Profiles

Hip-Hop Meets Coding in the Arizona Desert

At first glance, the worlds of music, math and computing may not appear to have a lot in common. But it’s the connection between hip-hop and computing that Loretta Cheeks wants to use as a way to introduce teens in metro-Phoenix — from mostly African American and Hispanic/Latino families — to the wonders of computer science.

Loretta is a Ph.D. graduate student at Arizona State University and founder of Strong TIES, an organization that provides culturally relevant coding camps and Out of School Time (OST) Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) community interventions aimed at exposing kids and teenagers to STEM. As a committee member with ABI’s Black Women in Computing (BWiC) group, she has helped coordinate the BWiC Gaming Workshop for the last two years, which happens in conjunction with the Grace Hopper Celebration.  

This month, Strong TIES is hosting Turn Up for STEAM, a three-day gathering of students, technologists and artists in Phoenix, Arizona. Teenagers between ages 13-18 will come together to explore the science of sound and hip-hop to gain an introduction to coding at the Code Hackathon. Turn Up for STEAM is also a celebration of Black History Month.

“I want to use culturally relevant tools, like hip-hop, to engage and ignite interest in STEM, explains Loretta. “Students are given tools to explore what they know for accessing the things they don’t know in STEM. We explore correlations between hip-hop and principles grounded in science and engineering.”

Rose Robinson, Director of Communities at the Anita Borg Institute and a facilitator for Turn Up for STEAM, emphasizes that the event is an effective way to quickly expose under-represented and under-served youths to STEM with an emphasis on computing.

“These workshops deliver instant role models,” says Rose. “Many companies may argue that they can’t find us, but we do exist. But you can’t be what you can’t see.”

The curriculum for day one of Turn Up for STEAM will teach scientific concepts like waveforms, frequency, pitch, fractions, notes, energy and amplification when producing sound. Students will also learn math principles found in sound, such as fractions, and delve head first into the arts and musical expressions that include learning technology for making music. Loretta explains that these principles are transferable to STEM disciplines like electrical engineering, computer science, computer engineering and others.

More Than Fun and Games

The hackathon will start with idea creation and include design process, development, testing and presentation of students’ ideas. Students will be transformed from player to creator by learning to program as they create their own game through coding and the use of Beta: The Game, a special software platform that produces instant gaming effects and collaborations.

The weekend will conclude with the Pathway to STEM Parent Panel, in which experts form industry and academia will offer guidance to parents for what their children need to pursue a STEM career. The weekend wil also include a presentation, allowing the students to demonstrate what they learned, experienced and created during the event. Turn Up for STEAM will culminate with a celebration for Black History Month.

Loretta stresses, “…this is a community-building partnership initiative, connecting youth to resources, mentors, organizations, tools and techniques grounded in STEAM. The event celebrates the genius and possibilities of our metro-Phoenix youth and ignites STEAM innovations.”

“Possibilities are boundless when we marry instruction with access to critical resources, like smart devices and broadband,” she continues. “When providing resources to disadvantage youths who are underrepresented and underserved in STEM, we face a double-edged challenge: one is the lack of access to critical resources and financial backing from multinational high-tech corporations. The other is to help our students recognize and value opportunities afforded to them.”

Rose adds that all the elements of Turn Up for STEAM — the participants, the content and the panelists from industry, non-profits and colleges and universities — are strategically important to attracting more diversity to the tech sector.

“Hosting it at Phoenix Community College is important as well because community colleges are often the entry point into technology for many underrepresented minorities and low-income students,” Rose explains.

Turn Up for STEAM is a proud signature event of Arizona SciTech Festival. The Arizona SciTech Festival ranks as the third largest science and technology festival in the nation, trailing only Washington D.C. and New York City.

Learn all about Turn Up for STEAM by visiting the Arizona Strong TIES website.