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Summer Programs Aim to Hack Tech’s Diversity Problem

Image: Scholar’s Summer Institute program works to promote interest in science, technology, engineering and math among minority students.

Sylver Campbell, left, Brandon Meza, center, and Kennedy Gray measure how quickly the heat from lamps is absorbed in water, air and sand during an experiment Wednesday July 17, 2013, at the Scholar’s Summer Institute in Valparaiso, Fla, The 3 week program works to promote interest in science, technology, engineering and math among minority students in Okaloosa county. Devon Ravine / Northwest Florida Daily News via AP

Some kids spend their summer hanging by the pool. Others study up to solve the diversity problem in America’s tech industry.

Across the country, summer programs are aimed at addressing a “pipeline problem” in science, technology, and math, encouraging students from underrepresented backgrounds –- African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans –- into pursuing careers in those fields.

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The pale, male reality of America’s biggest tech companies has long been an open secret, and was reinforced this year when companies including Facebook, Yahoo, and Google released information on the demographics of their workforces showing that their employees are disproportionately white and Asian.

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In early July, Apple CEO Tim Cook told Bloomberg that his company planned to release information on the diversity of its workforce “at some point.”

In June, LinkedIn released data showing that only 2 percent of its U.S. workforce is black. The company told NBC News it is involved in in-house and external programs to increase diversity, including an organization called Year Up that targets disadvantaged urban youth. Google, whose employees are 2 percent black and 3 percent Hispanic, declined a request to comment, and Yahoo referred NBC News to a Tumblr post that said its comparable demographic statistics “are only part of the story.” Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

The blame may not lay entirely with the tech giants themselves. They point to the “pipeline” of students pursuing degrees in what’s known as the STEM fields –- science, technology, engineering, and math –- of which women and minority groups tend to make up a small percent.

"With these numbers, we can really have some strong conversations about why there needs to be a focus on diversity in this whole technology movement."

“They’re not seeing connections between those kinds of activities in the classroom and the possibility for a future career,” said Karen K. Myers, an associate professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Myers researches how and why students veer away from careers in science and tech, and said high school students need exposure to STEM professionals to understand the occupations available. These opportunities might be limited for students of color, Myers said.

Among the programs that aim to fix this problem is the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy (SMASH), a three-year program for high school students organized by the Oakland, California-based Level Playing Field Institute. For five weeks each summer, students of color are provided with mentors and college prep classes with the aim of getting them into top college science, math, and tech programs.

“What we’re doing in SMASH is preparing them for their next school year,” said Shantina Jackson, education team special projects lead at the Level Playing Field Institute. The program recently added an engineering design class to its lineup of courses.

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SMASH scholars can get accepted into the program as high school freshmen after submitting academic records and completing a written essay, math test and interview. Ti’ana Dollison, a 16-year-old who was inspired to pursue science after reading about NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, said SMASH has worked for her. The rising senior at Cerritos High School outside Los Angeles plans to apply to UCLA and Hampton University, among other colleges.

“It’s pretty empowering, to be honest, to attend a program like SMASH where it’s full of minorities who are like-minded and aiming towards careers in STEM fields,” Dollison said.

At Dollison’s high school, Asian-Americans make up about 53 percent of the student body. SMASH works to provide a classroom environment in which aspiring engineers and scientists from Latino and African-American backgrounds will see more people who look like them.

"They’re not seeing connections between those kinds of activities in the classroom and the possibility for a future career."

"We are considering communities of color as we teach, as we learn and as we think about what kinds of communities we want to have an impact on," said Jackson.

Dollison hopes to find a job in either computer or environmental science after she gets out of school.

“People who look like me can actually be in a STEM field, and they can do amazing things, as well,” Dollison said.

The idea of putting tech and science careers within reach for underrepresented students is also what motivated Black Girls Code, a San Francisco-area non-profit that organizes hackathons for African-American girls, among other initiatives.

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A series of hackathons held this year in New York, Oakland, and New Orleans was focused on teen domestic violence, with contestants entering apps and websites to teach young people how to develop healthy relationships. The end goal, said Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant, is for the participants to develop a commercially viable app to put on the market. The whole idea is to make tech seem within reach, she said. The winning group developed an app that provides 24/7 counseling and support to those who may be in potentially dangerous situations in their relationships.

“It’s more relevant when we’re able to work on issues that are impactful for our communities,” Bryant said.

In Harlem, New York, an organization called Harlem Biospace created a program to provide a working space for scientists and entrepreneurs in biotech. Hb created a K-12 STEM education program called HYPOTHEkids (Hk) to teach students about science and engineering during the summer and after school. Originally working with students from kindergarten to fifth grade, the program is starting an Hk Maker Lab for high students demonstrating economic or educational disadvantages this summer.

“The next economy the city wants to see if they can build an ecosystem for is biotech,” said Hb Co-founder Christine Kovich.

When companies like Google and Facebook revealed their diversity numbers, the reports contributed to tech’s latest push for more transparency. Jesse Jackson told CNBC that Silicon Valley had an “inequality” problem that needs to change. But the simple admission of what the numbers really are might be a step in the right direction, said Bryant of Black Girls Code. They give national exposure to issues in tech, which she thinks may help improve diversity in the future.

“With these numbers, we can really have some strong conversations about why there needs to be a focus on diversity in this whole technology movement,” Bryant said.