Minority Students Learn Tech Skills at Hidden Genius Project

African American high school students can be seen walking to 1746 Broadway Ave. in downtown Oakland headed to a summer program.

But instead of being taught remedial lessons on what was missed during the school year, these students spend their time learning technology skills and software development through a mentoring program called The Hidden Genius Project.

Aiga Zulu and Timothy Ford are second-year students in the program and say that The Hidden Genius Project helped them understand different coding languages such as HTML 5, Python, and Objective C.

Ford and Zulu now work as tutors for the incoming freshmen and sophomores. This summer, they have been contracted to build a website for the Kapor Center for Social Impact, aimed at reaching minority teens about technology opportunities.

“It’s definitely been a rewarding experience to learn programming and coding languages,” said Zulu, a 16-year-old junior at Berkeley High School. “I’m looking to major in computer science or electrical engineering, so these are the type of skills I’ll need.”

This July, The Hidden Genius Project launched its second summer program for young Black men in Oakland who range in age from 14 to 17 years old and has grown from five students to 12 students from all over the East Bay.

The program is aimed at giving the students the technical skills to be successful in today’s global economy. Students learn the skills necessary to pursue a career in software engineering, user experience design and technology entrepreneurship.

The program is a start-up where classes are taught by local program developers and assisted by two interns.

After a lengthy interview process, 12 applicants were chosen for this summer’s program and each given a laptop to work on building their own mobile applications. Applicants were selected based on their desire to learn technical skills, a letter of recommendation from a teacher and backgrounds in science and technology.

“We wanted the program to help develop the students’ critical thinking, creativity, and long term planning skills while teaching them about communication,” said Jason Young, one of the founders of the project. “It seems like Black men are largely being left out of the technology industry, and I saw this program as an opportunity to help change that. Having a willingness to work and persistence are the two driving factors for success in this industry.”

Young is also the founder of Mindblown Labs, a technology startup based in Oakland that makes mobile games for teens that teach financial literacy and other skills.

The program meets Monday through Thursday, eight hours a day, in an office space that has been converted into a computer classroom. On Fridays, weekly trips are scheduled to various tech headquarters around the Bay Area. This week students will be visiting the Computer Museum at Stanford University.

“As a community, we need to generate our own wealth and become entrepreneurs,” said program developer Kurt Collins. “Blacks are underrepresented in the tech community, and we can change that by teaching them skills that will make these careers accessible.”

Together with the help of program developers Kilimanjaro Robbs and Ty Moore, Collins says they have restructured the curriculum for the project to give students a broad knowledge of coding and decided to make a two year commitment to the selected applicants beginning with the eight week summer program.

The Hidden Genius Project is more than just a summer computer camp, Robbs says. “This program helps us to create an environment that weeds out bad habits and gradually builds up leadership skills.”

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