Intel's Native Coders Program Offers Gateway to STEM for Native American Students


Since 2015, Intel's Native Coders initiative has pioneered computing for hundreds of Native American high school students through a culturally sensitive curriculum that links cutting-edge technologies and endangered traditions.

The initiative was launched as part of Intel's broader goal of achieving full representation of women and underrepresented minorities in its US workforce by 2020 – the chip maker realized last October, two years ahead. This means that the percentage of underrepresented women and minorities is the talent pool available for skilled workers in the United States, according to Intel.

Native coders were launched in 2015 in the Navajo Nation in Arizona in three Navajo high schools. A computer course has been added to the school courses and Intel has funded the addition of computer teachers and a comprehensive computer lab to each site, says Jolene Begay, an engineering technician at Intel, who played a pivotal role in the development of the Native Coders program. .

Begay is Navajo and grew up on a reserve. She knew from the beginning that there would be unique challenges in bridging the gap between corporate culture and Navajo culture.

"The Native Coders initiative is very important to me because I come from this tribe and technology and Intel have been instrumental in my career. Growing up, I did not come from a family of engineers, and I did not have that experience on the ground. I wanted to participate because I wanted to develop a path for others in this industry, "says Begay. "Because of our history, we attach great importance to our culture. Bringing a large company into the reserve was therefore a huge obstacle. I first went to talk to tribal leaders and talk to them about the benefits and opportunities available. And as had been brought by someone from the community, it was more easily acceptable. "

Combining technical skills with Navajo culture

Navajo culture is based on family and community and preserving that cultural identity, says Begay, but Navajo culture and technology do not have to be mutually exclusive.

"A career in computer science offers the opportunity to stay at home and preserve culture while influencing the world. For these children, if they have a laptop and the Internet, they can be entrepreneurs, work remotely, work to help expand access and opportunities for other members of their community, "she says.

In addition to taking advantage of Begay's links with Navajo tribal leaders, Intel has approached the development, strategy and launch of the program differently by partnering with other organizations such as the American Science Society. and Education (Aises) and aligning its program and strategy with the White House CS4All initiative. 2016, explains Rhonda James, Senior Program Manager and Head of Global Programs for Diversity and Inclusion at Intel.

"We did not want to do what companies usually do: define the strategy, create products and programs, then integrate everyone – top-down approach," says James. "We wanted to get the community involved from the beginning and hear about their challenges and opportunities, so we organized a 'meeting'. We had chiefs of tribes, not-for-profit, focused on the Amerindians; We had students, Intel employees – all kinds of people – coming together to talk about issues and opportunities and next steps. We have used AISES, which has an existing program that we have integrated and which matches the educational codes of Arizona, we have used the National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT) and, with all these partners and all these comments, we created this program. . "

The program includes a standardized general curriculum that all students can integrate into, but it is also highly customizable for different tribal needs, says James. For example, Navajo students can use their technology skills to design weaving patterns and learn how technology can affect the design and color process of traditional textiles, says Begay.

"Weaving is very traditional in our culture. Creating patterns, dying and spinning wool – many of these aspects of textile creation have traditional cultural processes and meaning. But show students how mathematics, engineering, [and] Computer science can be put to use in these traditional arts, it's creating a bridge between our traditions and future innovations, "says Begay.

With 573 tribal communities in the United States, the program developed for the Native Coders initiative can be customized so that all Aboriginal communities can align their traditions and cultures with STEM, says Begay, and find new ways to integrate the two. .

The program enters its fourth year and 2019 will see the first graduates of Aboriginal coder initiatives this spring, said Begay.

"When we started, we only opened the program to first-year high school students. So we did not have any courses in the three years of the program. This year will be our first! We will then have 439 students who have completed this program, "she says.

In addition, Intel has launched a $ 1.37 million scholarship program allowing Native American students to pursue their undergraduate and graduate studies in a STEM field, said James, and senior management. Intel has touted this program with other industry partners.

"We have encouraged other partners and industry colleagues to pursue initiatives of this type, but the challenge lies in the numbers," said James. "The representation of Amerindians in STEM is less than 1%. What we hear a lot is, "We are going to make a low touch model because the numbers are so small" or "Well, we do not have all the Native Americans in our business. But whatever these numbers are, it's a worthwhile and valued program, and we want these communities to know that we value them and want more representation! If a company does not have this representation, it's not a reason to ignore certain groups, it's a challenge and an opportunity, "says James.