Washington state turns to schools to diversify tech

The technology sector is one of the least diverse industries in the U.S.
By: | August 17, 2016

Growing up, Eric Osborne never considered a career in the technology industry.

“The message we got in school was that it just wasn’t something African-American people thought about or did” Osborne says.

Besides, computer science classes didn’t exist in the Florida schools where he grew up and there were no mentors pushing Osborne toward STEM subjects.

After working in TV production, Osbourne managed to break into the tech industry, not as a programmer or engineer, but by using what he learned in TV to get a job in sales. He’s now director of business development at a tech recruiting firm in Seattle. He’s also co-founder of HERE Seattle, a nonprofit that provides mentorship for students interested in entering the field.

“Young minorities should feel that technology is a place where they are welcome” Osborne says.

The technology sector is one of the least diverse industries in the U.S. Only 25 percent of women participate. Less than 1 percent of computer scientists are people of color.

The effort starts in schools

The Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) has been calling attention to diversity in the industry for the past two years. The organization launched a blog called Diversity Digest where it aggregates press coverage of the diversity challenge.

WTIA also released a graphic publicizing groups such as HERE Seattle, Girls Who Code and Washington State Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA)—all nonprofits working in the trenches to diversify tech.

The effort starts in schools. MESA works with over 100 teachers in Seattle Public Schools, providing curriculum, professional development and support for STEM programs in underserved neighborhoods. It also sends volunteer industry specialists into classrooms to teach complicated topics such as computer science and engineering, and explain how STEM skills translate into career opportunities.

Before MESA works with a school, it requires districts to honor an agreement pledging that the partner teachers on campus will be adequately supported.

The agreement includes a promise to allow teachers to introduce MESA’s own curriculum in subjects such as biology, life sciences, physical science, environmental science, computer science and engineering. And it pledges to arrange transportation for a field trip to a local university.

“That shows underserved students that they belong at four-year universities” says James Dorsey, MESA director.

MESA has been active for over 30 years, but in the last few years Dorsey says district CIOs have become make-or-break partners. “More times than I can count, the roadblock to a successful lesson is a firewall or a teacher not knowing how to get all the students online” Dorsey says.

In the long term, programs like MESA can improve diversity only if CIOs at underserved schools ensure access to high-speed internet, research tools and smartboards. “To succeed in STEM, students need a craft environment that’s user-friendly” Dorsey says, “And a school can’t do that without a hands-on CIO.”

Avi Asher-Schapiro is a freelance writer.