A new UNCF STEM initiative is spurring student hackathons and faculty workshops.
Federal dollars may have given Sergey Brin and Larry Page their start (see #31 in this list of most impactful NSF funded research) but it was Silicon Valley that helped grow Google into the $66 billion technology magnate that now employs more than 55 000 people.
However, the company’s first-ever workforce diversity report released in May 2014 showed an unsurprising predominance of white male employees, particularly in technical posts. Indeed, at most of the leading companies, Blacks make up less than 2% of the technical staff.
Seeing an opportunity, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) has launched the HBCU STEM Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship (or ICE) initiative. Its specific goals are to increase the number of African American students pursuing STEM careers; to foster innovation and entrepreneurship across HBCU campuses; and to connect the campuses to Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. For HBCU students and faculty, the I.C.E. platform “seeks to align STEM educational outcomes with student preparation for the tech-workforce and faculty as STEM innovators and entrepreneurs.”
With regard to the goal of increasing the number of Black innovators, HBCU I.C.E. makes a lot of sense. Roughly one-third of Black STEM PhDs receive their undergraduate degrees from HBCUs; which by themselves account for eight of the 10 schools that produce Black STEM PhDs. Most of the STEM-PhD-conferring schools are among the 23 HBCUs that have joined the I.C.E. initiative (see the list at the end of this page).
Last week, HBCU I.C.E. held its first “Making for Change Showcase” as part of the inaugural National Maker Faire held in Washington, DC. Student teams from 12 of its member institutions presented technology solutions to community issues: For example, Florida A&M University’s “Vertical Gardens,” built using recycled bottles, and Tuskegee University’s Portable Water Filtration System. Check out the Twitter hashtag #HBCUmakers for more info.
Another HBCU I.C.E. program are the annual Silicon Valley Summits. The first one, held in 2013, was the intended as a launch pad for the I.C.E. initiative. The 2014 Summit featured an HBCU Student Tech- Empowerment Workshop, where students got to experience career development workshops at Google and Facebook and learned about innovation and design at Stanford University.
One of the days featured a Facebook Student Hackathon; one student from the winning team, Howard University computer science major Sarah Jones, has since gone on to earn a $50 000 scholarship from UNCF and music mogul Pharrell Williams and was recently featured in UNCF’s Evening of Stars; see below. (In April of this year, HBCU I.C.E. sponsored a hackathon in Atlanta that was organized by Qeyno Labs, which organizes Hackathon Academies targeting groups underrepresented in STEM.)
Not to be left out, HBCU faculty who attended the 2014 Summit participated in an HBCU Computer Science/Engineering Faculty Workshop and Leadership Forum. One session addressed challenges and opportunities to implementing new models for computer science and engineering education.
HBCU I.C.E. is sponsored by several major companies, including Facebook, Google, and Texas Instruments, and has partnered with Stanford University, the Association for Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), and the White House Initiative on HBCUs, among others.
Separate from the I.C.E. initiative, some technology companies have launched their own workplace diversity initiatives, including programs that engage with HBCUs. Google, for example, is embedding some of its software engineers as professors at HBCUs; these Google-in-Residence professors–like Sabrina Williams who was placed at Howard–teach, mentor, advise, and inspire. The Googlers-in-Residence are expected to discover talented HBCU students who may go on to intern at Google, or be hired there full time.
In March, Apple pledged more than $40 million to the HBCU-serving nonprofit Thurgood Marshall College Fund. That money will be used to create a database of HBCU computer science majors, train students and faculty, and fund scholarships and paid internships. And in January, Intel announced a $300 million workplace diversity initiative, although no details are available regarding how much, if any, of that windfall will be directed to the HBCU community.