Inside a Toronto computer lab on a sunny afternoon, Vincent is finishing up the underwater background for his “boss battle,” the final level where a player confronts the game’s biggest villain. Technically, Vincent is coding-writing software-but instead of keying in complex instructions, the 12-year-old is using a special programming language that lets him snap together assorted blocks. “Coding can look confusing and boring to a lot of kids,” says Ashley Jane Lewis. “I think it’s more fun to treat it like a jigsaw puzzle.”
Lewis is sneaky that way. Six other students, between the ages of seven and 14, share the room with Vincent. Each sits hunched in front of their screen, scrutinizing every detail of the animated world they’re inventing. The workshop, the first of its kind in Canada, is called Black Youth in Tech Education (BYTE), and since launching it in June, the 25-year-old has taught dozens of kids of colour how to build games. Lewis-one of a tiny number of black mentors in the tech world-knows the lack of role models can cause minority youth to shy away from acquiring computer skills. BYTE is designed to boost their confidence, so they see themselves as creators, not just passive consumers.
But Lewis is playing for higher stakes. She wants her proteges to pursue tech as a career. According to a 2010 report by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, exposing school-age minorities and girls to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) can raise the odds they’ll earn university degrees in those fields. “We need a tech sector as diverse as any street in Toronto,” says Lewis.
Currently, it’s not. Google, Facebook and Twitter released new workplace statistics in June. Across the board, up to 85 per cent of the sector is male. Black, Hispanic and First Nation employees comprise only five per cent. Canada’s tech workforce is smaller, but education statistics confirm a similar under-representation, at least in gender-just 39 per cent of STEM graduates are female. “Many immigrant parents don’t see being, say, an app developer as a straightforward career path,” says Lewis, “so they feel more comfortable pushing kids into traditional fields like law.”
Growing up in Aurora, Ont., Lewis never felt like she was expected to try hard in science or math. Still, she eventually enrolled in Ryerson University’s new media program, and, after graduating in 2012, she realized the digital divide holding back underrepresented groups was too great to ignore. To date, she has taught over 1,200 kids at various tech classes, including Girls Crack the Code, which targets youth from Regent Park, a social-housing community. Proof such outreach is vital can surface in unexpected ways. In one class, a girl was customizing her avatar but couldn’t find a feature crucial to her look: a hijab. That option wasn’t available.
To more aggressively tackle the diversity shortfall, Lewis launched her most ambitious program in April. Spark Makers is a six-week boot camp to transform young women into tech geeks, with lessons that range from origami to 3-D printing with icing sugar. The program also uses DIY methods to reveal insights into everyday technology-in one case creating a working circuit from conductive tape, batteries and LED lights.
Lewis’s “making as learning” approach got noticed by Google, who invited her to host a booth at Toronto’s Geek Street Fair in July. “It’s one thing to show a kid how to use a piece of technology,” says Aaron Brindle, spokesperson at Google Canada. “But it’s another thing entirely to make them build it. Spark Makers is one of those rare programs that can unlock a passion for tech in a child.”
And so far, it has. Five Spark Makers have opted to go into technology-based high schools this fall, enrolling in robotics and computer science. If this keeps up, says Lewis, “avatars might soon look like people we see on a regular basis.”