CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Let's talk now about our social storytelling series that's happening online this month using the hash tag @NPRBlacksInTech. Since December 2nd, black tech innovators from all over the country have been tweeting a day in their lives. We've had a physicist from New Jersey tweet about his research in nanotechnology. We had an entrepreneur in Wisconsin talking about the challenges of building a startup.
And some of them are actually answering questions that come from seventh- and eighth-graders at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science. So now we have, today, two of those middle-school students with us. Xavier Manning and Ciara Chase join us in studio not only to talk about this conversation happening around social media, but also to talk about the mobile apps they've been creating in their own classroom. We're also joined by their guidance counselor, Carletta Hurt. Welcome to all of you. Xavier, Ciara, Ms. Carletta Hurt - thanks.
XAVIER MANNING: Thanks for having us.
CIARA CHASE: Hi.
CARLETTA HURT: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Xavier and Ciara, you have been a big hit. I mean, you've probably noticed the reaction to your questions and your comments using that hash tag, NPRBlacksInTech. So first of all, thank you for that, and for engaging with some of the other innovators.
CHASE: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Tell us first about your app that you're designing in class. First of all, are these functional? Do these work, or they're just a class project?
MANNING: We're going to try to make them real but for now, they're just an idea. My app is Trash Tracker. So basically, you know how like, usually on Monday morning - how the trash man goes to every house in the area to get the trash.
MANNING: And sometimes your trash is not even there, so it just wastes a lot of time for the trash man. So with the app, you basically get to pick a button that says if I need my trash taken out. And if you need your trash taken out, it goes to your address. And if you pick, I don't need my trash taken out, it just skips it, which saves time. And takes the worry off your shoulders to make sure you get your trash taken out 'cause you can press that any day. And then next time it's time to take out the trash, he takes out the trash.
HEADLEE: That's a pretty basic interface. I guess I'm kind of surprised that no one's thought of that before. What made you think of it?
MANNING: What made me think of it is when I lived in New York...
HEADLEE: Wait, do you have to take out the trash? Is that what...
MANNING: On Monday mornings, I had to wake up early. So I'd rather have it me - like an app, you know, if I wanted to play basketball, just take out the trash then. And then push the button so I can just relax for an extra 30 minutes on Monday morning.
HEADLEE: OK, it's all coming clear to me now, Xavier. Ciara, let's talk about your app. What was your idea?
CHASE: The name of our app was Minority Matters. And recently, we saw an article published by Jet Magazine and it stated that every hour, 17 minority children are kidnapped. So for our app, it's basically so a parent can post their child's kidnapping because without the app, you have to go through like, a lot of police reports, or post signs and stuff, to find your child. But for the app, if you find that your child is missing, you're able to post it. And anyone that has information about the child is able to comment under the post, so they can help you in a faster way because usually after three hours, a lot of damage is already done to the child. It's a faster way to help them.
HEADLEE: Obviously, this is not functional yet. So thinking ahead, how do you prevent overuse of it? Someone who's kid went next door, and they just don't know where their kid is?
CHASE: It's usually, like, a time limit that you would consider your child from being kidnapped. Like, you would know when your child has been away for a long time. And also, if the next-door neighbor sees that your child has been kidnapped, they can easily comment under the post saying, oh, your child is over my house.
HEADLEE: They're in my house having cookies, right?
HEADLEE: So, Carletta, talk to me about why we use apps. Is it because so many kids have smart phones today? Is this just a way to engage kids?
HURT: It is. And one of the biggest parts of this project was, how can you make a change in your community using technology? That was kind of the question posed to the students - using technology and helping your community in some way shape or form. And that's how these apps came about. There were other apps, as well. So, the idea...
HEADLEE: What were some of the other good ideas that you...
HURT: There was a news connection app where it talks about how to get young people engaged in news worthy information because a lot of them get news from, like, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. And it's not always reliable. So there was an app that - it's called News Connection.
