Why Hacking, Tinkering, and Tech Aren’t Just for White Boys

Critics say the maker movement is leaving behind girls and low-income kids of color.
(Photo: Getty Images/Hero Images)
Jun 28, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s called the “Week of Making,” a White House–sponsored initiative to celebrate and encourage young and older “tinkerers, inventors, and entrepreneurs” who create innovations that push technology and the nation into the future. From June 18 to 24, President Barack Obama—science geek in chief—welcomed inventors of all ages to demonstrate their ideas.

But a new report repeats an old story: American kids aren’t spending much time on the skills involved in “making.” Without encouragement to join the community of hands-on makers exploring and creating technology, poor, black, and Latino kids are likely to get left behind.

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More than half of low-income students surveyed haven’t taken any computer science, engineering, or industrial-technology classes in school, according to the report, which was commissioned by Change the Equation, a nonprofit organization promoting literacy in science- and math-based disciplines. Black and Latino students are the least likely to have enrolled in any of those courses, with 61 percent of black girls responding that they haven’t studied those disciplines.

American students “spend precious little time tinkering, troubleshooting, or doing the kinds of hands-on problem-solving that are at the heart of technology and engineering,” according to the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit’s first-ever Nation’s Report Card in Technology and Engineering Literacy. “Girls, minorities, and low-income students do least of all—dampening hopes to create a more diverse STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] workforce in future years,” wrote the report’s authors.

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Although their white peers aren’t doing so well either—the report found that less than half of all students are on the path to proficiency in STEM fields, the foundation of making—the dismal showing among students of color is disturbing, Claus von Zastrow, Change the Equation’s chief operating officer and research director, told TakePart.

“The whole making community is what we looked into from a slightly different angle” of students seeking education that involves solving problems with tech-based skills, von Zastrow said. The “essence” of the concept, he said, “involves solving problems by creating things”—from a supercomputer to a pencil—“that make the world a better place for humanity.”

But less than half of all American eighth graders are proficient or practicing those skills, and “when [researchers] looked at students of color, African American and Latino percentages were a good deal lower,” he said.

The survey included what black and Latino kids do outside school, von Zastrow said, and making isn’t it. “They’re much less likely to engage in...things” like taking something apart to fix it, see how it works, or find a way to make it work better, he noted.

“That would suggest that one of the reasons there’s this big gap is lack of access,” von Zastrow said. While white kids may have access to a “maker center”—a technology shop or a computer lab at school—or a parent who’s an engineer, minority kids are far less likely to have that sort of entrée or contact with a maker, and the odds increase if they live in struggling neighborhoods.

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Margaret Honey, president and CEO of New York Hall of Science, an interactive science center that hosts both World Maker Faire and Maker Space, where families can “tinker, design, and create together,” agrees.

While the maker movement “has grown tremendously,” she said, when it comes to diversity, “it needs more work.”

That includes outreach, Honey said, noting that organizations ranging from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to oil-industry giant Chevron are creating programs aimed at minority students in struggling neighborhoods. Even Congress has a maker caucus, she added.

“There are pockets of excellence demonstrating the power and potential” of underserved communities and students, Honey said. “We just don’t have enough of them.”

Von Zastrow said the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act has provisions for bringing the making ethos into the classroom—with federal money, including for after-school programs, attached—and it’s possible to integrate concepts like engineering- and computer-based problem solving into standardized achievement tests.

“When you get these standards-led challenges into the classroom—that’s when you reach all the kids,” he said. “That has a lot of promise as well.”

Like von Zastrow, Honey said programs outside the classroom are critical to drawing more black and brown children into the maker community—particularly to develop a more diverse technology-based workforce—and spurring hands-on learning that could ignite a passion for science.

“Making is all about innovation coupled with entrepreneurship,” she said. “It’s an important piece of who we are as a country. We need to do a better job of drawing diverse kids into making.”

The key, von Zastrow said, is that policy makers have to act with intent.

Diversity can come, he said, “but we’ve got to mean it.”