The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council’s 5th Annual Broadband and Social Justice Policy Summit recently convened leaders from the private and public sectors to provide best practices and future trends for bringing Digital Learning and STEM education initiatives into the classroom. Jim Shelton, acting U.S. Department of Education Deputy Secretary, opened the session with a keynote, where he highlighted the nation’s rapid changing landscape, challenges and opportunities in transforming learning, and the pervasive opportunity gap that plagues our nation. He concluded by laying out the President’s bold ConnectED initiative that aims to bring high-speed Internet to 99 percent of students.
The session, “No Broadband Left Behind: Empowering Communities of Color to Excel through Digital Education and STEM,” featured Microsoft, Wilco Electronic Systems, the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), Latinos in Social Media (LATISM), Social Sector Innovation, LLC, and students from the Howard University Middle School of Math & Science to share strategies to improve digital learning and STEM education, particularly in underserved communities and in classrooms.
Students from Howard University Middle School conducted a special presentation showcasing their latest technological innovations, mobile apps designed to address the national crises predominantly affecting communities of color. It was inspiring to see their enthusiasm and their unflinching determination as they shared their ingenious inventions to make the world a better place. One all-girl team was recently named Best in State in the Verizon Innovative App Challenge. Howard University Middle School is clearly taking firm stems to equip students with 21st-century education using 21st-century tools.
Access to tools and resources are vital if we want to provide students with the opportunity to unleash their potential and become masters of innovative disruptive technology. “Once you give students access and opportunity, they can achieve,” said Patrick Gusman, Managing Director of Social Sector Innovation, LLC. Miles Peterson, a student at Howard University Middle School, shared how STEM programs can ignite someone’s passion. He explained that sometimes it takes “one tweet, one statistic, one thing, to have a movement.”
In our increasingly digital global economy, we need students to become creators of technology, and not just consumers of applications or other computing technologies. Ana Roca-Castro, Founder and CEO of LATISM, zeroed in on the benefits of exposing students, particularly those in underserved communities, to computer science and coding at a young age. “The basic principle of coding is instrumental to our schools,” said Castro, who, like Fred Humphries, Vice President of Microsoft, is a champion of computer science courses in high schools.
Humphries reported that by 2020, there will be approximately 1.5 million STEM jobs. Yet, despite this growth, many schools do not offer computing or computer science courses to students, which can be the biggest disadvantage faced by low-income students. This is significantly important, considering that STEM occupations will grow far more quickly than the economy as a whole, and is projected to be the second-fastest growing occupation.
The bleak reality is that not all students have access to tools and resources to compete and succeed. “If we don’t address the opportunity divide and digital divide, young folks, particularly people of color, will be further behind, and the divide is going to be a greater gulf,” said Humphries. He added that these young people would be unable to acquire the necessary skills and “compete for the workforce of the future.”
To help close the gap, Shelton was abundantly clear that students need access to tools and resources. Yet, a significant challenge today is the gross inequity in accessing these tools. Shelton reiterated several priorities, which included closing the connectivity gap in schools, increasing broadband adoption in homes, and providing robust affordable devices.
Wilco, one of the country’s largest African American cable operators, was represented among the group of panelists poised to close the pervasive opportunity gap. Brigitte Daniel, Wilco’s Executive Vice President, has been able to provide affordable devices and broadband services to communities that have been underserved. This provides students with the opportunity to experience the benefits of education technology.
NTIA has also been instrumental in helping close the gap through its Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant. NTIA invested billions into programs that enabled students, especially those in subpar school districts and underserved communities, to connect to the world. Laura Breeden, Program Director for Public Computer Centers and Broadband Adoption at NTIA, described the life-changing projects they funded and the tremendous impact in school performance when getting families connected to broadband.
Shelton challenged us to hold everyone accountable and to put children first by improving educational opportunities and academic outcomes. “If students lack broadband access, they will be hamstrung,” he said.
We need to level the playing field and provide equal access to the tools and resources young students need to succeed in this digital global economy. Moreover, we cannot win the future without realizing the growing need for STEM competencies across the board.
View the entire STEM Education panel from the Fifth Annual Broadband and Social Justice Summit here.