HEADLEE: You're kidding me? Sometimes tweets about news are not accurate? That shocks me to the core.
HURT: I know. It's amazing to think that, but yes. It does happen. And another one was - oh, my God - come on, Xavier and Ciara. What were some other apps in class?
CHASE: Another idea was a workout app. So the app would basically tell you - it would help you plan your workouts better. And a problem was the obesity that's happening. So the app would, like, help you plan your workouts and let you know when you need to work out.
HEADLEE: You know, one of the things that I found coming up a lot - that we've had in using this hash tag NPRBlacksInTech was how you engage - and you've probably seen these - how do we engage middle schoolers in STEM sciences, and especially blacks and Latinos, which is a real problem, and they're incredibly underrepresented in the STEM sciences. So what are your ideas? I mean, how does somebody engage you to study science and mathematics?
MANNING: What I would suggest is that you do something that we like and put it in there. So in our community we're more connected to hip-hop. So if they put something with hip-hop in it, they might be like, this sounds pretty good. Let me listen to it. If they listen to a lyric or something and they're like, wait, that has something to do with science? They'll remember it because it's in hip-hop form. So...
HEADLEE: You mean real hip-hop. You don't want to see your science teacher actually trying to rap right?
MANNING: No. No.
HEADLEE: Ciara, what do you think?
CHASE: Basically, that's what I was saying - something that relates to the child because if it relates to you, you have a better connection and you can express yourself more with it.
HEADLEE: So what do you think is the problem in getting black and Latino young kids especially into the STEM scientists, where's the disconnect here?
CHASE: They don't find the interest in it, and they don't think that it can actually help anybody. So, yeah.
MANNING: I agree with her about the connection to our kids in that community. So I think that might be an issue, the fact that they're like, here's a book about it, read it. And just like a lot of kids in all races, we really don't like to read that much. So if you put it in, like, songs or something.
HEADLEE: Your guidance counselor is waiting to jump in here. Your response to that - kids don't like to read?
HURT: Reading is fundamental. But no, I was going to say, another thing that I've noticed as a guidance counselor in talking to students and parents and even reading literature and talking to other professionals, is that engagement factor and understanding that you can do science and science isn't as difficult as it may sound. And I think sometimes some students, especially minority students, because of exposure and opportunities they shy away and think, well, I'm not smart enough, I'm not good enough.
HURT: But one recent article said that most girls said that they never knew they could. It was just saying, hey, you can do that, you are able. And what we do at our school is tell them you could do this. Like, yes, you can create an app.
HEADLEE: You're kind of preaching to the choir, right? I mean, this is the school of mathematics and science.
HURT: But we service everybody in D.C., so we have no - we don't screen students. It's a lottery so we get everybody.
HEADLEE: Oh, I see.
HURT: So there's no way to say, OK, this is the cream of the crop from these elementary schools, we see everybody. It's a public lottery.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about middle schools especially, and their engagement with technology as part of our social media conversation that we're having all this month using the hashtag #NPRBlacksInTech. We have two middle school students with us.
Xavier Manning and Ciara Chase from the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science. And also their guidance counselor, Carletta Hurt. I wonder if you guys think there's a social component that sometimes discourages blacks and Latinos from joining STEM sciences. And what I mean is - is there sometimes a stereotype about kids who like science? Is it not cool? Is it considered to be not authentic for people who are - either come from the African-American tradition or come from a Hispanic tradition? Ciara, what do you think?
CHASE: I think that is a good aspect of it because a lot of people doubt you when you say that and they don't believe you can do it. But with my school they, like, push us so we don't have a choice. So I think people need to push children a lot more so they can believe in themselves because a lot of others doubt them.
HEADLEE: What do you think, Xavier?
