IUPUI tech-diversity program catches fire

When the informatics school at IUPUI launched a high school program in late 2015 aimed at increasing diversity in tech, it expected to hold six classes at area schools this school year.

It has nine.

The program is called Informatics Diversity-Enhanced Workforce, or iDEW, and administrators said it's growing faster than expected. In addition to gaining popularity among students and teachers, it's winning grants and donations from charitable organizations, which have chipped in $1.5 million to date. 

"There's a lot of interest in this program," said program manager Vicki Daugherty, noting that the first year saw 70 students and this year has 225.

iDEW operates at three area high schools—Arsenal Tech, Providence Cristo Rey, and Pike. The classes, in which students use software to solve problems, are led by high school teachers with the help of program administrators.

The elective class targets girls and minorities, two groups largely underrepresented at tech companies big and small. About 86 percent of students are African-American or Hispanic, and 31 percent are female.

The program was designed to start with a freshman class at each school and follow that group over four years. And every year it would add another group of freshman at each school. So, initially, it planned to have three groups of freshmen and three groups of sophomores for the 2016-2017 school year.

But after the first year, Pike High School decided to add three classes.

"Pike has so many students interested in the introduction to computer science class that they had enough students to fill four classrooms," Daugherty said. "And the chair of that department liked the program so much that they decided to use the iDEW curriculum not for just one new class, but for all four."

The program was kickstarted with a $405,000 grant from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development announced early last year. Since then, 13 other organizations have donated more than $1.1 million to iDEW, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., the Simon Family Foundation, the AT&T Foundation, and Salesforce.org, the philanthropic arm of the tech giant.

The program involves four modules—mobile trivia, internet of things, game design and data visualization. Students' projects so far range from an application that optimizes late-bus routes to a sensor that alerts them when a younger sibling entered a certain room. 

They've created 89 projects so far, and 35 are in progress this semester.

"We have them working on teams that mirror what it's like to work in the industry," Daugherty said, noting that projects have lead coders, lead designers, project managers and other roles.

The focus is not on coding, but on conceiving a tech solution and bringing it to life. The students mostly tap into open source programming to power their solutions, though some students who can code may make refinements.

"We want to attract students more students to technology in a way that would help them see technology careers that are not just programming or coding," Daugherty said.

Daugherty said her primary goal is to see students advance, but she's ultimately interested in expanding the program to other schools. She noted that one teacher at Arsenal Tech is interested in using the curriculum for the gaming module, though it wouldn't fall under the official iDEW program. 

"That's going to be an early test of how we pilot the curriculum as standalone," she said.

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