Changing the Faces of Science
In a small after-school program in South Philadelphia, one Drexel student is hoping to make a big impact on the future of diversity in STEM.
By Maria Zankey
Photos by Jared Castaldi
Max Henderson has consumed research niches from neural networking to cognition-as-a-mathematical-science while pursuing his PhD in physics at Drexel. He’s spent years as a Level Two Research Engineer at Lockheed Martin, pioneering the new digital way with the world’s first quantum computer.
But even with a mind full of formulas and binaries, there’s one thing he couldn’t help but notice in the midst of his scholarly and professional work — the people surrounding him looked awfully similar.
“Over the last few years, it’s become something I think about a lot,” Henderson says. “A lack of diversity, in the STEM fields especially, is an immediate disadvantage. When you’re a scientist, you need creativity, and you need people around you who can think differently. There are scientific rules of course, but the people who do something new are the people who think about things in a way others haven’t thought of before. With diversity, science as a whole improves.”
The data backs up Henderson’s observations: According to research from the National Science Foundation, minorities represent only 29 percent of individuals working in science and engineering careers, while women represent just 27 percent. Of minorities, Latinos are the least represented in STEM careers, making up only six percent.
That number in particular became a concern for Henderson when he began volunteering with Puentes de Salud, a nonprofit health and wellness organization serving South Philadelphia’s burgeoning Latino population. Henderson worked specifically with the organization’s after-school literacy program, Puentes Hacia el Futuro, which partners with the Philadelphia School District’s Southwark School. At Southwark, Latino students in kindergarten through eighth grade make up more than 27 percent of the student body.
After a year of volunteering as a tutor, Henderson came up with an idea to bridge the two communities with which he spent the most time.
Henderson approached Esther Morales, after-school coordinator at Puentes, about creating a sister program that focused solely on honing computer-programming skills. Morales welcomed the idea with open arms, and the Puentes Dragon Coders program was born.
“[Dragon Coders] allows our original focus to expand the meaning of literacy from reading and writing to include technology,” Morales says. “This is an important component of our mission. This program also allows the Puentes-Southwark partnership to grow and show how a public school and nonprofit organization can collaborate to bring students the best possible experience. [It] allows for continued exploration of the coding world and this keeps students interested.”
One night a week, Henderson interrupts Puentes’ regular programming to teach a group of approximately 20 kids about coding through gaming, using free programming software like Scratch and Tynker. With the help of fellow Puentes volunteers, including Southwark’s computer teacher Michael Bernstein, Henderson teaches students how to use foundational programming commands like “while loops” and “if-then statements” to create their own versions of popular computer games like the classic Pong and the wildly popular Flappy Bird.
“I wanted to show these kids that programming can be fun,“ says Henderson. “There is no magical barrier between them and the people making these types of games — with the right training and knowledge, they can do the exact same thing.”
One of Henderson’s epiphanies as a teacher — and in his own self-discovery as an equality advocate — came during one of the first big coding projects for the class. The students were tasked with creating a game in which players navigate a character through the air without coming in contact with its surroundings.
“Up until that point, the boys in the class had been outpacing the girls,” Henderson says.
Engineering student and fellow Puentes volunteer Claudia Gutierrez suggested Henderson expand the game’s avatar options from stereotypically male-gendered options, like a spaceman or a dragon, to include more gender-neutral options, such as a bird or flying fire. The impact that subtle change made, Henderson says, was immediately visible.
“It became clear that something that seemed simply aesthetic made a huge difference in generating interest,” Henderson says. “All of a sudden, the girls were coding faster than the boys. It made me realize that it’s important across the board in STEM to phrase the information in ways that everyone can get excited about. It’s not a question of ability. It’s about opening the field so that everyone feels it’s a place they belong.”
In the wake of the project’s initial success, Henderson and his colleagues have sought ways to make coding accessible and exciting to all students, not just those in Puentes. Bernstein came up with the idea to create badges for the Dragon Coders to wear during normal school hours, identifying them as coding experts among their peers.
“The badges have allowed them to act as mentors,” Bernstein says. “It’s empowering for students; that kind of responsibility makes them try harder because they’re helping someone else.”
The efforts of Henderson and his colleagues are representative of a nationwide trend to shrink the disparity of underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields. The Obama administration’s “Educate to Innovate” initiative has garnered more than $700 million in public-private partnerships geared toward increasing diversity in STEM careers. The Association of American Universities recently launched the Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, with the goal of changing university teaching structures to inspire a more diverse pool of STEM graduates. Commercially, companies like GoldieBlox — a toy company that creates engineering-inspired toys for girls — are looking to strip the saccharine, pink exterior typical of toys geared toward females to inspire interest in the sciences.
“I’m really trying to be aware of keeping things balanced, understanding that everyone comes into this with a different background,” says Henderson. “Teaching programming as a language is hard, but you can’t underestimate the value of connecting with a student and letting them know that their individual learning is important, inside and outside of the classroom.”
The program has earned attention beyond the walls of Southwark. It was recently awarded a $20,000 grant from the Philadelphia-based foundation Children Can Shape the Future, which will allow Puentes not only to promote STEM among the students in Dragon Coders, but also to share these concepts with the entire Southwark School.
“Teaching coding really teaches several things,” says Bernstein. “Obviously it teaches logic, but it also teaches the ability to analyze and organize thoughts to create a solution. It’s like an intense version of the scientific method.”
Henderson says he owes much of the success of the program to the support he’s received throughout his years at Drexel.
“At Drexel, there’s a lot of autonomy,” Henderson says. “If you have an idea, everyone is really willing to help you. Of any other place I’ve experienced, Drexel is most concerned with getting their students ready to be out in the world. Everything I’ve learned is practical; everything has an application.”
It’s a concept he’s intent on imparting to his coding students, and hopes that someday, his effort will be reflected in the faces of science and technology industries.
“As a kid, you’re not thinking about the statistics. You’re thinking about where you feel comfortable. And there are subtle things in the ways we teach that can make that happen,” Henderson says. “Staying conscious of that is a big part of what we do at Dragon Coders. And if a program like this can help increase diversity in the scientific community, I truly do believe we’ll see better ideas, stronger products, and more innovations in the long run.”