Here’s the good news. A new study released this past October found that Black tweens and teens are both proficient and confident in basic computer education and technology. More than 80 percent of the youth surveyed — who ranged between 11 and 17 in age — know how to use programs like Microsoft, Excel, and PowerPoint, and most have engaged in other creative activities such as writing blogs or making digital art. But Black youth want to do more and need programs that bridge the gap to access careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Fifty-one percent say they want to learn how to build mobile applications while 48 percent want to learn how to build websites. And about one-third want to learn how to code.
Dr. Kevin A. Clark, a professor at George Mason University, co-founded the study with along with professor Kimberly A. Scott of Arizona State University to explore the challenges in bridging the achievement gap between Black and white students in STEM learning. The subject matter is one of interest to Clark, who says he owes his success to a grandmother who pushed him scholastically and a guidance counselor who convinced him to apply for college. “I’ve always been interested in how you use technology tools to help provide educational opportunities to people,” says Clark, director of the school’s Center for Digital Media, Innovation and Diversity.
EBONY spoke with Clark about the study, its findings and what must be done to bring more advanced computer education and opportunity to Black students.
EBONY: How have Black youth become so proficient with computer education at such an early age?
Clark: Part of this is consumption. When you look at technology use among teens and tweens, you see that African Americans over-index, or use it the most. That’s one aspect of it. The other aspect is technology has become second nature to all youth, so I think, in general, their starting point is much higher. They are so used to using technology and most adults have to get to that level.
For African American youth what we see is that they are already engaged in using technology in these multiple ways and it’s just a matter of finding ways to help them apply their skills in manners that are constructive and rigorous.
EBONY: Why is there a drop-off when it comes to more advanced education such as coding and web design?
Clark: Part of it is having access to those programs. Some of the programs tend to focus on the more rudimentary skills and not the more high-level skills. If they want to code, they should be able to find a coding program or if they want to create apps, they should be able to find an app program. But part of the issue is that those specialized programs don’t exist in the numbers that the more general programs do.
EBONY: How do you build those environments that provides that access?
Clark: There’s a couple of ways. Having a tighter connection between schools and communities is one. The second is to involve parents, caregivers and community members in this process and that doesn’t mean teaching parents to code, but educating parents and making them aware of the education and career opportunities that go along with these types of activities.
EBONY: Why are parents’ attitude toward technology so important towards shaping their child’s attitude?
Clark: If a parent thinks it’s important, then they will take the necessary measures to have access to that resource. If the parents think it’s not important, that it’s just entertainment, then it’s not going to be a priority. The other reason is modeling. If a young person sees their parents engaged and using technology, then they will also see that as an important tool for their everyday lives.
EBONY: The study also show a drop-off in advance computer education for Black girls as they got older. What causes the drop?
Clark: As girls got older, they lost interest. Part of that is the increased number of activities that girls may be exposed to as they get older. I think the way to prevent this, or to get girls involved early, is to catch them when they’re 10, 11 and to also show them that girls or women are playing a role in this field. Helping them become more comfortable with technology early on is key to sustaining their involvement.
EBONY: Did any of the findings surprise you?
Clark: The whole notion that kids from lower-income families were less likely to learn about technology and computers from their peers or from people around them. To me, that showed that there’s this whole ecosystem that needs to be in place for teens and tweens to be successful. It’s one thing to provide access to content or to provide access to hardware and technology, but we also have to make sure we try and provide access to expertise and support so that when the child comes home with that computer, there’s someone at home or in their neighborhood or around them who can also help and be of support to them.