#NPRBlacksInTech: Creating Technology 'Comes From Passion'

Tell Me More has sparked Twitter discussions around diversity in tech at #NPRBlacksinTech. For more on why there's a racial disparity in tech, host Michel Martin talks with physicist Reginald Farrow, entrepreneur Deena Pierott and middle school student Miles Peterson.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the barbershop guys weigh in on the news of the week. But first, we want to wrap up something that has turned into something much bigger than we ever imagined. It began with the number five. Why five? Well, it turns out that only five percent of America's scientists and engineers are African-American - that according to a study by the National Science Foundation. We wondered why that is and whether that matters and what might fix it so we decided to reach out to a few of the five percent, including educators, and entrepreneurs and social media types.

We did this on Twitter using the #NPRBlacksinTech. And what started as kind of a simple question became a community that spanned the country. And a very diverse and committed group of people agreed to share their thoughts with us and their lives with us. They tweeted us throughout the day for a series we call "A Day in the Life." Now that series ends today but the foundation for future involvement has been built. The participants have been networking with each other, sharing stories and working together to recruit the next generation of African Americans into tech fields. So to tie a bow on this series for now, we've decided to call on three people who were involved in this series just to review what we learned and what we should be thinking about next.

Here in our studios in Washington D.C., seventh grader Miles Peterson of Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science. With us from Portland, Oregon, entrepreneur Deena Pierott of iUrban Teen Tech. And we hope we'll have with, us joining us at some point from Newark, New Jersey, the physicist and research professor, Reginald Farrow. So welcome to everybody. Thank you so much for joining us.

MILES PETERSON: Thank you for having me.

DEENA PIEROTT: Yeah, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: All right, so Deena let me start with you. We've been asking people throughout the series, you know, why this number? This five percent number, and you know, why they think that is and why does it matter? So I wanted to ask you that question.

PIEROTT: Well, it does matter and I feel that we can do a whole lot better for one thing. I feel that for me, one of the reasons why I created the program that I have, was to expose more use of color - primarily African-American, Latino males, into STEM-related careers. A lot of times, they're just not exposed to the opportunities. Their parents weren't exposed to the opportunities. And so to me, it's all about exposure and to show them that everything around us has a science and technology base to it. So for me, it's exposure.

MARTIN: Miles, what do you have to say about that? You clearly are exposed to these issues at the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, but what do you think about that? Why do you think to this point - and I don't want to emphasize the negative, I just want to be clear on that, but why do you think to this point we haven't seen people of color in these fields?

PETERSON: I don't think that - they're not putting it out there that there are jobs in there. We're not getting enough opportunities. They're not teaching us about it. So we really don't know about it. Yes, we use an iPhone and a Galaxy every single day, but we don't know how that works, and I think that how something works is very intriguing to us. And we just need to be exposed like Ms. Pierott was saying.

MARTIN: Pierott was saying. Now Deena, additionally Danielle Lee, who's a biologist and she's taught at the university level, mentioned in a Google+ Hangout, the need to recognize that there still isn't the kind mentoring and networking that other groups get. And I just want to play that clip from our conversation with her. Thanks.

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DANIELLE LEE: Recognizing so much that politics do play a part, even at the undergraduate level, who gets an opportunity to intern, who gets to work in a lab and how that translates into career opportunities in science and engineering, particularly at the graduate level and above. And so helping my colleagues to comprehend some of the unintentional bias that they perpetuate and how they interact with students in the classroom at the undergraduate level is important.

MARTIN: Deena, what about that? Has that been your - what's your take on it?

PIEROTT: Oh, that is so true. That is so true. And the other thing too, is recognizing and understanding those unconscious biases that they instill on our youth. And our youth can see that, but it's so, so, so very key to one, have them understand it, but it's also very key to have our professionals of color - our engineers, our technologists, have them understand the importance for them to reach back and mentor and open that pathway, you know, for our younger generation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin of NPR's TELL ME MORE. We're wrapping up our series that we've been running throughout December. We've been having, kind of, two conversations - one on Twitter and one on the air with the #NPRBlacksinTech. We talked a lot about education on this program, and something that came up a lot during this series was the need to kind of bring more people along to, kind of, create more of a pipeline.

And one thing we saw over and over again in tweets from participants was the need to get people excited, not just about consuming tech, but about making tech. Miles, so this is a perfect place to come to you. You're in seventh grade and you take classes about creating apps and things like that. What are some of the things that keep you interested?

