see a cool thing—an animation, a photo, a video—and they can see that other people have done that cool thing with a technology. Then we work with that technology and they start to see, “Now I will be able to do that cool thing.” We have many students who feel a little crushed by the system. They’re having a hard time keeping up with standardized tests and they might not feel that great about themselves and what they can do.

Now, how do you get students out of that place?

They come to us and they find something they can be good at. For instance, last year we were creating stop-motion animation and students found a technology that originally felt like a professional, even scary thing. Now it’s not. Now it may even feel intuitive. They find they begin to learn a skill, and not only that, but it’s a professional skill. These are the same kids that are feeling bad in their educational system.

Eliza Summerlin
Roseville Library

We use the 3-D printer a lot because the teens get really into it. They want to see how it works and they try to print out these models of objects. It takes a long time to print these, sometimes days, so they keep coming back and badgering me for the model they’ve worked on. One kid came in knowing nothing about 3-D printing and he comes back to print something new every week. This kid had no social support, he had no friends who were doing it, and he has no other access to a 3-D printer. But he just keeps coming back. It’s exciting to see teens wanting more of the technology that they’ve been introduced to. I hope that those casual relationships will turn kids on to more technology classes at the library and in their schools.

Joseph Beck
Project for Pride in Living

Students come to a CTEP classroom with a different background than the adults because technology is so much a part of our students’ lives. They all have smart phones, even though many of them experience extreme poverty or homelessness. But then there are technologies they have little experience with—like they haven’t used email before, or they’ve never done photo editing or programming. When they have to learn something new, like Java Script logic, there are initially resistant because it’s outside of their comfort zone. They freeze up just like the adults do. So my goal is to show them new software, see them struggle with it and get frustrated, make them see what they can make a technology do for them, and then watch them get past it. That’s a skill they are going to need in any job in the future; there’s that point of frustration and then problem solving. To watch a student break through that can be a very cool thing. (Check out student technology blogs here.)

Khou Yang
Maplewood Library
In one of our teen programs we work with Arduino, an open source software and hardware program used to make objects. We have a volunteer, an engineer who works with LED computer screens at 3M, who brought his toolbox with him one day and one of the students started going through it. The student asked the engineer, “What are all those tools, and what do you do with them?” The volunteer told him he worked with lasers and the kid got so excited and said, “I want to do that!” I got excited too and I thought, yeah, that’s really good. I told him, “You CAN do that! You’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing here and you can learn how.”

Anna Toegle

I do some programming at LEAP High School, which caters to immigrant and refugee students who came to the United States when they were older. The students in the program have very practical career goals; many say they want to be a doctor or a nurse. Then I have some students who say they want to be computer engineers but they don’t know what that really is. After we work at computers for a while they realize, “wait, uh-oh, I don’t really even know how to type yet!” We have to go back to the basics, like setting up email accounts and practicing how to send professional sounding emails. It hasn’t discouraged them from becoming computer engineers, like Steve Jobs (because they know who that is and are inspired by him). They just figure, “Okay, I know I want to get there, so now I’m going to go back to the basics and do it.” That is awesome. The big thing about the youth is that they figure it out, they get it together.

Andrew Lonnes
Saint Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN)

There’s something very exciting to youth about telling their stories in pictures. We do a lot of training with video cameras and editing software. The youth experiment and play around with the cameras until they learn things like shutters speeds and white balance. Then they learn the video editing software Adobe Premiere, and the more they learn and play around with it, the more they want to do with it. They’ll ask us how to do special effects that will enhance their story, but as time goes on I’ll see them working together more—someone learns a skill and then they teach each other instead of having us teach them. Then they realize that once you learn something as complex as Premiere it powers you up to be able to use other, easier technology better and faster. After they spend time with our program they realize that even if they don’t go into a job with technology, they are definitely going to feel comfortable using technology in their jobs.

Lisa Peterson de la Cueva is the new program coordinator at CTEP. She is completing a graduate program in journalism at the University of Minnesota. Lisa has a background in journalism and community organizing, with several years at the Twin Cities Daily Planet under her belt. She has contributed to previous Compass articles.