David Harris: Opening STEM career opportunities for students of color

Jun 11, 2015   |   Vanessa Ho

As an African-American engineer at Microsoft, David Harris wanted to help make the tech industry more diverse and decided education was the key.

Harris, who grew up in an African-American community in Detroit, previously worked as a software design and testing engineer at Microsoft. “I felt like more people from where I came from should have the same types of opportunities,” he says.

He has since started a tutoring company and is now a program manager at TAF, a nonprofit organization in Seattle that teaches STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills to students of color. Short for Technology Access Foundation, TAF runs enrichment camps and manages an innovative 6th-12th grade school that prepares kids for a college education and career.

“We want to prepare our students for the future. We don’t want to wait until it’s too late,” says Harris, TAF’s STEM Integration manager. “All the trends show that in order to have access to more opportunities, a STEM education is what gets you there.”

That’s even true for students who pursue fields outside of tech and science, he says. STEM skills in critical thinking, creativity and collaboration help in all fields.

Co-managed in partnership with Federal Way Public Schools, TAF Academy is a small public school with an engaging, interdisciplinary project-based curriculum. Students develop software prototypes and robotic devices, demo them at pitch events and use scientific methods to solve social problems. Roughly 70 percent are students of color, and 50 percent come from low-income homes.

This year, TAF Academy seventh graders won first place in a pitch contest at Google with an app that teaches sign language. Last year, a TAF Academy 12th grader won the school’s STEM Expo and pitch event with a project that helped African-Americans find matching bone marrow transplant donors.

“It’s very inspiring,” says Harris. “When I see students who are just 12 years old, they remind me of when I was a 12-year-old loving technology and geeking out. Being able to foster that passion they have, I know that it’s a flame that is lit and will never go out.”

As a kid, he took part in an engineering program in Detroit that taught him to code and primed him for college, where he studied electrical engineering. He also had a tech mentor and grew up in a family of teachers, who stressed the importance of education.

They also taught him to help his community. Harris is the founder of Hack the CD, a group working to seed a startup ecosystem in the Central District, Seattle’s historically African-American neighborhood, where he now lives. Last year, the group organized a bustling Startup Weekend event in the area that attracted 150 people, most of whom were African-American.

“We launched 10 new startups that weekend,” says Harris, who aims to open an innovation center in an old fire station in the heart of the neighborhood.

“That proved to me that our community wants access to innovation resources.”

His passion lies in helping resource-restrained communities, but he doesn’t see his neighborhood or students through a demographic lens of race and income.

“The assets that our students have are invaluable,” says Harris, who uses Microsoft Word and Office at TAF. “And they’re bringing their own culture and flavor to innovation.”

To learn more about David Harris, TAF and Hack the CD, go to Microsoft’s Instagram page, a celebration of people who break boundaries, achieve goals and #DoMore.

Vanessa Ho
Microsoft News Center Staff

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