Seattle’s tech boom isn't just for rich kids: 3 programs reinvigorating STEM education

As part of Crosscut's Community Idea Lab, we highlight three programs diversifying Seattle's tech workforce.
As part of Crosscut's Community Idea Lab, we highlight three programs diversifying Seattle's tech workforce.

Over the next four years, Washington’s science and tech economy is expected to grow at a faster pace than the national average, and almost all of the new jobs generated by this growth spurt will require a postsecondary education, according to a study from Georgetown University.

Yet a large segment of King County is unprepared for the shift: In 2009, only 20 percent of black and Hispanic adults in the county had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to roughly half of white and Asian adults. In one of the most diverse districts in the county, Tukwila, only 59 percent of the class of 2012 graduated on time, compared to 93 percent of seniors in Mercer Island.

Meanwhile, in 2013, there were 25,000 unfilled jobs in Washington due to a lack of qualified candidates — 80 percent of those jobs were health-related or in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, (STEM), according to a report from the Washington Round Table.

Several groups in the Seattle area are hoping to narrow the racial and economic achievement gaps by better equipping disadvantaged students with the skills needed to thrive in the STEM industries. Their efforts, though imperfect, are collectively reshaping the face of STEM education in the region. As part of Crosscut’s Community Idea Lab project, we’re highlighting three of these programs as a way to inspire new strategies to use Seattle’s tech boom as an asset, rather than allowing it to fuel widening income inequality.

The Technology Access Foundation Academy

For years, the face of a prototypical scientist or engineer was white. That pattern is slowly changing, driven locally by the Technology Access Foundation, a nonprofit facilitating the increased participation of students of color in the STEM fields. The program was founded by former Microsoft programmer, Trish Millines Dziko and her partner, adoption social worker Jill Dziko. Early on, the couple pinpointed three barriers preventing people of color from actively engaging in the STEM fields: low expectations, a dearth of role models and a lack of access to STEM-focused education.

TAF is whittling away at those barriers across south King County through teacher training and after-school programs, but perhaps their biggest endeavor is the Technology Access Foundation Academy. Based in Kent, the academy is the only Washington state public school co-managed by a school district and a nonprofit. (In this case, TAF and Federal Way School District.)

The academy follows Federal Way School district guidelines for accepting new students, prioritizing children who live in the neighborhood first, followed by children who live in the district and then children outside the district. Students are selected by lottery since each grade level cannot exceed 50 students.

Crosscut archive image.

TAF Academy students Simran Kaur, Veronica Pederson, Allison Deboar and Mahlet Tiruneh carting their laptops around campus. Photo Credit: Technology Access Foundation.

The school, which supplies every student with a laptop, focuses on experiential, interdisciplinary learning. It also exposes students to STEM industries through guest lectures and field trips to companies like Google and Microsoft. Ninth and tenth graders follow up major research projects with a week off-campus job shadowing or interning at a local business or government office. Tenth graders can also apply to a three-year program with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where they spend two days each month studying biomedical research. Come summer, they take on full-time internships there.

For many students at TAF Academy, school is the only time they’re exposed to STEM professionals or technologies they may not have access to in their own communities. Within the first three years of the academy, TAF says math proficiency scores increased by 42 percent schoolwide and 90 percent of students in its first two graduating classes went to college. In March, TAF Academy was named one of Washington’s most innovative schools by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Since space is limited, TAF is also collaborating with local school districts to help them implement its approach to STEM learning. Already it has been implemented in fifth and sixth grade at Mount View Elementary in West Seattle, and TAF may begin similar work with another school in Snoqualmie this fall.

STEM Strong: The Road Map Project

Crosscut archive image.The Road Map Project has a simple goal: Double the number of kids on track to college in South King County by 2020. Accomplishing this goal isn't so simple however. So the nonprofit spearheading the project, Community Center for Education Results, facilitates a regional network of stakeholders from across the education community in South King County.

Small work groups made up of business leaders, teachers, school districts and parents develop goals and action plans, providing Road Map Project members with a framework for action within their respective school districts or organizations. This kind of regional network lets educators and administrators coordinate efforts and share lessons learned.

In 2012, the seven school districts involved in the Road Map Project were awarded a $40 million federal grant as part of the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top initiative. The grant has three major projects: START Strong, STEM Strong and STAY Strong — focused on early childhood education, STEM learning and college preparedness, respectively.

