Amelia Goodman seems like the poster child colleges use to convince newcomers to consider other majors. After some figuring, she switched from Mathematics into Computer Science and added a Gender Studies double major in sophomore year. It’s not just what she studies, though. It’s a niche intersection between tech and women and minorities in tech, but she’s made a lifestyle out of it.
“I like to call it community building,” she says. “It all boils down to that.” Over her four years at Penn, she has contributed to Femme Hacks, the all-female hackathon at Penn, and started her own program called Tech It Out. It started out small, just gathering 50 students from Philly public schools for a day to introduce them to robotics, circuitry, web dev, and scratch programming.
“I really liked that but I think the biggest flaw that I saw was that it was too short. We would introduce these kids to these really awesome things and then they would go home and have no way to continue learning because a lot of schools don’t offer CS and a lot of them don’t have computers at home to work on this.”
Now, Tech It Out continues the one-day crash course to reach the 50 students. Amelia then takes a portion of them to meet every Sunday, for eight Sundays a semester to teach them HTML, CSS, and basic web dev. In the end, they have a fully functioning website about a social issue that they care about.
“They love it.” She says, proudly. And rightly so. Even within the three years, she has been running Tech It Out, she has seen a great deal of success. “A lot of my students come to Femme Hacks, which is the All-Women hackathon that Penn does, It's really great to see them come and get more involved in the tech community. A few of them told me they’ve started STEM clubs at their school.” All of them have indicated an interest in the field of computer science. In a way, Amelia is the person she wishes she had a long time ago. Her goal was to introduce minority students to CS early and say, “You can do this,” and that’s exactly what she is doing.
“I tell this to everyone I see,” she says, sitting up in her seat. “One of our students got into Penn and is going to be a coach for Tech It Out when he comes.” His acceptance and involvement itself is a triumph to her. He had odds stacked against him from the start, coming from one of the less well-funded public schools in the area. “He told me and I cried a little.”
The most stunning example, however, was also one of the most heartbreaking. In the past, groups have come up with websites about heavy topics such as homophobia, drug abuse, racism, and gender inequality. Amelia distinctly remembers one her students who made a website about homelessness. The student making the site later told Amelia she was homeless for a while and normally avoids the memory. Nevertheless, she told her story on the website and asked other students about their experience. Three other students came up to support her. As she finished her website later, she made it a point to come to Amelia and tell her, “this is really empowering”.
“That was sad but also really wonderful,” Amelia said. All the tech focus fell apart then and her soft spot for social issues shined through.
Stories like her’s serve as part of Amelia’s inspiration. The rest of it comes from her team.
“Getting passionate members is the most important thing. My vision of Tech It Out has changed so much for the better because of them. Seeing them interact individually is so valuable. I can’t imagine a club without members that are extremely interested in the field of whatever you’re doing.”
Later, I asked her what change she’d like to see in the world. I already knew the answer: “Equal access to quality education. I think that would cover the most ground.”
I prompted her further: “Given that you want equal, quality education, who do you think is responsible for providing it?”
She was stumped for a bit. “All of us? I can’t even imagine a solution. Companies like Google are funding programs like Tech It Out across the country. I do wish that other companies were following suit.
Someone will say, ‘Oh, so you want to change the entire US education system? Well, that seems extremely overwhelming.’ But if it’s going to a school on Tuesday afternoons to teach history or run experiments with people, that seems a lot more doable.” She paused before adding, “It’s the smaller things that you can do.”
This is the community building she was talking about from the start. Her peers who serve as coaches, the students she continues to empower, and the people she teaches by extension. Standing from her very same intersection, she has figured out a way to turn a series of web dev lectures into a vehicle for grassroots social change making her fit all the more into her role as the poster child.