How NYC is helping train its youngest minds in STEM

Taikuan Perkins and Adonis Lemos, 6th grade students from Renaissance Leadership School explain how their 'Health Helper Robot Prototype' works to another participant as part of the New York Public Library's
Taikuan Perkins and Adonis Lemos, 6th grade students from Renaissance Leadership School explain how their ‘Health Helper Robot Prototype’ works to another participant as part of the New York Public Library’s “Innovative Labs” program, at the Stephen A. Schwarzman building in Manhattan on May 28, 2015. Nearly 100 teens shared technology projects. Photo Credit: Cafe Clover

It’s never too early to extol the benefits of tech and engineering, especially given the bright future of New York Cityas booming start-up scene.

So, over the past few years, there has been a surge in public and private programs aimed at starting kids and teens down a path toward a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)-related field in a city where the tech sector already accounts for 291,000 jobs and $30 billion in annual wages. When it comes to tech education, no American city can compete with New York, according to experts.

“We, as a city, are ensuring that level of education leads to training, which leads to jobs,” said Kristen Titus, founding director of the city’s Tech Talent Pipeline project.

Here are some of the tech academic programs already under way and plans for the future:


Public schools


Debbie Marcus, the executive director of the office of postsecondary readiness for the city’s Department of Education, said students have expressed an increasing amount of interest in learning how to code, program, and engage with a range of computer science programs.

“They are already engaging in tech with their smartphones and other gadgets, so why not show them how it all works, and stimulate their thought process?” she said.

The city has created tech-centric programs for middle and high school students to achieve that end, such as its software engineering pilot program. Now in its second year, the program teaches coding, computer engineering and more to 2,700 students in 18 middle and high schools across the five boroughs.

“It’s about defining a problem, finding a way to solve that problem, and enacting a solution,” Marcus said of the program.

Marcus noted the proliferation of arts-oriented start-ups in New York, from SoundCloud to Tumblr, and said the city prioritizes emphasizing tech education even for students who arenat interested in pursuing a career in sciences.

More programs are on the way, such as the Summer STEM program, which will serve 1,200 second, seventh and tenth graders, as well as hackathons and meet and greets with experts.

Marcus said those interactions were important, especially for the female and minority students, because it enriches their passion for the field.

She stressed the value of those sessions for female and minority students.

“We had students see these employees who look like them and it says, ‘Yes I can do that,'” she said.


New York Public Library


The library system started its youth ainnovation labsa program this fall to let middle and high school students explore the tech world at their own pace and according to their own interests.

The kids come to their local branch after school and learn the basics of coding, robotics and more, and then produce a personal project.

“We tried to give them a taste of everything,” said Beth Dukes, an education coordinator at the West Farms library branch in the Bronx.

Two weeks ago, the kids held a show-and-tell presentation at the main branch on Fifth Avenue. Matthew Pena, 11, of Washington Heights, said he wanted to explore robotics because he saw a veteran on the street who was missing an arm and thought it would be good to create a useful prosthetic for wounded warriors.

By the end of the program, Matthew created a small prototype.

“When I first came to [the program] after school I was new to everything, but I had an idea that I really wanted to do,” he said. “It took me three days to build this arm and I think it came out well.”

The labs will continue next fall, along with another tech-related program, the “Coder Games.” This will be a friendly competition between branches to see who can make the best video game following a course on basic computer programming.

“It helps students understand these concepts and principles in a way thatas fun and encourages teamwork,” said Brandy McNeil, the public library’s associate director for tech training.


American Museum of Natural History


The tech industry has a diversity problem. Only 38% of city tech companies have women in the top management position, according to a 2014 survey by Silicon Valley Bank.

The museum’s BridgeUp: STEM program, which launched in the fall, aims to fill that void.

Sixteen female students between 13 and 15 are part of the free after-school program that teaches coding. Christina Wallace, the programas founding director, said more organizations should give girls the chance to explore their tech interests.

“The thing is, they like STEM and 12 other things like sports, or music. The priority is to make them choose STEM,” she said.

Over the school year, the students learned to code in Python, and use data sets from the museumas database to create visualizations.

“The girls love it, they stuck with it through snowstorms and downpours, you name it,” she said.

The program will continue into the summer and the museum hopes to include more students this fall. Wallace implored parents and teachers to encourage their girls to explore STEM academics, saying doing so would ensure the continued health of the industry down the road.

“If you like playing with technology … if you like being a consumer of technology there is no reason that you shouldn’t be a creator of technology,” she said.


Camp/Code Interactive


The Bronx-based nonprofit, also known as C/I, originally began in 2001 as a place where underprivileged Bronx high school students could go for computer access.

Six years later, instructors began to offer computer programing classes and in 2011 made it their core curriculum.

“It’s not only important for our kids to have these skills but also to stack the cards in their favor and get them a head start in college,” said Michael Denton, C/I’s executive director.

A free, three-year program offered by the group begins with an intro to web development, html, css, JavaScript and other coding languages. The second year delves deeper into comptuer science and the third offers Advanced Placement computer science courses.

“It’s not an easy subject to master, but if we can give all the tools to the kids, they will certainly have a heads up,” Denton said.

The program, with 327 teens from 12 Bronx high schools, also helps set their students up with paid summer internships at top tech companies such as Foursquare, GILT and Airbnb.

Denton said the proximity to these local start-ups gives New York students an edge.

“New York is working in a powerful way to get those kids in the STEM careers,” he said. “We really haven’t scratched the surface of our potential.”