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Portland Summit Sparks Interest In Science, Tech For African-American Teens

On a Saturday afternoon, Microsoft researcher Jonathan “Peli” De Halleux gives a group of Portland kids and teens a tip on how he uses code to make objects move across a screen in a computer game.

In math class, he explains, the X axis is a horizontal line and the Y axis is a vertical line that points up. But that way of thinking about space doesn’t work for game designers.

“Computer scientists are like, no no no. We need to have zero, zero on the top corner, where your screen starts,” De Halleux says. “In real life, when you jump, Y goes up. In computers, it goes down.”

DeHalleux is one of the instructors at the iUrban Teen Tech Summit, a program designed to introduce children of color, particularly males, to STEM careers: science, technology, math, and engineering.

More than 100 young people, many of them African-American young men, turned up at the University of Portland for iUrban’s third summit. The classes include a session on digital animation taught by the animation studio Laika and a windmill building competition led by staff from the Bonneville Power Administration.

In the app-building workshop, after a few brief instructions, DeHalleux sets the kids to work building customized versions of the addictive game Flappy Bird.

A programming tool called Touch Develop uses message bubbles to guide the kids and show them how to plug in code line by line. Touch Develop, which Halleux designed, is available for free online to introduce novices to coding. After about 15 minutes, most of the kids have assembled enough code to send icons bouncing across their screens.

Seventh grader Mubarak Saidou is excited “I’m definitely doing this when I get home,” he says.

Saidou says he’s thought about becoming an astronaut when he grows up, but he can also imagine designing apps as a career choice.

“I really like i-Urban. It gives kids new opportunities to explore. Instead of just basketball player, football player, it gives them a chance to find something that’s academic related,“ he says.

Helping African-American boys and teens imagine a future for themselves in technology careers is exactly what iUrban Teen is trying to accomplish.

“There’s a huge gap for youth of color and for girls in this whole STEM arena. We’re trying to put a dent in that,” says Deena Pierott, the founder of iUrban Teen Tech.

Census studies have found that women, African-Americans, and Hispanics are underrepresented in STEM careers. For example, African-Americans make up about 11 percent of the workforce, but only about 6 percent of workers in the STEM fields.

Pierott launched iUrban Tech at Washington State University in 2010. Last year, the White House recognized her for her work toward technology inclusion and named her a Champion of Change. Pierott says iUrban is in the process of expanding to Seattle, Chicago, Houstan, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

In Portland, iUrban Teen is offering a coding workshop May 31 and a STEM career tour in June 7.

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