Traffic between Cambridge and Lowell was so bad that I nearly didn’t make it to Kids In Tech’s after-school program. By the time I arrived, just a few elementary schoolers were in the space, scattered across a wooden floor, poring over blueprints for Piper Computer Kits.
But even by 5:30 p.m. on a weekday, the enthusiasm hadn’t waned. As soon as I stepped in the door, a 9-year-old girl, wearing a giant pink bow around her small black ponytail, bounced right up to me.
“Can you help me?” she asked.
I agreed and kneeled down next to her blueprint, trying to figure out which of the many green cords tangled together in the Piper kit was the correct one to attach to the Raspberry Pi she was building.
This girl, Frances, is one of dozens of kids who meet every two weeks at Coalition for a Better Acre in Lowell. They’re all part of Kids in Tech’s after-school program, designed to get the children of the Merrimack Valley interested in STEM, with a particular focus on computer science and engineering, while they’re still young.
Kids in Tech, which recently registered as a 501(c)(3), is the brainchild of Olu Ibrahim. As its founder and CEO, Ibrahim orchestrates everything: finding community partners, developing curriculums, getting funding, leading field trips to local companies and even teaching the kids. She was on hand at Coalition for a Better Acre on that rainy Wednesday to help Frances and the others decipher their blueprints and build computers. These kits will actually enable the kids to get online and play the Raspberry Pi Edition of Minecraft to learn how to code.
“The goal is to ensure the kids have a strong background in computer science, computer literacy and computational thinking skills for kids ages 8 to 14,” Ibrahim said. “In the past few years, we’ve done blogging, robotics and technology invention-making. This year, we’re doing how to build a computer and fashion tech. It’s all project-based.”
Ibrahim founded Kids in Tech in 2016 to prepare disadvantaged kids, primarily low-income youth, for careers in the technology sector. By 2024, according to Kids in Tech’s website, 80 percent of the top 10 most in-demand STEM jobs in the Greater Lowell Area will be in technology.
This is not Ibrahim’s first rodeo. She holds a master’s degree in education from Lesley University, and she is acutely aware of the need for computer science education in the Merrimack Valley.
“For me, as an educator, I was looking around to see if anyone had expertise in computer science in the Greater Lowell Area as a community member, and I realized, ‘O.K., people do STEM, but no one really teaches computer science or computational thinking skills,’” she said. “And there’s a lot of underserved communities here. There’s a lot of untapped talent. I want to get kids excited about the tech that’s going on in their backyard.”
This year, Ibrahim estimates, Kids in Tech will work with about 115 children in its programs. Without a space of its own, the nonprofit works with three partner sites, including Coalition for a Better Acre.
Kids in Tech counts nine members on its board of directors, including Ibrahim, and four on its advisory board. Many of them are professionals at major tech companies, including Salesforce, Comcast, TripAdvisor and HubSpot.
And there’s clearly a need for the program, especially for STEM-oriented children like Frances who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn basic computer engineering skills, let alone build a Raspberry Pi. Frances and her friend, 9-year-old Alyssa, tell me that they find fourth grade boring—“except for math!” they both clarify.
The two girls don’t want to leave, even when Frances’ mother comes inside to implore her to get going.
I help Frances screw on another wooden piece before Ibrahim finishes packing up the rest of the kits.
“My career education is really about the changing power of education,” Ibrahim said. “I think that’s so important. That’s why I do what I do. I know that education changed my parents’ trajectory. Education changed my trajectory, and I hope it changes the kids that we serve. There’s so much talent in Lowell. I see it every day working with the kids who may not otherwise have access to technology.”