Tom Lord pushed a button on his remote control, and with a light hum, the robot lurched forward. The dozen or so students gathered around him watched rapt as the machine began to spin, faster and faster.
Already interested as Lord had gone from workbench to workbench to explain how his team had built a variety of robots from scratch, the high schoolers were all eyes as he drove the latest model, a waist-high set of wheels that looks more like a giant spool than the type of humanoid figure that science fiction typically presents as a robot.
“This robot has as much torque as a car,” said Tom Lord (left), a sophomore at IIT who is majoring in biomedical engineering and physics.
“That’s wild,” one student said out loud, as Lord stopped the robot, designed to do battle in competitions against teams from other universities. “Do it again,” another implored.
The teens, all participants in the inaugural Digital Youth Summer Jobs program (DYSJ), were in the cavernous workshop on the campus at the Illinois Institute of Technology on August 20 as one stop in a set of activities for the morning.
All told, nearly 60 teens were visiting the school as part of the final event of the eight-week program, sponsored by LISC/Chicago in partnership with the City of Chicago for the Smart Communities Program
, and the Illinois Department of Commerce Broadband Technology Opportunity Program
. DYSJ allowed youth between the ages of 14 and 17 to explore technology career options and gain meaningful work experience in technology-related internships.
“This robot has as much torque as a car,” explained Lord, a sophomore at IIT who is majoring in biomedical engineering and physics. “Right now it can go up a 30 to 40 degree slope. We’re working on how to make it be able to climb up stairs. If we can figure that out, there are programs here at IIT to help us create a start-up company – [and] this could be a way to allow someone in a wheelchair to have a lot more mobility.”
An Internship, A Job, A Career
The day had started with a morning session for the entire group in a bright, sleek assembly hall on campus, where an admissions office representative gave a PowerPoint that detailed IIT’s offerings for students and admission requirements. Then the DYSJ teens split into three groups to spend the next few hours rotating through a tour of high-tech programs at the university.
The students saw a demonstration on how operating a microwave oven impacts a wireless modem. They heard and saw how IIT records the sea of wireless device traffic minute-by-minute in Chicago. And they got a chance to see some of the machines in action in the lab where university students from a variety of disciplines work together on entrepreneurial projects.
All of the demonstrations were undeniably cool. But they also carried an underlying message from Lord and the other IIT student presenters: There are jobs and careers available doing these cool things.
“I love math; it’s my favorite class,” said Briana Harper, a senior this fall at Maria High School. “Seeing all this stuff, it’s different than just hearing about it. The technology looks fun and like something I’d enjoy.”
After eight weeks, though, that idea isn’t news to the teens in the Digital Youth Summer Jobs. The students in DYSJ came from across the five Smart Communities: Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Pilsen and Humboldt Park.
In each community program, a local nonprofit (Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. in Auburn Gresham, Greater Southwest Development Corp. in Chicago Lawn, Teamwork Englewood in Englewood, Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp. in Humboldt Park, and The Resurrection Project in Pilsen) organized part-time internships for participants to get hands-on experience in everything from web design to digital photography. Students spent 20 hours a week in these paid internships, and more than 30 businesses and nonprofits participated.
Tim Thomas, a senior at the University of Chicago Lab School, had his internship on the quality control team at NAVTEQ – Chicago, a digital mapping firm. “I would run POI checks – that’s point of interest – to be sure sites on the map were in the right spot. I never knew that kind of work was an option; I thought it was really interesting.”
More on Fridays
On the last day of each workweek, the DYSJ teens in each community gathered for a training module that covered topics like job readiness and digital citizenship.
The field trip to IIT was the first time all five groups came together at once, and Dionne Baux, the program officer for Smart Communities at LISC, said that the day was a great opportunity for the participants to hear what IIT offers and to see another side of how tech creates opportunities in the real world.“It’s wonderful for the students to see how the skills they’re working on translate to college,” Baux said. “Maybe there is even a career at IIT waiting for some of them.”
Like Thomas, Noni Brown was one of the students who already has her eye on a college. A senior at Walter Payton High School, Brown is aiming to attend University of Southern California or Notre Dame.
For her, the trip to IIT was a way to see more about what a career in technology might include, adding to what she learned in her internship evaluating websites for usability and content for Blue Ocean Logic, a Chicago-based sales, marketing and management company.
“I want to go into a business major for my undergraduate work,” Brown said. She’s already thinking ahead: After Tom Lord mentioned that his team can provide resources for high schoolers interested in robotics, she was sure to get his contact information.
Talking to students like Brown, Harper and Thomas, it seems inconceivable that most American high schoolers are deficient in mathematics and science. You’ve never met so many students who say that math is their favorite subject in school, and their interest in technology clearly goes beyond just downloading the latest app for their smart phone.
But an interest in math doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful career in a high-tech field, especially for students born and raised in inner-city Chicago. Through eight weeks of the Digital Youth Summer Jobs program and a sunny morning at IIT, the DYSJ students got exposure and experience that can grow into something more.
“I love math, and I love photography,” said Ivan Diaz, a senior at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen, as he waited to have his cell phone case etched by one of the futuristic machines in the Interprofessional Projects Program lab. “I spent the summer at The Resurrection Project, being in their office and learning digital photography. I feel like I’m ready for college.”