As a young schoolgirl growing up in Detroit during the turbulent 1960s, Nicola White says she could always experience her own special magic through a unique variety of building blocks that are still popular today.
“I was into Lego,” said White, who recalled growing up in the LaSalle Gardens neighborhood near what was then 12th and 14th streets. “One Christmas, I remember having the no-brand Lego — the red and white ones — and I sat there for hours building. And my favorite subjects were math and chemistry, so I was kind of like the odd girl at the time.”
For high school, White’s journey took her a little ways north of Longfellow, where she attended elementary and middle school, to the doors of Cooley High School (Class of 1975). At Cooley, as the only female in an electronics class, White said her instructor “begged” her to go into electrical engineering.
While White, now 64, did not become an electrical engineer, her love of technology never waned. And today that connection can be vividly seen through her work as a program manager for the Michigan Council of Women in Technology Foundation (MCWT). Headquartered in Southfield, MCWT seeks to “inspire and grow women in technology” through a variety of programs, resources and initiatives.
“The goal of MCWT is to be the number one state for women in technology,” White declared. “And we’re working toward that every day.”
Key to building a solid foundation to advance the organization’s mission locally this summer has been a series of one-week camps targeting girls from Detroit and its suburbs. MCWT’s Camp Infinity series offers activities such as animation and app development, robotics programming, robotic process automation and more. While learning by doing, White says, the girls are developing the mindset they will need for success.
“I ask girls when they start doing this, ‘How many of you, when you were born, came out walking?’” said White, who revealed that she did not begin coding until her late 50s. “Then I ask: ‘How many of you fell down maybe three or four times?’ So the next question is, ‘Why did you keep going?’ ‘Why did you keep trying?’ And it’s the same way with any kind of learning. You don’t do something two times and say I didn’t get it so it must not be for me. You do it until you get it!”
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White said it brings her immense joy and fulfillment when, at the end of the camp, the girls say along with her: “I love tech; tech is fun!” But in order to speak those words with conviction, White says the girls at Camp Infinity must first be able to fully see technology professions in their own lives.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” White explained. “Kids know about doctors, they know about lawyers; they know about teachers, they know about astronauts. But after that, there’s not too much that they know about other occupations and careers. So, by doing what we’re doing, it helps them to understand what careers lie out there for them.”
During Wednesday’s Camp Infinity session at the Wayne County Community College District Center For Learning Technology in Harper Woods, fifth- through eighth-grade girls came face-to-face with an impressive collection of IT professionals from Ford Motor Co., which is a sponsor of the camp. The career panel had strong Detroit representation, including Tracy Ball (Denby High School, Class of 1986) an IT specialist in cyber security; Kenya James (Martin Luther King High School, Class of 1995), an IT product manager; and Gayle Echols (Cass Technical High School, Class of 1983), an IT operations manager, whose responsibilities stretch across Ford plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Another proud Detroit product present was Valerie Gill (Cass Tech, Class of 1980), an IT demand manager, who kicked off two career panels presented to the campers from the podium and then sat in the audience among the girls where she encouraged ongoing dialogue. Despite the IT professionals’ impressive resumes, there was no mention of salaries or dollar figures. Instead, participants like Gill often spoke from the heart about topics that could be defined as a higher calling.
“The fact that I can put things into these girls’ heads early and get them thinking about the future is really exciting because computer science is a good way to live your passion,” said Gill, who revealed that she wrote her first computer program as a 13-year-old high school student. “Your job should be your passion, and any passion you have can be attached to IT. That’s why every girl here has an opportunity to shape the world.”
And given the steady barrage of questions from the girls — all seated in the front two rows of a cozy lecture area — the importance of the career panel was recognized by the camp participants. Among the girls’ queries: How do you make the electric car engine? What is a hybrid? How many cars do you make a year? How did you start working at Ford? How long does it take to build a vehicle from start to finish? There was even a question and in-depth conversation afterward regarding the global microchip shortage.
In addition to keeping the IT professionals busy with questions, one student from nearby Chandler Park Academy found time to sketch a striking portrait of Ball, which the student presented to Ball at the conclusion of the panel. The act of kindness, along with the high level of attentiveness demonstrated by each of the 25 students representing Chandler Park Academy at the camp, grabbed the attention of three adults sitting in the back row during the career panel.
“For this east-side community that we serve, it’s all about exposure and getting our kids outside of the four walls of school and learning with more hands-on projects,” said Ken Williams, the district parent and community liaison at Chandler Park Academy, who was sitting with Jerrel Anthony, Chandler Park Academy Middle School assistant principal, and guidance counselor Mary Rice. “At Chandler Park Academy, we are firm believers in exposing our kids to as many positive outcomes as we possibly can, because that’s the light bulb switch. Once they see this they’ll ask, ‘How can we do more at school?’ And then we can roll from there.”
At one point during Wednesday’s activities, the camp participants needed to roll with Mother Nature as an incoming thunderstorm necessitated that the girls check out three shiny Ford vehicles parked in the WCCCD lot earlier than planned. When Gayle Treece, a member of the Ford contingent, was asked to identify the vehicles (Ford Mustang Mach-E, Ford F-150 Lightning and Ford Bronco Sport), she proudly did so with brochure-like detail. But a few moments later, Treece made it known that she is equally proud of the organization that presented the camp.
“The Michigan Council of Women in Technology is one of the best organizations out there,” said Treece, who along with being a seasoned IT professional is the pride of Murray-Wright High School (Class of 1977). “It brings all of the companies together to work on programs and community projects and they do a fabulous job of connecting youth with STEM and STEAM programs. They have K-12 initiatives, university initiatives and they mentor women who are in IT and connect us across companies so that we can learn from each other and also give back to our community.”
As camp activities began to wrap Wednesday, Victoria Smith, a student at Longacre Elementary and one of the most enthusiastic participants during the career panel, provided yet another reason why Camp Infinity had been a special experience for the 29 girls that came together for a week.
“My grandma says that robots might take over the world, so you need to know how to control them,” said Victoria, who also described the joy she experienced from personalizing her robot during the camp — all the way down to naming it ‘Izzy,’ the fifth-grader’s nickname.
Empowering Local Girls Through Technology
What: Michigan Council of Women in Technology Foundation (MCWT) Camp Infinity, a series of one-week summer camps targeting girls in grades five through 12. Activities include animation and app development, robotics programming, robotic process automation and more.
Upcoming area camp locations and dates: Wayne State University, July 18 -22, (grades 9-12); University of Michigan-Dearborn, July 25-29 (grades 5-8).
For more information: Please visit the MCWT website at MCWT.org.
Scott Talley is a native Detroiter, a proud product of Detroit Public Schools and lifelong lover of Detroit culture in all of its diverse forms. In his second tour with the Free Press, which he grew up reading as a child, he is excited and humbled to cover the city’s neighborhoods and the many interesting people who define its various communities. Contact him at: [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @STalleyfreep. Read more of Scott’s stories at www.freep.com/mosaic/detroit-is/.