When it comes to inspiring the development of more on-ramps into tech for youth, beginning in areas where many students already spend a lot of their free time is a good place to start and expand. I contend that more on-ramps, defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a ramp by which one enters a limited-access highway”, are needed to get more people into a tech sector that can be reasonably described as a limited-access highway to those who are not already in it, have had little exposure to it, or lack access to high levels of training related to it.
There is a need to find ways to meet students where they are and integrate meaningful content and curriculum into what they are doing. This is key to drumming up enough of what it takes to attract and retain those who may not have otherwise had an initial inclination or interest.
Even with access to some form of computer science education for example, there still needs to be a great deal of promotion and on-ramps built for students to be motivated to enroll and persist through completion. Packaging opportunities for tech skill attainment in a format that many already enjoy like gaming is one way of building tech on-ramps.
Gaming is a hugely popular area among teens and young adults and is where many voluntarily spend a great deal of their discretionary time. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry with career opportunities not only in actual game playing, but also in game development, illustration, legal, marketing, and sports medicine. Esports is an area that can be leveraged to fuel new opportunities for entrepreneurship and be a gateway for young people to explore a variety of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
More traditional sports like basketball, football, and baseball can also be a vehicle and platform to deliver tech education and increase tech competency. The utility of tech competency keeps going even after a student-athlete’s ability or eligibility to play a particular sport runs out. Leveraging the power of sports to build new tech on-ramps can get people on highways that will help them develop valuable competencies and skills that pay the bills.
One key to transferring the momentum that sports can generate into tech is through the infusion of the marketing, promotion, and social status that are currently utilized in popular sports. This involves the reinforcement of images of people who have successfully made it into careers in the tech sector. Consistent exposure to these individuals and having discussions about their journeys can increase the level of belief that others can also ascend to similar stations through their own unique pathways.
Finding ways to elevate the social status of those students who are performing well in different areas of tech competency to a level that is on par with star athletes would also go a long way towards getting more people on the tech highway. The gratification that is attached to family, community, and social celebration is one of many motivating factors that can drive sustained elite athletic performance.
Another key is the insertion of healthy levels of pressurized competition. The best high school and college athletes have often developed their ability over thousands of hours of pressurized competition over many years. The adage that “iron sharpens iron” applies here. Athletic competition often prompts players to spend extra hours working on their craft, strategize with teammates to improve their performance, receive dedicated instruction and encouragement from coaches who have a vested interest in their success, figure out how to solve complex problems, and perform under the pressure of enthusiastic audiences. On-ramps that incorporate these elements can also be infused into tech programming.
Additionally, building on existing curriculum bases or helping teachers to establish new ones is a way to keep students on the tech highway after they have accessed it via an on-ramp. The development of new on-ramps can be accompanied by the building of additional supports and partnerships around existing programming in a way that complements what is already in place. For example, tech sector professionals can be incorporated into lessons and development strategies for teachers, field trips to tech companies can be facilitated, and further exposure to the world of work through internship and job opportunities can be made available.
After spending years on the ground in different communities and seeing the need to an increased level of exposure and connectivity to opportunities as well as the elevation of policy issues related to socioeconomic mobility, I launched the National Brighter Ways Forward Initiative in December 2022 with the aim of inspiring the creation of more on-ramps into careers and economic opportunity in the tech sector among other fields. It will consist of events and programming across the country that will have three objectives: 1.) exposure to career and economic opportunities for students and families, 2.) connectivity to longer-term training and development opportunities, and 3.) the elevation of broader policy issues that are of relevance to socioeconomic mobility in each area.
The goal is to help create a climate that inspires the building of more on-ramps onto avenues of prosperity across the country. This would be a game changer for the economic well-being and the holistic upliftment of communities.
Dr. Marcus Bright is a scholar and social impact facilitator.