Microsoft Research and The America21 Project Partnering to Put Urban Focus on STEM, Technology

Posted by Rob Knies
Managing Editor, Microsoft Research

On Feb. 20, Microsoft Research, in conjunction with The America21 Project, announced the three pilot cities for the Activate Local Communities Across America Initiative (ALC): Chicago, Portland, Ore. and Cambridge, Mass.

The ALC, which grew out of a challenge last summer from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and was featured Jan. 31 during the White House Tech Inclusion Summit, focuses on making America’s cities vibrant, inclusive centers of urban innovation and entrepreneurship that can connect talent from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students in diverse communities to the economic opportunities of the 21st century.

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“The nation’s tech economy is thriving, and Chicago is leading the way—we are seeing unprecedented growth, from established international corporations to startups designed by our own residents,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. “In order to support this vital industry and open up doors for our children to succeed in this dynamic sector, city governments must be nimble. We established the city’s first Technology Diversity Council because collaboration is key to creating opportunity for all in the technology economy, today and in the future. With new collaboration with Microsoft, we look forward to what we can learn from other cities and to providing insights into our successes that can serve as a road map for years to come.”

The pilot programs are leaders in forging public-private collaborations to encourage the growth of diverse opportunities in their cities’ technology sectors, and the pilots are making strides in increasing access to STEM education opportunities to expand access to the technology economy in the future. They were selected for diversity of geography, population, and industry. The pilots will last for approximately six months, although their impact will be felt far longer. During the programs, questions of infrastructure and effective public-private partnerships will be addressed, and by the time the pilots are complete, their combined experiences should provide a road map for any city in the country that wants to replicate the work. America21 will then work with the pilot cities to extend their programs—and assist other cities interested in participating.

“America21 is proud to partner with Microsoft in the Activating Local Communities initiative,” said Chad Womack, founder of Amerca21 and co-chair of the initiative, along with Rane Johnson-Stempson of Microsoft Research Connections. “We are ready to work with local stakeholders in both the public and private sectors to ensure that the Activating Local Communities initiative yields sustainable results in both the pilot cities and future innovation communities across the country.”

Johnson-Stempson, director of Education and Scholarly Communication for Microsoft Research Connections, explains the motivation behind the ALC effort.

“One of the biggest challenges in growing the pipeline of students in computing, especially women and under-represented minorities, is the lack of awareness of computing careers and the need for 1.4 million new technology jobs by 2018,” she said. “Parents don’t know, students don’t know, and community members in at-risk areas have no idea about the opportunities available to them.”

In part, the ALC initiative intends to provide direction to a stream of well-intentioned, STEM-focused organizations stepping on each other’s toes in their haste to make a difference.

“There are so many organizations, public and private, working hard to make an impact in STEM and computer science and for under-represented groups,” Johnson-Stempson said, “that programs are being duplicated and folks are going after the same funding and competing instead of collaborating.”

“There are great ideas that can be replicated that are working, but each city is different, and what is working well in one may not work well in another. It takes a coordinated effort with a local approach to be successful. There is so much great work happening right now, and we want to enable it to happen better, faster, and more efficiently.”

Todd Park, U.S. chief technology officer and assistant to President Obama, was pleased to see the ALC project gain momentum.

“In order to maintain our position as the global leader in innovation, it is crucial that this nation’s tech industry reflect the full diversity of America itself,” Park said. “That’s been the goal of the ‘tech inclusion’ events that the White House has sponsored, and it is hugely gratifying to see projects like the ALC coming to fruition from that process.”

Ultimately, Johnson-Stempson said, the ALC initiative benefits all Americans.

“My hope is that cities large, small, urban, or rural in America see technology as an opportunity to grow their economic development,” Johnson-Stempson said, “and that the great innovations in every sector have a technology component and amazing jobs for everyone.

“Every child should get the opportunity to be a producer of the next technology innovation, not just a consumer. Every citizen needs to have computer-science understanding and skills, and I hope that a large percentage of students will want to get a computer-science degree and help build the future of America.”

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