PETERSON: I think, actually, trying stuff on. Like, if you go into the Apple Store and you try the new 5S or you try the Galaxy Gear, recently, actually Wednesday, people came to our school and we got to try on the Google Glass, and that was very, very cool. So I mean, being able to try it on and then, like I said again, how it works and then that makes you not want to become a consumer, but make more. And you come up with ideas, how to make it better and you work with other people, software developers, to find out how to put your idea to work.

MARTIN: But, you know, but to that point, though, I mean, one of the interesting facts that has emerged, I mean, is that African-Americans and Latinos are already - I'm going to use a social science word here - over-indexed, which means that they're more likely to use social media things like Twitter and Facebook than other groups are. So they're already, kind of, already very excited about using the technology, but to this point it isn't translating and to people being part of a push to make the technology. You know what I mean, Miles? So what do you think bridges that gap? Is it having the chance to get your hands on it? What do you think?

PETERSON: I think it definitely has to do with getting your hands on it, but finding out how it works - a gif went out and it showed how a key works, and everybody was fascinated to see how the key goes in the lock and the key turns. So find out how it works. And then, like you said, over-indexed, it's more blacks and Latinos - have more - the study show that blacks and Latinos have more smartphones and use more technology than other people. So already having it and using it, we just have to find out a way to show us how it works and how we can make it even better.

MARTIN: Well, we're happy to have with us now from Newark, New Jersey, physicist and research professor, Reginald Farrow. Welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

REGINALD FARROW: Well, thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: So sometimes the technology doesn't serve us as well as we would like but then, you know - but then sometimes it does. So, Reginald, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us. We've been talking about how to bridge some of the gaps that we have talked about a lot over the series. What is it that would bridge the gap from having people of color, particularly African-Americans and Latino's move from just being consumers of technology to creators and producers of technology? What are your thoughts about this?

FARROW: Well, actually I have a lot of thoughts and, you know, I think that what you're doing here is you're creating a community, and I think that's very important. A community of people who are, you know, trying to pursue technology and trying to pursue careers in technology. And I'm particularly heartened that, you know, you have someone from middle school who's already excited about this, because it's a real challenge with the way funding for education is, you know, being reduced right now.

MARTIN: We had talked earlier with Deena about - Deena Pierott, who's of iUrban Teen Tech, and we were talking a lot about, just kind of, some of the informal mentoring, you know, relationships that people have or even, kind of, classroom dynamics that sometimes are invisible to the people having them, but sometimes work to exclude people in ways that they might not even be aware of. Do you feel that that's true? Is there something there that we should talk about?

FARROW: Yeah. I think what you're talking - what you're really saying is that even if it's unintentional that there is a pathway to get forward. And if you're part of a particular culture, you know, they tend to bring their own culture along with them. But we can do the same thing. And this is something that, you know, is done every day in institutions like mine at NJIT, which has a very diverse population of students. But you're definitely right.

I think, if I look back at all of the - all of the advances that I was able to make, all the times I was able to make a positive move forward, there was generally somebody there who was, you know, really made that happen, and just by, you know, saying a few words or making a phone call or even, you know, in one case, you know, taking an application and walking it to a person and putting it on their desk - this is the type of thing that goes on for, not just me, for everybody. And I think, you know, people know that, that they just don't talk about it so much. And it's not necessarily an exclusionary type of activity. It is inclusive but, you know, if you're not part of a network, then I think you need to become part of a network such that you can take advantage of this type of mentoring.

MARTIN: Deena, can we talk a little bit more with you about this? Deena Pierott of iUrban Teen Tech. You know, there's even this phrase now, black Twitter that comes from the fact that African-Americans use social media and mobile devices more than any other group, 28 percent of online African-Americans use Twitter, compared to 12 percent for whites and 14 percent of Hispanics. Although, and that's interesting, 'cause as I understand, the Latinos are over-indexed on the use of Facebook compared to other groups. So, again, this idea of transitioning from just being a user of the technology, clearly there's a fascination with using it, to being a consumer and producer. What other thoughts do you have about that?

PIEROTT: Well, you know, I feel that we can use this medium. We can use this medium for the good. Not saying that it's not being used for the good already. You know, when people are building relationships and meeting people, you know, online, but such as the series that you had that I participated in. That was such heavy and fantastic networking and collaborative, you know, process that occurred during that time that we were online. You know, we were working out issues where we're talking about collaborations, you know, for bringing more youth into STEM.

