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Digging Out of the Digital Divide

Digging Out of the Digital Divide

Scholar and entrepreneur Randal Pinkett discusses how far America still must go to achieve technological equality.

By Peter Galuszka

One of the most prominent engineers and entrepreneurs in the country, Dr. Randal D. Pinkett keeps a high profile on issues related to minorities, technology and education. The holder of five degrees, Pinkett has built an academic record that includes a doctorate and MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was also named a Rhodes Scholar in 1994.

While an undergraduate at Rutgers University, he founded BCT Partners, a consulting firm now based in Newark, N.J. Its clients include many technology giants, such as Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer. Black Issues In Higher Education, Diverse’s predecessor, first introduced readers to Pinkett when he was named an Arthur Ashe sports scholar more than 10 years ago. But he gained national, if not worldwide fame as the 2005 winner of Donald Trump’s NBC reality-based television show, “The Apprentice.” The Philadelphia native has also been praised for his work to help close the digital divide. As a graduate student at MIT, Pinkett founded a project to bring the Internet to a mostly Black housing project in Boston.

Pinkett, author of the recently released Campus CEO: The Student Entrepreneur’s Guide to Launching a Multimillion Dollar Business (Kaplan Publishing, 2007), talked with Diverse about boosting minority representation in the sciences and closing the digital divide.

DI: How are you dealing with the aftermath of “The Apprentice” win?

RP: There are a variety of different aftermaths. I am back at my company, BCT, after spending a year at the Trump organization. We provide information technology solutions, management consulting and public policy research.

I also extended my contract with the Trump organization another year, in a consulting capacity. I wear four hats: One hat is helping manage an upgrade of a computer system down in Atlantic City; Secondly, I am helping out with an apprentice program in Philadelphia for high school students who go down to Atlantic City to learn more about Trump’s operations; I act as the national spokesperson for the Trump Institute, which puts on free wealth-building seminars that Trump offers across the country; and fourth and finally, I am a faculty member at Trump University, where I offer online courses.

DI: Can you talk about the digital divide? Does it still exist?

RP: I would say that the gap continues to persist. Progress has been made, but there is still work to do. I’ll give you a simple example. Just look at schools. It is not at all difficult to find an inner city or urban school that is wired for the Internet, but what that translates to is that the principal is online. Or, worse, if Johnny acts well for the day, Johnny gets about half an hour to go online and browse the Internet. But [technology] hasn’t been integrated into the curriculum or the instructional methodology of the school itself.

DI: A lot of the broadband providers have been accused of cherry picking. They want greater profits so they tend to wire up the more affluent areas first. A lot of cities, including Philadelphia, have launched wireless projects. What do you think of municipal efforts to improve access to technology?

RP: I refer to [what private companies are doing] as digital redlining. As more advanced networks and services are being deployed, certain companies are being selective in terms of where they choose to deploy those networks and those services first.

The public policy case has been made and people understand the value of equitable distribution. But we need to hold the telecommunication companies’ feet to the fire to ensure that equitable distribution. It is on people’s radar, but the issue is enforcing it. They have to make sure that some communities aren’t being bypassed.

DI: Can anything be done in Congress or in state legislatures?

RP: It’s happening in state legislatures. Telecommunications companies are starting to offer television services over a data network, over fiber optic cable. In wanting to provide that service, they have to apply for a cable franchise, much like the other cable operators had to do, say, 20 years ago. What’s happening is that the telephone company is saying, ‘Look, we don’t want to have to go from county to county or from municipality to municipality in order to get these franchise agreements. We want either statewide agreement or a national agreement.’ And the policy makers are coming back and saying, ‘If we give you a statewide agreement, you have to make sure that you do not digitally redline urban and densely populated communities.’ So, this is being fought literally right now across the country. There are maybe five or six states that have granted telecoms statewide video franchise licenses and some, but not all, have included within their legislation mandates that the telecoms must adhere to so they are not just cherry-picking suburbs.

New Jersey just passed a video choice bill that gave Verizon the ability to put fiber optics in. Comcast, Patriot and other companies were all up in arms saying it is unfair. But in the bill, Verizon is now required to deploy that network in densely populated communities such as Newark, Camden, Patterson, Jersey City, etc.

DI: In this edition, there’s an article on math anxiety. We’re talking to scholars about how to teach math and make it less scary to a new generation of educators. What are your thoughts on this?

RP: We’re fortunate that math and science have a direct connection to some of the products or artifacts that young people are naturally drawn to in their everyday lives — cell phones, computers and the Internet, all of the various digital devices like iPods. All of those items come from the underlying disciplines of math and science and engineering and technology. They are a natural fit.

To take it down to a practical level, one of the programs when I was at MIT involved the Computer Clubhouse. These are after-school learning centers where young people could basically be designers, inventors and creators of new technology products and not just consumers. In working with young people to do Web design or digital art work, we were able to tie in some of the underlying ideas of math and science but do it in a way that piggybacks onto their natural proclivity towards popular technology and the like. Drawing the connection between math and science and everyday items that young people are engaged with is one way to break down the walls that suggest that this is something foreign.

DI: What do you think are the challenges of getting more minorities to do more scientific research?

RP: The research challenge really begins in undergrad education. You can talk about affirmative action, but I believe that the appropriate way to address underrepresentation of an ethnic group is to take proactive measures to ensure that the group’s members know what options are available to them, and, second, that there are programs in place to facilitate their introduction to those activities. I was involved in the National Science Foundation’s program to expose undergrads to research. At the time, it wasn’t targeted at minorities, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be. In high school, I was involved in a program called the minority engineering program sponsored by General Electric, which is now the Sarnoff program. My senior year in high
school, I was involved in a Rutgers program called the Minority Introduction to Engineering. It still exists, and MIT has a program like it. You need more programs like that in terms of research exposure.

DI: What needs to happen in the next several years to improve minority advancement in math and science education?

RP: We need a comprehensive approach. The research that I recall suggests that in fifth grade or eighth grade you see a drop of interest among minorities and women in math and science.

A number of intervention programs came about in the 1970s and 1980s, targeting eighth-graders so they would remain enthusiastic about math and science. Beyond that, it’s the product of the pipeline — high school programs that steer students to college and college programs that steer students to graduate school, and you can use popular culture as a hook. You can say, if you can get excited about your iPod or your computer or your cell phone or the kind of things you can do with your laptop, then you ought to be excited about math and science.

The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering had a public awareness campaign called “Math is Power” six or seven years ago. The purpose of the campaign was to market math and raise its profile. I don’t know of the extent to which the program was successful, but I thought the idea was right on the money.

DI: The United States seems to be falling behind other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, when it comes to broadband access. What can be done?

RP: I have seen similar figures about the United States falling behind in our production of mathematicians, scientists and particularly engineers. I honestly believe that unless we address the issue of minority engagement in those very disciplines, then we are going to remain behind. Minorities are projected to be the majority in the next 50 years, and they are already the majority in California. So you can imagine if you have under-representation of those populations in the math and sciences and the demographics of our country are shifting, then those groups cannot be left behind if we intend to remain competitive as a country.

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