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November 12th, 2011
10:24 AM ET

Building more minority engineers - as early as elementary school

Editor's note: Soledad O'Brien chronicles the NewMe Accelerator journey in "Black in America: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley," at 8 p.m., 11 p.m., and 2 a.m. ET on February 11 and February 12 on CNN.

(CNN) - As a young teen, Wesley Williams believed his only career option was to work at a local warehouse in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

“I wasn’t planning on going to college, I wasn’t planning on graduating high school, I was planning on doing nothing with my life,” he said.

Now, nearly 10 years later, he is a college graduate and an IT administrator and developer.

“I would be either dead or in jail," he said. "Those would have been my options had it not been for BDPA.”

BDPA, formerly known as the Black Data Processing Associates, is a non-profit organization founded to increase the number of minorities in information technology related industries.

In high school, Williams had no interest in academics and spent most of his time hanging out with the wrong crowd. His mother pushed him to join the local BDPA  chapter.  There,  he discovered a love for technology.

Employment in scientific and technical services is projected to add about 2.7 million new jobs by 2018. African-Americans made up 13% of IT jobs, and women made up 25% in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Janice Cuny, the National Science Foundation's director of computing education, says the low number of minorities and women in science, technology, engineering and math fields is a serious concern.

"Together, women and minorities make up more than two-thirds of our population," she said. "We cannot afford to cede that much talent, creativity and breadth of perspective if we are to remain globally competitive in a world that is becoming increasingly well educated and technologically advanced."

BDPA has more than 40 branches nationwide. Each year, its High School Computer Competition program teaches 800 to 1,000 students how to write computer code, build functional websites and create business presentations.

“We already know that the students use technology, we are trying to show them how they can be involved in creating technology, ” said Wayne Hicks, executive director of the organization's Education and Technology Foundation.

Tech industry's diversity problem starts in college - and earlier

To give more young people a boost, BDPA will partner next year with Tech Corps, a nonprofit that recruits technology professionals to teach hands-on skills to young student.

“We are realizing that we share the same goal and because of resources being scarce, we are finding ways to work together,” Hicks said.

Tech Corps was established in 1995 and a few years ago, started their TechieClub, which targets students in grades three to five. National director Lisa Chambers said they realized the needed to engage students well before their teen years.

“If we wait to try to capture kids until high school, we have less of a population to capture because so many of them have already fallen out of interest," she said.

Since 2009, 100 elementary schools have implemented the program and more than 500 students from a variety of backgrounds have participated.

Tech Corps also engages ethnic minorities and girls by partnering with the National Society of Black Engineers.

Currently the Tech Corps and Black Engineers junior chapter provides young girls with technology training their schools don’t offer.

Watch: How teaching technology changes lives

“High school was just the basics. It wasn’t in depth, it wasn’t enough to get me really interested in science and STEM fields,” said Victoria Richards, who is now a college student, pursing a degree in environmental engineering.

For Richards, one the best parts of the program was hands-on experience and resources, like  college-level engineering labs, where she built electrical circuits and learned hydraulics engineering.

Support and encouragement from mentors drove her to pursue an engineering career, she said. The National Society of Black Engineers gave her a scholarship and connections, too.

“Before the program, I have never seen an African-American engineer," she said. "it just helps so much to see someone that looks like you doing what you want to do.”

BDPA students have gone on to technical careers, and come back to help, too. Wesley Williams  is now the student program director for the group's Atlanta chapter.

“It is a debt that I owe BDPA for changing my life," he said.

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soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. fransheska

    Well, I'd rack this right up there as one of the most annsiie things I've read this year.First off, please disense with this "we" businees. You want to speak for yourself, fine, but leave the rest of us out of your screeds.Second, if HotAir is 'taking him to task', then they need to hire a new writer. If anything, the article sounded confused as to why Glenn made his statement, not condemning.Third, this is such a small matter, just one flippant sentence cherry-picked from a long, usual Beck rant, that it's obvious you're lying in the weeds waiting, waiting, waiting for the next 'gotcha' moment. You're not "pro-party", you're just "anti-Glenn", the exact same way many "conservatives" (using the term in its softest sense) aren't pro-party, they're just anti-Coulter.Beck and Coulter are perhaps the two strongest voices (real) conservatives have, and if they sometimes branch into hyperbole or satire and the weaker sisters of the party get their panties in a knot, so what?Brian, you need to take a break from ideology just for ideology's sake for a while. Witness this sentence:"In fact, subtract one Glenn Beck from the equation and we might never be on the same side as our Soros- funded enemies."Note how, according to you, the second one doesn't agree with Beck, then he immediately 'sides' with left-wing extemists.Life isn't black & white like that, Brian. Jumping from one extreme to the other is a human foible, not a natural condition. When Beck or Coulter say something I don't agree with, I think "I don't agree with that" and then continue watching or reading. I don't think, "Omigod, MediaMatters was right, after all!"Sheesh, buddy.

    February 12, 2012 at 1:26 am | Report abuse |
  2. Peri Moore

    The issue is real. My company is working with mobile robots and one of our projects is the Explore Earth Project. Our goal is to mobile robots in areas to allow students to explore and learn. It is our hope that participants will see the fun of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) skills. Engineers are needed in the US... and on the African continent. We must get more aggressive in promoting the benefits of STEM knowledge.

    November 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. John

    I think Soledad is very right, what is that about white Cuban? who cares? are you frustrated or what? this report is very accurate, I own a business in the technology field and the diversity problem is real, this is about education and not corporate tripe... for that just watch oprah.....way to go Soledad! keep opening eyes and waking up this country...

    November 13, 2011 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
  4. ReneldaMoorehead

    Soledad O'Brien is one of the reasons I no longer have televison: corporate tripe. What does this white/Cuban girl know about African American life? That's rhetorical. I have watched her once or twice . I cringed at her unease,
    lack of love, and had to change the channel. Is CNN trying to tell us there are no African American women who
    could moderate shows (series) on Black life in America from the pov of knowing it intimately? Again, rhetorical.
    That's corporate America for you–pure phonyism.

    November 12, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • colordoesntmatter

      she is successful regardless of her color and people like you would judge that. you won't step up so just say thank you and be on your way.

      November 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |