Volunteers from the West Coast to the East trekked to Salish Kootenai College this week to teach Native Americans about technology and computer science.
The college held a free, four-day technology camp for Native American students in high school or who had recently graduated to give them insight into what types of careers are open to them in the tech sector.
The camp was put on as part of the Flathead Tech4Good Community Outreach and Professional Development initiative, launched by SKC Professor Jonathon Richter, department chair and lead instructor for the college’s Media Design, Film, & Television programs.
For four days, the students learned from people like Elizabeth LaPensee, who has won awards for her work as a writer, artist and designer of games, comics and animation. LaPensee is Anishinaabe and Metis and part of her work has included creating games that pass on her culture.
One of these games is Honour Water, a singing game that teaches her tribe’s water songs and language, LaPensee said. Early in her career, LaPensee questioned how someone could “code” the teachings of her ancestors, but the enthusiastic response she has had to her work has convinced her to continue on.
There aren’t enough Native Americans in the technology sector right now, said Cory Cornelius, a research scientist for Intel Labs and enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Cornelius lives in Portland, Oregon, but flew out for the camp this week to help mentor students interested in pursuing a future in technology.
Cornelius sees places where more Native American knowledge is needed, for example with the development of the Siri app.
“That voice could be translated into other Native languages, but there needs to be a Native person there to speak up,” Cornelius said.
Cornelius’ mentorship made an impact on students like 14-year-old Mossy Kauley, who will be a freshman next year at Ronan High School. Kauley loves math and science and wants to be an engineer one day.
She was most interested in Cornelius’ explanation of how sand is made into silicon for computer processors. Kauley took a robotics class through her middle school and might retake the class again, if there aren’t other computer science class options available to her.
Regardless of what is offered in school, the camp provided the students with a sheet of places they could access open-source education resources to foster their technology education.
The sheet was created by Tara Penny, a project manager for the non-profit group NPower, an organization that helps young adults from under-served communities launch digital careers. Penny helped to organize the camp and flew out from Brooklyn, New York, to volunteer for the week.
“Technology serves everybody, but we don’t have enough people of color or women driving the values of technological development,” Penny said.
These are jobs people can do from anywhere, said Mary Byron, a retired partner in the Technology Division at Goldman Sachs. Byron was a benefactor of the camp and has spent her retirement helping to advocate for more diversity in the technology sector.
Companies are looking for people with diverse backgrounds to contribute, Byron said. “Corporations don’t want all their people in one place, they want them across all of the countries.''
This is why Richter hopes more students who may not have an interest in a traditional career will continue to be exposed to paths like this.
“Every single kid that came to this camp was talented,” Richter said. “It felt like we did something good for the 15, 16, 17 or so kids who showed up. It was back-to-back days of programming and instruction. Even during lunch there were lectures, and the entire time they were engaged.”
This includes students like 19-year-old Daniel Vollin, a recent graduate of Arlee High School. Vollin wants to continue to learn at SKC for a while but hopes to one day attend the University of Washington and work toward a career in audio design for video games.
Before attending the camp, the idea of working with technology was intimidating to him, he said. But the interactive format of technology education has made learning more enjoyable.
“Their eyes are opened to the fact that this isn’t incredibly hard, this isn’t for nerds,” Richter said.