Middlesex 3 and Project LEARN ‘Flip the Script’ on STEM Education

Lowell High School senior Adedayo Sanusi has her sights set on becoming a web developer and is already well on her way. This year, she re-sparked interest in an after-school Girls Who Code club at LHS with support from local nonprofit Project LEARN.

On Nov. 17, Adedayo was among six LHS student leaders passionate about IT and computer science who were invited to network with local industry professionals, and serve as student panelists.

“Flip the Script: An IT Roundtable Discussion,” held at Project LEARN’s Youth Innovation Space, was a collaboration between Project LEARN, Middlesex 3 Coalition, UMass Lowell, Middlesex Community College and MassHire. As an intern for Project LEARN, Adedayo gained firsthand experience in the behind-the-scenes planning of the event.

“Students like Adedayo are so driven to get involved and give back to the community,” said Mira Bookman, Project LEARN’s program director. “For my team and I, ‘Flip the Script’ means uplifting the voices of student leaders, and creating a forum for open dialogue between students, industry professionals, and workforce resources. 

The roundtable was moderated by Lowell High School 2022 Distinguished Alum and Project LEARN board member Siddhi Shah Chhoeng, the head of strategy development for MilliporeSigma.

Kenneth Chap, a LHS senior and co-founder of The Programming Initiative (TPI), asked how representation of Lowell students can be increased in hiring.

Michael Bogdan, president of Avail Project Management, said he hires employees based on experience.

“Internships are key to gaining experience early on,” Bogdan advised. “Companies should do more to strengthen the talent pipeline in a way that serves the needs of their company.”

Sanusi asked the group what challenges they face with diverse hiring.

Sam Francois, a senior advanced research engineer for CommScope in Lowell, said he studied at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where he was among the 2% of the student body who was Black. He said he is also “the only person at work who looks like me.”

“The pools that are being recruited from don’t always reflect the community they’re in,” he said.

Francois added that although an employer should do more, to work through existing affinity groups or diverse professional societies in an effort to make people in those groups more aware of career opportunities.

The Director of Internal Communications at NetScout in Westford, Karen McCloskey, said it can be difficult to attract young diverse candidates to work in the suburbs when they would rather be in Boston or Cambridge. However, NetScout is actively working to get young people interested in their company by hosting hack-a-thons in different locations as a “fun way for us to get to know the students and for them to get to know us.”

When TPI co-founder and LHS junior Ibraheem Amin asked what steps high school students should take to break into the IT field, Chhoeng was quick to respond.

“Having IT knowledge is great,” said Chhoeng, “but it is more about having a desire to continue learning, having creative problem-solving skills, and good time management skills.”

Looking to the future, Victoria Prak, a LHS senior who is a member of both TPI and Girls Who Code, asked about the challenges facing the IT sector in the next five years and how we can work together to address these issues.

Tom O’Donnell, director of UMass Lowell’s iHub, said security, privacy and closing the equity gap on issues like broadband access will continue to be big challenges in IT. Today, more and more discoveries in life sciences are being made through the use of IT tools rather than time working in the research lab, which is why it’s critical to build community connections that strengthen IT education.

Lowell High senior Elyjah Delius, vice president of the school’s chapter of the Business Professionals of America, asked the attendees about pitfalls they faced in their journeys, professionally or personally, from which they learned.

“All of these experiences you have are opportunities to practice the skills that will take you far,” said Stephen Oliver, a professor at Salem State University and Project LEARN board member. “Say one thing every day in class and develop the habit of showing up.”

One of Lowell’s strengths is that it is a tight-knit community. “All of the resources are there,” said LZ Nunn, Project LEARN’s executive director. “Our job is to connect students with them.”