All the Cool Kids Are Doing Science: Why will.i.am Is Making It Hip to Be a 'Nerd'

If there aren’t enough American workers for today’s tech jobs, imagine the nation in 2024 if we don’t find fresh ways to get kids interested.

will.i.am (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Patricia Dao is a regular contributor to TakePart. She is a Los Angeles–based serial tech entrepreneur and managing director of the nonprofit Girls in Tech–LA.

Can’t put down your iPhone or Android? Loving the health benefits of your FitBit bracelet? Saving tons of money on gas because of your Prius Hybrid? Me too, and we have the brilliant coders, engineers, scientists, and mathematicians of the world to thank for it all. From Google Glass to SpaceX’s mission to enable people to live on other planets, the tech-based ways for us to innovate and improve our lives are endless.

All that progress could grind to a halt if today’s students don’t major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects and decide to pursue alternative careers. Based on code.org’s projections, by 2020 there will be 1.4 million computing job opportunities but only 400,000 computer science students to fill those roles. That’s a daunting 1-million-person job gap. Meanwhile, our unemployment rate is 6.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Conundrum? Yes indeed. That’s why new approaches to attracting youths to STEM fields are needed.

“You have to start kids earlier and provide them with hands-on experiences and opportunities to learn about technology so they have confidence to continue in this field,” says Luz Rivas, founder of DIYgirls.org. “If someone chooses to pursue a STEM career by eighth grade, they are three times more likely to pursue STEM in the future.”

An MIT and Harvard graduate, Rivas has had a successful career in electrical engineering. She became an advocate for STEM education because she wanted to help girls gain access to the same opportunities she had. That's why in 2011 she started the nonprofit DIYgirls.org. Rivas has also launched several after-school programs dedicated to teaching the likes of 3-D printing, robotics, and software engineering to girls in underserved areas of Los Angeles.

Although making a paper boat is great, Rivas emphasizes the importance of students creating something with real-world value. “Some of the stuff the students create, adults can’t even do,” she says. “This gives the girls more confidence because their family and friends’ positive reactions are genuine.”

You know him for hits like “My Humps,” but Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am, a tech geek at heart, is a longtime believer in fostering STEM education. He is particularly focused on underserved areas where STEM education is harder to come by. In 2009, will.i.am took action and founded the nonprofit organization i.am.angel Foundation. As he wrote in The Huffington Post, “Introducing kids to STEM in an interesting and hands-on way is the mission. Encouraging kids to think big, and to dream without shutting down their ideas and experimentation, is vital.”

Several STEM programs and events have been launched in Boyle Heights, the low-income Los Angeles neighborhood where will.i.am grew up. He intends to replicate these programs around the world in similar underserved areas.

“Students around the world have the same talent and potential but may not have the same access to opportunities. We try to bring more opportunities to these areas and better-quality STEM programs to schools," says Lilly Kam, the i.am.angel Foundation’s director of STEM. “In Boyle Heights, kids aren’t thinking about STEM or academics at all, so to [have] the ability to explore robotics is something they would never otherwise think about.” Kam says the goal is “to simply make these kids more confident that they have the opportunities to have future jobs in these areas.”

Although the foundation encourages students to pursue college degrees, it also understands that might not be the reality for many high school students. Kam says the organization makes sure students know that well-paid, entry-level tech-based jobs that start at $50,000 per year—and don’t require a college degree—exist. This makes it important for i.am.angel’s programs to also focus on giving kids practical hi-tech skills that can be used immediately after they walk the stage at their high school graduation.

If it’s true that we’ll have to figure out how to inhabit another planet one day, let’s hope we have enough people skilled in STEM to get us there. With organizations like the i.am.angel Foundation and DIYGirls.org stepping up to the plate, we’re marching in the right direction. 

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