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Lighting the spark: This organization is on a mission to improve diversity in tech by nurturing the next generation

March 22
2021

“We make sure that young people are at the root of the course design.”

By now, we have plenty of data that shows tech has a diversity problem. Despite visible minorities making up 31.9% of Canada’s tech force, there are still clear disparities reported in both compensation levels and leadership roles compared to white colleagues.

But tech needs more diverse founders. According to Tamar Huggins, executive director of Tech Spark, a technology and curriculum design school aimed at connecting racialized kids with quality STEM programming, racialized and linguistically diverse people consume technology more heavily than any other group—but when we look at who's creating that technology, those users are missing. That’s why we see sensors that don’t recognize Black skin or facial recognition programs that mix up photos of Black people and apes. “Without that diversity, technology can actually do harm to poor communities, racialized communities, diverse communities. That is at the core of why we need to see more representation on the creation side of technology,” she says. 

Back in 2012, Huggins not only understood why these employment trends were a problem, she thought she had a solution: Driven Accelerator Group, a tech incubator geared toward Black, racialized and newcomer tech founders. For two years, she ran the only accelerator that specifically targeted founders who no one else was trying to support, helping startups raise $1.1 million in the process. But there was a problem: the accelerator had a hard time finding founders to support. “We realized that if young people were not seeing themselves as creators and innovators in the technology space, there wouldn't be a need for an accelerator, which is an advanced model, once they get older,” she says.

So, Huggins and her team decided to pivot, and the result was Tech Spark. Initially, it was designed as a program that provided tech skills to young people who were either underemployed, unemployed or at risk of dropping out from high school. But in 2015, when they launched an after-school program, Huggins realized younger kids were actually even better targets for the type of education her organization aims to provide.

Tech Spark started with a week-long March Break program for girls aged nine to 12 in Etobicoke, and Huggins was blown away by the response. “They were super excited. Some of them even cried when the program was over,” Huggins says. “That, to me, was the ‘aha moment’ that these were the individuals we had to start with.”

From there, Tech Spark started running after-school and lunch-hour programs in Durham, Peel and Toronto—and before long, they started hearing from principals who wanted them to work with students “between the bells,” or as part of students’ school curriculum.

“That’s what planted a seed for us to look at how we could redesign the learning experience for young people in public schools and provide them with access to training that they wouldn't have access to otherwise,” she says.

Now, the organization works in three main areas: curriculum design and development, teacher training (so educators can deliver redesigned curricula through a culturally responsive lens) and facilitating their own programs in coding, gaming, robotics, artificial intelligence and UX design. So far, Tech Spark has curated 300 workshops, trained 100 teachers and reached 10,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12.

When it comes to curriculum design, they’re working directly with school boards to redesign courses based on ministry standards. And they’re looking well beyond just tech. In fact, the organization’s goal is to redesign the courses that will have the most impact on society—entrepreneurship, business, history, the sciences, civics and social studies, which Huggins says can often be “inherently biased.” “History is a great example of this,” she says. “The way history is taught in this country, it explicitly leaves out a lot of the trauma white historical figures [caused] racialized people. It also lacks the contributions to Canadian history made by racialized people.”

They start by working with school boards to identify the areas and skill sets that young people need to develop, then “attack” those courses first. Right now, entrepreneurship is a huge focus in high schools, so they took a deep dive into the Ministry of Education’s guidelines for existing entrepreneurship courses, then consulted with partners like TikTok Canada, IBM, RBC and Shopify to develop a grade 11 course that’s currently being piloted with 100 students in Durham Region. “We said, ‘Hey, what are the skills that young people will need in the next five or 10 years, so that you would be able to hire them?’ Then we looked at what was being offered and redesigned the experience, so students get those skills,” Huggins says. “And we also look at the redesign through the lens of cultural responsiveness. So, We make sure that young people are at the root of the course design.”

The impact of Tech Spark’s work been profound. Huggins remembers one former student, a newcomer to Canada who lived in Weston-Mount Dennis, an underserved area of Toronto, was responsible for his younger siblings and faced a lot of barriers. With Tech Spark’s help, he built a portfolio of coding and web development work and accessed interview training—and he used those skills to get into Humber College's web development program.

“We look at it as a long-term success, because now this young man has the education experience, and he can now provide for his family economically,” she says.

Another student was a teenaged mother who was juggling two young kids and her dreams of becoming a filmmaker. Tech Spark helped her learn how to build her own site; this student opted to build a portfolio to showcase her films, which helped her eventually win an award for her work.

Huggins hopes Tech Spark will benefit even more students over the next two to three years. In fact, her goal is to educate 2,000 additional teachers and reach 70,000 more young people across Canada with redesigned course curricula for a variety of subjects, including social studies, history, language and—of course—STEM. They’re even working on launching a virtual high school that will employ Canadian educators and focus on social studies, history, language and business. Each course will be redesigned “through the lens of equity, tech and liberation,” Huggins says.

“This is a huge, ambitious goal for our organization,” she says. “And with the help of our financial partners and our curriculum design partners, we're making that happen.”


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