MANNING: Well, I think that turns it more to a bullying asset. Like, say you come into a school and you like math and science so much and you see that the kids at your school, like your peers, they don't like it and they might bully. Like, you're a nerd, you're a geek, like some kind of robot or something 'cause you do math so well. That might make you want to be like, you know what, forget math and science, I just want to not be bullied.
MANNING: So that might turn you away from it.
HEADLEE: Have you had experience with that kind of thing?
MANNING: Yes. I just kept doing what I did and I just kept getting good grades and just kept doing what I did.
HEADLEE: The innovators who've engaged in conversations have talked about some of the bigotry in STEM sciences. It can be a problem. There are problems not just with accepting people of all races but, Ciara, I wanted to address this to you because there's obviously still lingering problems in accepting women in some of these fields of engineering and computer science. How do you see that going forward? Do you hope to get a job in the STEM fields?
CHASE: Honestly, I want to be a lawyer, but I do like the idea that I have now, I do want to get that out there. Even if it's not me, I want to just get it out there.
HEADLEE: Your app idea to find missing kids.
CHASE: Yes. I just want to get that out there because it's not about me, it's about a lot of children that get kidnapped. So...
HEADLEE: And we're using this word STEM a lot. Of course for those who are not familiar with it, it means science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Not law, Ciara.
HEADLEE: Carletta, what do you think - how does the school handle preparing kids who might want to go into the STEM field - science, technology, engineering, mathematics - and do you address at all issues that they may have to deal with in terms of prejudice or especially gender bias?
CHASE: Well, one thing at our school, every student is exposed to STEM. So in that aspect, the bullying piece isn't really a big deal 'cause you all have to do it. Now some may excel more than others. And, of course, we do have accelerated classes, which these two students are participating in. But the other piece that we also see - we show a diversity of people in STEM. We make sure there are female teachers as well as male teachers, and all different kinds of teachers. So those speakers come in.
We have a really strong partnership with Howard University where they bring in professionals to these classrooms to talk to students 'cause our idea is exposure. And also making them do something. They may only do it one or two years of the three years there, but at least they get the opportunity and they figure out, OK, science isn't as boring as I thought or engineering is about creating computer games and playing PlayStation versus what I thought it was. So it's also about showing them those nuances that don't really look like STEM but really are STEM.
HEADLEE: Xavier, did you think science was boring before you got to Howard?
MANNING: No, because when I was in pre-K, my aunt made me read a whole bunch of...
HEADLEE: You remember what happened to you in pre-K?
MANNING: My aunt made me read a bunch of astronomy books. Like, this one - Pluto was counted as a planet.
HEADLEE: Still a planet and not a dwarf planet.
MANNING: Yeah, so when we did this I really got interested. So I got more books on it from Barnes & Noble and basically I kept reading up on that. Like, once I hit, like, biology, I was like - like I just saw cartoons of biology and stuff like that, I was like, I don't want to do it.
MANNING: Yeah. Biology, I didn't really want to do it.
HEADLEE: No interest in biology, but computer science - do you plan to pursue a job in the STEM fields?
MANNING: Yes, astrophysics.
HEADLEE: Astrophysics, you're going to be a new Neil deGrasse Tyson?
MANNING: Yes, I'm assuming...
HEADLEE: Only one of the greatest astrophysicists working today and one of the greatest black scientists of all time. Xavier, you need to do your homework. All right, so let's - I wanted to ask you what are you prepared for in terms of - or do you think you need to be prepared for anything in terms of prejudice or lack of opportunities for somebody who's black or Latino?
MANNING: What I'm looking forward to doing is the PSAT - the PSAT. I'm looking to, like...
HEADLEE: The standardized test you have to take to get placement in college.
MANNING: Yeah I'm, like, I'm trying to become a merit scholar, so I can go to school I want to go to, like Harvard or some of that prestige. So they can't, like, turn me down for that.
HEADLEE: Ciara, what do you think about it? Do you have a plan like Xavier has for preparing yourself to make yourself successful?
