People of color are still falling behind when it comes to filling out the tech workforce. Though booming tech locations like Silicon Valley have tried for more inclusion, breaking into the industry remains a struggle for Black and Latino populations. The same can be said of the greater Nashville, Tenn., area, where the local chapter of a global nonprofit focused on improving diversity in tech, Blacks In Technology Foundation (BIT), is trying to remedy that through a new high school curriculum.
With help from Tennessee State University and LocalTek, a company that specializes in building curriculum and training for technology, BIT-Nashville’s new pilot program will bring a new course of study catered around learning technology for upperclassmen at RePublic Schools charter school within Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, according to a news release last week. The three-year program, LocalTek – Thrive, kicked off at the start of this school year for RePublic juniors, and will add seniors to the mix for years two and three. Pending more funding, the hope is to include a number of other schools in the Middle Tennessee area that are similar to RePublic, according to BIT-Nashville President Holly Rachel and Vice President Lena Winfree, who chatted recently with Government Technology in a video conference.
Through the program, which has enlisted 150 juniors, both in-person and virtual instruction will cover a multitude of technologies such as SQL (structured query language), data science, machine learning, robotics and app development, involving real-world training for industry certifications and other “nuances” within the tech curriculum, Winfree said. BIT also partnered with Dell Technologies, which donated 20 computers to form a computer lab at RePublic Schools. Rachel and Winfree said they intend to add more computers to accommodate every student in each class. Through the Tennessee State University’s dual-enrollment program, teens who go through LocalTek – Thrive will receive six hours of credit each year, they said.
“We believe that by teaching our scholars computer science skills, including coding, app development and robotics, we are teaching them the skills of tomorrow that will give them a competitive edge in the future job market,” RePublic Schools Director of Computer Science Allison Arth said in a public statement.
Rachel said that she and Winfree, who co-organized the Nashville chapter of BIT in March 2021, noticed a decline in tech workers of color, and learned that it was likely the result of a lack of exposure to the subject matter at an earlier age. They intentionally targeted schools, like RePublic, with a high percentage of non-white students, hoping to generate greater interest in high-paying tech careers.
“There really was not any consistent technology education in the schools,” Rachel said. “That’s when we kind of started thinking … of how to provide something that was in front of the kids every day, to really introduce them to the tech industry, those career paths, because that’s a high-growth career.”
Exposure to the curriculum, which will be taught by people hired through the program, Winfree added, will potentially open the eyes of kids who otherwise didn’t know they could have a career in tech, because no one who works in the field looks like them.
“There’s very little to no representation [of people of color] in the tech industry, and [students won’t pursue it] if they don’t see visualization and people who look like them,” she told GovTech. “So what we have done is go into the schools [with] some mentors … who look like you, who are doing this work, who have changed their family tree in terms of money and monetary gain, based on technology and technology roles they are in.”
The organizers said that ideally, the curriculum should be brought into the classroom much earlier — third grade, according to Winfree — but for the pilot, offering it to juniors helps them as they prepare to fill out college applications and shift their mindset to what degree they might want to pursue.
“The goal is increasing the awareness that the kids have for possibilities for a career in technology, and increasing that interest that they have for a career in technology,” Rachel said. “That’s really part of building that talent pipeline.”