At right: Students at Bow Lake Elementary School in SeaTac, WA. Photo Credit: Highline Public Schools.

The STEM Strong portion of the grant (around $6.4 million) is funding the implementation of new math software, teacher training and expanding opportunities for students to explore STEM careers — an initiative that has inspired new ways of approaching STEM education.

Crosscut archive image.During class, a digital penguin named Jiji is especially helpful to English language learners (16 percent of South King County students) learning new math concepts. In the Highline school district, students benefit from departmentalization: Instead of staying with one teacher all day, elementary students receive focused instruction from a dedicated science and math teacher — a practice that boosted scores on MAP testing by 6.8 points in five of the most vulnerable schools over the course of the last school year.

At right: A student at Technology, Engineering & Communications High School explains how to solve a math problem in teacher Rattana Sochenda’s class. Photo Credit: Highline Public Schools.

As early as fall 2015, the Road Map Project will launch a web portal to connect students with potential internship and job shadowing opportunities.

“Our neediest students don’t have the social capital to explore different careers beyond the boundaries of their families or communities,” pointed out Cheryl Lydon, STEM Program Manager at Puget Sound Educational Service District, the fiscal agent of the grant.

The initiatives seem to be working. Although the percentage of students taking remedial “pre-college” classes has remained stubbornly high, the percentage of fifth graders meeting science standards went from 45 percent to 58 percent between 2010 and 2013 across the Road Map region.

Year Up Puget Sound

Crosscut archive image.Hard skills, like engineering and science knowledge aren't the only thing keeping low-income students out of the job market. “Many don’t have the soft skills, like critical thinking, working in groups, making timely decisions and learning how to give accurate feedback,” explains Lisa Chin (at right), executive director of the local chapter of Year Up.

These kinds of intangible skills make a difference in a student’s success, and they’re a major part of what Year Up, a national organization, hopes to teach its 18-24-year-old students.

Participants in Year Up Puget Sound go through six months of classroom learning and a six-month internship at a company like Microsoft, Seattle Children’s Hospital or J.P. Morgan Chase to prepare for a career in tech or investment. Their teachers are active professionals, certified as college instructors, and curriculum changes constantly to adapt to industry standards. Students learn everything from investment operations to software quality assurance, while earning credit at Bellevue College and receiving a weekly stipend.

Crosscut archive image.

Year Up students are certainly motivated, but they don't usually have impeccable backgrounds. Many enter with a GED rather than a traditional high school diploma. One student was pregnant and living in a trailer without running water right before starting. Now she’s making around $30 an hour working at a telecommunications company. Another young man, a convicted felon, almost quit Year Up before eventually graduating and landing a job with PopCap Games, the video game company that produces Plants vs. Zombies.

 Sometimes referred to as a career boot camp, Year Up works off a “high expectations, high support” model. Students sign a behavioral contract, agreeing to follow a set of core principles, dress professionally, attend class on time and complete homework. Their behavior is tracked using a point-based system. Weeks of negative points can signal trouble at home, allowing counselors and teachers to step in and offer additional support. Year Up will never kick students out, but some do choose to “fire themselves.”

Above: Year Up Puget Sound students Christine Alvelo and Javion Smith (Class of 2015) restoring a hard drive as quickly as possible during Year Up's professional Olympics event. Photo Credit: Year Up Puget Sound.

“Life happens to our students,” Chin remarked. Some have become homeless, been incarcerated or fallen ill while participating.

One of the biggest limitations of Year Up Puget Sound is space. Although the application process is akin to applying for a competitive position — references, interviews and personal essays included — the Puget Sound program receives about 1,000 applicants every six months. Only 80 students make the cut.

For most though, Year Up Puget Sound pays off. Ninety-two percent of students in the most recent class were attending college or employed at job where they made at least $15.50 per hour within four months of graduation. In Boston, Providence and New York, a 2007 study of Year Up's national impact found that graduates earned 30 percent more yearly than those who'd been waitlisted for the program.

Correction: An earlier version of the article said TAF Academy students go to Fred Hutch twice a week. It's actually twice a month.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Marissa Luck

Marissa Luck is a Tacoma-based writer and editorial intern at Crosscut. She has previously reported on issues of activism, homelessness, and Olympia city news for Works in Progress and Olympia Power & Light. She graduated from The Evergreen State College in 2011, with a BA focused in political economy and international studies. Marissa can be reached on Twitter @marissaluck7 or at