Google Comes To Harlem, Oakland … To Reach The Future (Update)

October 7, 2016

636113542140386483-code-next-2Google is opening tech labs in Oakland, Calif., and Harlem to build bridges to underserved communities as it seeks the next generation of African-American and Latino computer scientists.

Code Next, a new initiative which officially launched Thursday, puts on free programs for middle school and high school students, working with local organizations such as Black Girls Code and local schools to nurture their interest in computer science.

…51% of African-American students and 47% of Hispanic students don’t have access to computer science classes in school.

Google says its research shows that 51% of African-American students and 47% of Hispanic students don’t have access to computer science classes in school. Code Next aims to fills that gap with hands-on curriculum that encourages creativity and experimentation, showing young people overlooked by the tech industry the possibilities that industry offers.

Eventually Google, which is developing the two labs in collaboration with MIT Media Lab, plans to make the curriculum available to educators.

“We have a commitment to the idea of creating a new generation of computer scientists, inventors, innovators and tech leaders,” said MIT Media Lab’s Colin “Topper” Carew. “One day this will be available on an open-source basis to the world so that thousands upon thousands of young people, like the young people we are seeing who are the dreamers in Code Next, will be able to be the beneficiaries of the work we are doing.”

Students in Harlem are attending classes at Google’s New York offices until the Harlem lab opens next year.

Oakland’s Code Next lab is located in the Fruitvale Transit Village and has a computer science heroes theme, highlighting the achievements of inventors and scientists to inspire kids to follow in their footsteps. Students in Harlem are attending classes at Google’s New York offices until the Harlem lab opens next year.

In bringing Silicon Valley to underserved communities, Google is heeding the advice of Bryan Stevenson, the Harvard-educated lawyer and best-selling author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice who espouses “the power of proximity.”

In February while visiting Google, Stevenson told USA TODAY the tech industry has an obligation to “get proximate” to communities of color.

“Every industry, certainly these spaces that have not been as diverse as we would like them to be, has an obligation to get closer to the community that it wants to invite in,” said Stevenson. “It’s not a very smart strategy to stay where you are and do what you have been doing and hope people will come to you and bring their diversity with them.”

This marks the first time Google is venturing into Oakland where African Americans and Latinos make up more than half of residents. It’s one of a growing number of Silicon Valley companies establishing a beachhead there in an effort to hire more African-American and Latino workers amid growing criticism of their hiring practices.

Silicon Valley’s major tech companies are staffed mostly by white and Asian  men. Google says it’s hiring more black and Hispanic workers: 4% of hires in 2015 were black and 5% were Hispanic in 2015. But the increased hiring has not budged the overall percentage of underrepresented minorities in the Google workforce, with Hispanics making up 3% of the work force and African Americans 2%.

And that’s a growing problem for Google. Whites are expected to become a minority in the USA by 2044, Latino and African-American buying power is on the rise and Silicon Valley has ambitions that now lap the globe. Having women and underrepresented minorities brainstorming and building, not just using, the products dreamed up by Google is quickly becoming a necessity.

Code Next is one of Google’s efforts to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the tech industry by reaching out to young people.

“Google, looking at the ecosystem, looking at our own numbers, wanted to make a change and and make an impact in building a more inclusive tech ecosystem,” said Errol King, a Google experience manager working on Code Next.

Google wanted to give the students in the program options: to join the innovation economy or create something entirely their own, King said.

Claire Shorall, manager of computer science for the Oakland Unified School District, told USA TODAY last month that Code Next is planting “the seeds of college and career readiness while still being in an environment that is sponsoring joy and creativity.”

During the Code Next pilot program from January through June, students built a Halloween-inspired 3-D printed strobe lamp that featured a pulse controller made by hacking some little bits components, walking insect robots made with servo motors, Arduino coding language and clothing hangers, a laser-cut jigsaw puzzle features images of Drake and Rihanna and custom-designed and laser-cut boom boxes that used conductive paint to trigger different songs.

One student even created a MacGyvered doorbell by making a switch using a Post-It note and copper tape wiring. He connected the wires to a makey-makey which controlled a customized scratch project on a laptop where he could record and customize the sounds made by the doorbell.

The kids — 70 at each location — were encouraged to pursue projects that “were personally relevant to their own lives,” said Google’s April Alvarez, Code Next’s student experience program manager.

Parents got involved in the program, too, joining their kids in stretching their creative muscles.

“We were determined to take a community-centric approach and that means we were committed to designing with the community not for the community,” Alvarez said.

“That is the real power that we are seeing here,” she said. “The genius of these kids and the genius of Oakland youth meeting Google tech resources, and the experiences coming out of that lab are so powerful.”

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