CHASE: I do because a lot of people push me hard and also because this school that I'm at, they don't sugarcoat anything. They told me that I'm going have to - there are people that are going to doubt me. So I am already prepared for that, and so, yeah.
HEADLEE: I wanted to read you a couple tweets from some of the people - innovators that have been engaging with you two and others during this month through the hashtag we've been using #NPRBlacksInTech. For example, Monique (ph) wrote that one of the ways to interest young kids is that students should know it's not about being technical, that STEM and tech are about creating things. Xavier, you're nodding your head. Your response is, yes, that's accurate?
MANNING: Yes. Science, it is all about creativity. Like, it's innovative, you know. So it's - an innovation needs creativity. It's like 80 percent creativity right there and only, like, 20 percent logic. So I agree with her thought about that, about creativity being a big factor in science.
HEADLEE: Well Dr. - somebody under @DrFayOnline writes, tech skills may open doors, but soft skills and business acumen drive the process. Ms. Hurt, what are soft skills?
HURT: They're people skills. They're being able to be charismatic. A person buys you, not your product most times. So if you sell it well, you give a good presentation, then they're going to go, you know what, I like him, I like her. And that's how a lot of people get things done because talent is only a part of it. It's really the other piece that sells and gets you where you got to go.
HEADLEE: So, Ciara, how do you learn soft skills? Are you learning that your classes?
CHASE: Yes, because we have to do a lot of presentations in our class and talk to a lot of people. And a lot of people talk to us. So I think a big aspect of that would have to be talking, and so we do a lot of that and also presenting ourselves well.
HEADLEE: OK, so let me read you one more tweet. This is from Christine Celease (ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correct - who says, I wasn't a straight A student but was an overachiever in other ways. I was a student government wonk and creative. So, Xavier, I mean, obviously, if you want to get into Harvard, you need to keep your grades up.
HEADLEE: But what are the other things you need to get involved in, do you think, in order to set yourself up to succeed in technology?
MANNING: You have to try to get yourself into some other programs, like some summer programs, like Junior NYLC. It's basically a junior national leadership conference that's actually here in D.C. Like, it happens every summer, or it also happens during the year, like, a week long. And basically what it does, it gets you for, like, for young leaders basically to get you to lead yourself and lead others by looking at other leaders in history. NSBY, NSBY is another one that actually works in STEM and engineering, so stuff like that. If you have that on your sheet to apply to a college, it's going to be really - they're going to be interested in you, and they'll interview you.
HEADLEE: All right, I want to read one more tweet. This is from B. Lawrence Clark (ph) and this person says - when they were asked how do you get new people involved in tech - they say, just start. So, Ciara, I wonder if I can get both of you to kind of - if there's any young people your age out there listening who is like, look, that's not - that's going to ruin my rep if I start, you know, learning about science and mathematics - what's the message you would give for somebody out there who might think about pursuing technology, and is kind of on the fence? What would you say to them?
CHASE: I would say follow your heart. And, like, f you have a good idea, don't be scared to hold back. Just, like, get it out there and let people know.
HEADLEE: And, Xavier, what would you say?
MANNING: I would regret something that I didn't do as opposed to something I did do. So if you're thinking about doing it, just do it. Try it, at least try it. So if you don't like it, fine don't like it, but try something else that might work and help you. So, like, if you don't try it then how do you know if you'll - if it'll work for you or if it doesn't.
HEADLEE: It's good advice, even coming from some of you guys' age. Good luck. Thanks to both of you. Follow our social storytelling series. You can follow the hashtag NPRBlacksInTech or you can go to NPR.org/TELLMEMORE. I've been joined by Xavier Manning, Ciara Chase, both students at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science, here in Washington, D.C. And their guidance counselor, Carletta Hurt also joined us in our studios in Washington. Thanks to all of you.
HURT: Thank you.
CHASE: Thanks for having us.
MANNING: Thanks for having us.
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