Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Transformative Connections

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Transformative Connections

Article excerpt

Community-based K-12 computing program strives to strengthen academic and career aspirations of its participants


As a relative newcomer to the Saturday afternoons spent working on computers in a community center in Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood, Avery Hillmon has his work cut out for him. A participant in the long-running Joint Educational Facilities Inc. (JEF) computer science program, Hillmon, under the tutelage of program director Dr. Jesse Bemley, has begun learning about voice-recognition software and how it works.

"I'm getting deep into this," he says late one Saturday afternoon on a sunny but cold February day. Having only joined the program last fall, Hillmon hopes to learn enough about voice-recognition software and its programming to write and present a paper on the topic by the end of the summer.

"It's fascinating to have the computer type what you speak. I'm starting to learn to like it," says Hillmon, who is a high-school freshman from Prince William County in northern Virginia.

If all goes well, Hillmon, like dozens of JEF students before him, will present an original research paper either to a conference audience of computer science researchers and professionals or at a conference organized strictly for high-school students. In either venue, the goal is the same - to acquaint minority and socially disadvantaged K-12 students with computer science basics and the innovative subdisciplines within the field. In addition, the JEF program is structured to reinforce the college ambitions of participants or help them consider college as an option.

"I think that JEF aids students a great deal with helping them develop their college aspirations. There are some students who've never heard of some of the things that we're dealing with. And when they can go out to the various universities and present papers, (that environment) becomes more accessible," says Bemley.

"They begin to say 'This is something 1 can do,'" he says about students' college goals and their pursuit of math and science majors.

Since 1982, Bemley and others have mentored elementary, middle- and high-school students through the Washington-based JEF. A non-profit community-based K.-12 organization, JEF familiarizes students with advanced computer science topics, including artificial intelligence (Al) and supercomputing applications. An estimated 400 students from poor to middle-class households have been a part of the program. An average of 20 students annually participate in JEF and students have traveled to conferences as far as Korea, Portugal and Mexico City to present their research.

The organization's mission is highly relevant with regard to several national initiatives. Primarily, JEF aims to increase the quality and quantity of underrepresented minorities successfully entering math, science and engineering baccalaureate programs at a time when young Americans are reported to have declining interest in those fields. In addition, JEF presents a compelling argument for the concept of supplementary education given that researchers, educators and the public have opened the door to frank public debate about the disparities in educational performance between White/Asian and Black/Latino students.

Supplementary education, urged by researchers such as noted scholars Dr. Edmund Gordon and Dr. James Comer, represents the structured educational activities that occur outside formal schooling and has gained attention from those interested in solutions aimed at closing the academic achievement gap. For his part, Bemley, who works full-time as an IT operations manager with the U.S. Department of the Army, points out with pride that many JEF students have gone on to earn college degrees in science and technology fields. Former participants have also earned masters' degrees and at least one student has a Ph.D. in computer architecture. Another is in the middle of a doctoral program. Involved with computer science education volunteers in other cities, Bemley strongly believes that community-based learning projects can help significantly boost the participation rate of underrepresented minorities in math and science fields. …

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