So I like to use social media - Twitter - for that reason. Not just to say how my day is going, but I like to use it to reach out and say how can we create this community that we talk about, you know, and thrive for different outcomes. But I want to just kind of reiterate on the mentoring piece for you. One of the things that we tell our folks that are involved in our program - we have several technologists involved on our board and on our ISAAC counsel. It's one thing to be a mentor, 'cause we do need to mentor these youths, but at some point, you need to transition that over to sponsoring them as well.

MARTIN: And what's the difference? What's the difference between sponsoring and mentoring?

PIEROTT: Mentoring is helping to groove, not - mentoring is helping to shape, sharing information, guiding them along the way, supporting them. Sponsoring is, just like how he mentioned, making that phone call. I know somebody that'd be great for this. Handing someone an application that trusts you. That's the difference between the sponsoring and the mentoring.

MARTIN: Really actually more proactive. Being more proactive, actually jumping in. Miles, speaking of jumping in, he wanted to say something.

PETERSON: Oh I was going to say that I believe that being - wanting to create a software, it comes from passion. Something that you're passionate about. The guy who came for Google Glass day, he said he was passionate about fitness so he created an app called Linksfit to help fitness. So you're looking and you're doing squats. You're looking through the glass and you're doing squats. So I think wanting to create something comes from passion. So if I love music, I create something that helps further music, but then it's groundbreaking. It's something totally new in the industry. It all comes from what you're passionate for and then a great idea.

MARTIN: Has anybody ever, Miles, at this point, kind of - you've had some positive experience just, kind of, making you feel that you can do this and that you do have the tools - is there something you would tell grown-ups, adults in your life, to avoid doing that think is kind of a turnoff for kids that they may not really understand is?

PETERSON: I think that some grown-ups still put in your head that you're - 'cause you're African-American, your chances are low and I do think that helps. And if you read any books - "Autobiography of Malcolm X" - all kinds of books that kind of puts that in your head that who you are and the color of your skin kind of changes your chances. So that does help and that makes you want to work harder, but for some people it kind of discourages them, that I can't do it because of who I am. But I think it kind of helps to say that, OK, I understand that I'm going to have to work 10 times harder than the next person so I can do better.

MARTIN: But lose the negativity, is what you're saying?

PETERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: I appreciate that. I appreciate your insights here, so thanks. Reginald, what about you? What are some important insights going forward? We only have a couple of minutes left and we are glad you were able to join us. So some of the important things we can do to get young people, particularly African-Americans, but not just, involved in science and technology - science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM fields.

FARROW: Well, you know, in just a few seconds I, you know, I'm hearing what...

MARTIN: Miles.

FARROW: ...The student is saying about the passion that's needed in order to be creative. And I think I'm going to go back to creating a community, but also something which people don't talk about a lot is when we talk about diversity, there's a diversity in knowledge that we need. And I think if we don't necessarily try to, you know, channel people so easily or so forcefully into a specific set of topics - if people just have a general thirst for knowledge and also like technology, then I think they will do well. And so, you know, mixing in art and music with science is important.

And it's kind of my pet thing because I'm finding that the students that get to me at the college level are the most creative when they are diverse. You know, when they play music, when they do art, when they're involved in politics, when they're involved in a lot of different things, they tend to be creative. And it also means that the tools that they're trying - as he was saying - trying to create have a purpose that, you know, connects with humanity. And I think that's very, very important.

MARTIN: Let me give Deena the final word. Deena, you have a final thought from you if we can?

PIEROTT: Oh God. I'm just listening to him and smiling because they are so spot on. I think engaging them and letting them help co-create, you know, help them co-create the journey. You know, and letting them show us what they're passionate about, what they're interested in. I think that's part of the key thing too. In the arts you have to interweave the arts in. Creativity drives innovation.

MARTIN: In Portland, Oregon, entrepreneur, Deena Pierott of iUrban Teen tech. With us from Newark, New Jersey, physicist Reginald Farrow and here in our studios in Washington D.C. seventh grader Miles Peterson of Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science. Listen to that name, you'll be hearing that name again, I guarantee it. In fact, I'm going to be really nice to him 'cause I think we'll working for him someday. Thank you all so much for joining us and happy holidays to you all.

PETERSON: Thank you. Happy holidays.

FARROW: Thank you for having me.

PIEROTT: Happy holidays to you too.

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