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April 12, 2017

NextUp, a New Program for Getting More Young People into Tech Careers, is Already Showing Promise

By Eric Larson

FuseParticipantRobotics clubs. After-school STEM fairs. Hours of coding. Over the past several years, we have all observed the multiple ways that schools, corporations and nonprofit groups are trying to interest teens in tech careers.

This year CompTIA launched its own approach, NextUp, an initiative that is being managed by Creating IT Futures. It’s based on research by IDEO and others suggesting it’s important to start in middle school with activities to engage young people in their dreamer stage of career development, while also involving adults with IT backgrounds to serve as mentors.

So we combed the country looking for partner organizations that are aligned around engaging STEM content and impactful mentorship. We found one in Chicago, one in Philadelphia, and one in New York City. And, so far, we’re extremely delighted with how those three partnerships are developing and would like to share what’s happening.

NextUp Partner #1: FUSE Studio

In our largest NextUp partnership effort this year, Creating IT Futures is collaborating with FUSE at Northwestern University. FUSE allows dozens or even hundreds of students at a given school to dive into challenging, self-directed projects ranging from using SketchUp to design their dream home to using a 3D printer to make jewelry to building their own solar-powered mini-car.

We’re working with FUSE on a number of fronts: to spread its FUSE studio concept to more schools around the country; to create three new IT-related challenges for the FUSE portfolio; and to develop a mentorship program for the schools that wish to bring IT pros into the studio to work with the students.

In March we announced the names of 21 schools in 9 states that will receive at no cost the materials they need to open FUSE studios this fall, with the potential to serve 2,165 students and their teachers.

We’re currently prototyping the first of the three FUSE challenges.

Also, we’re about to begin running in three schools the first test of a mentorship model.

There is a lot to be excited about regarding FUSE. Besides the fact it’s school-based, it also allows the students to be self-directed, meaning that the studio doesn’t require STEM experts to run it. We’ve seen this be a roadblock with other programs that require extensive training on the part of teaching staff.

Also, FUSE typically engages an entire classroom of students—many of whom may not have an initial interest in STEM—while extra-curricular STEM experiences often self-select for those who are already oriented toward tech.

More on FUSE as the year goes on.

NextUp Partner #2: TechGirlz

Women make up more than half of the U.S. workforce but only about a quarter of the tech workforce. Closing that gap means introducing girls to tech learning in a safe and supportive environment. TechGirlz does that.

The Philadelphia based organization got started five years ago offering small groups of girls TechShopz experiences—three-hour tech-based workshops run by volunteers either after school or on the weekends. The workshops get the girls using hi-tech tools that are often used in tech occupations, but in fun ways. For example, one TechShopz I attended had the participants creating working security systems to warn them when someone was trying to steal their homework.

Over 5,000 girls in Philadelphia have experienced a TechShopz in Philadelphia, and another 1,000 or so around the world have benefited from the group’s curricula, which is licensed at no charge to approved volunteer groups. Through NextUp we’re helping to grow the program in Chicagoland. With NextUp’s help, TechGirlz has hired a new community outreach coordinator who is already scheduling TechShopz for May and June 2017.

We like several things about the TechGirlz concept. It does a terrific job marketing itself to girls as well as volunteers and the companies that agree to host TechShopz. We think there is a dire shortage of programming that makes tech inviting to young women. It’s in high demand, so we’re helping the group learn best practices for scaling itself in a metro area far from its headquarters.

NextUp Partner #3: New York Academy of Sciences

In February, I had the pleasure of joining the New York Academy of Sciences for its Winter Break STEM Camp. Around 30 students from all over New York City converged for a day camp that lasted for three days.

For two of those days, IT pros in the CompTIA network were invited to help the young participants develop health-related video games using Scratch coding software. The goal was to learn what sorts of activities volunteers—many of whom had never worked with young people—enjoyed doing with the students. We also needed to test ways of recruiting volunteers and prepping them for the event.

About 14 volunteers joined us for the camp, and most of them enjoyed it. The students did, too. We’ll continue to refine our volunteer recruitment and on-ramping methods with NYAS this year, knowing that it’s the mentorship engagement that helps students to envision themselves in tech careers.

Looking for Additional Partners

CompTIA is serious about making a huge impact on a huge number of teens countrywide. That’s why CompTIA has committed $2 million to NextUp just for 2017 and 2018. As we test out different approaches, we’re bound to realize we need to bring in new partners in order to move the needle significantly. While there are a number of organizations that do good work in this space, we’re looking for those who are dedicated to research-based approaches. To that end, we invite all organizations to look at the /developing-programs/nextup">NextUp section of the Creating IT Futures website to see if there’s something there to inform their work.

It’s only by working together that we can hope to address the enormous tech skills gap and fill the pipeline of this nation’s future tech workers.

Eric Larson is the Senior Director of IT Futures Labs, Creating IT Futures.