TAF Provides STEM Education Opportunities to Students

By Jessica Lyons

The Seattle-based organization TAF is working to make sure students of color are able to receive a STEM education. recently spoke with TAF Director of Development, Chris Cooper, and Development Officer, Janet Lotawa, about how a STEM education is benefiting these students.

TAF What is TAF's mission? How does the organization work to fill that mission?

Chris Cooper: TAF was started about 15 years ago with a mission to provide children of color STEM education. There really wasn't a thing called STEM education at the time. It came about because Trish Dziko, our founder, had several jobs as a computer programmer in the '70s, '80s and '90s and really felt that when she walked in as an African-American woman, there were very few people of color who were programmers and very few women. She wondered why that was. And when she left Microsoft 17 years ago, she decided to direct her efforts for the remainder of her career toward providing opportunities for kids to have access to the type of education that you often don't get in poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. Can you tell me more about TAF's programs?

CC: We have currently three programs, with a fourth in development.

Our first program is TAF Academy. It's a 6-12 STEM school with a project-based learning model. Kids are given a problem to solve or a topic to cover. Then they do exhibitions to show the work that they've done on whatever project it is. It had its first graduating class last year. About 86% of them went to college. Our main goal is get them to college and put them on to a path to the career that they want.

Our second program is called STEM Up. It is a school program for middle schoolers. The concept there is to get kids in middle school what they did not get in elementary school and what they're not getting in middle school, so that when they hit high school they're up to speed in math, technology, science and engineering so that if they want to, those careers are open to them and they're not behind in those classes.

The final program that we have is called TechStart, and it serves elementary school students. It is done in partnership with the school district, where we go into schools and team-teach STEM and project-based education with the teachers. Our instructors go in and team-teach for three hours a day with those teachers so that the teachers are also getting professional development on how to integrate STEM into their learning plans and how to integrate project-based learning. What's the program that you're in the process of developing?

CC: We are taking all the things that we have learned and creating what we're calling The TAF STEM Institute. It is a professional development program for teachers. It will not just be that you come in for a day or a week, get professional development and then move on. We will actually follow the teachers and they'll be able to communicate with our people. Our hope is that they will come back. (They can) get a refresher, get more ideas and go back into their classroom again. It's a program we started in July with 50 teachers. Why do you feel it's important to focus on STEM education?

CC: When TAF was started, Trish really looked at the issue of why kids of color were not getting the same opportunities to get the high paying jobs that she got when she was at Microsoft. Basically what she found was that kids (of color) are not given access to the same type of STEM education that other kids are. An example is Bill Gates. Bill Gates went to a school where he was given great access to the computer lab, where he got encouragement around his science and mathematics. When they needed something to support the work that he was doing, he had it.

That doesn't happen in schools where free and reduced lunch rates are 85%. You don't get that type of access. You're lucky if there's a computer in the classroom at all and never mind a computer lab with the latest up-to-date stuff.

There were ways for innovation that would allow kids of color to have that type of education, so we really focus on STEM education. But project-based learning can be used in humanities, it can be used in the arts, it can be used in all sorts of things, in social justice. It can be used in many, many different arenas and so that's the impetus for this. How does being exposed to STEM education impact the students you work with?

CC: Kids self-select for our programs, so, for example, with TAF Academy, enrollment is like you would enroll in any other public school. Our goal is that once they get in there, within a year they're at what we call AP level, so they're doing Advanced Placement level work. They're not just performing up to state standards, but they're exceeding state standards.

TAF Academy is very rigorous. That doesn't mean that it's not engaging or fun. What we have found is if you engage kids and you get them motivated about it, the task takes care of itself.

TAF What do you hope that the students you work with take away from the experience?

CC: That they can go to college. That they can have whatever career that they want. That they're not limited by their skin color, by their socioeconomic status, by their family background, by whatever those barriers are. That they have every opportunity to succeed.

STEM education enriches all areas of your life. You see things differently.

Janet Lotawa: We see from our alums that they've felt empowered, that they have the problem-solving skills, that they could interface with people who are doing (STEM) work. It's a big confidence piece.

CC: For example, one of our alums went into recruiting and HR management for a tech company. Certainly her STEM background and her knowledge of computer programming helped her discern what works.

JL: Because of the way we teach with project-based learning, there's a big emphasis on project collaboration, problem-solving, communication, leadership and presentation skills. All of those things are really critical for kids in a 21st century world, where it's a highly globalized work force and those skills are really paramount. How can our readers get involved and help support the work that TAF is doing?

CC: Beyond donating monetarily to the work that we're doing, we're always looking for people to be involved by, for example, coming in and working with kids in classrooms. It can be a commitment of once a week, coming in and being in a classroom for several hours, all the way down to a one-time experience, so for example being a judge for an exhibition. There are a wide range of things that people can get involved in on a volunteer level. How can someone sign up or learn more about the volunteer opportunities?

CC: Call our office at (206) 725-9095. They should ask for Lynda Joko. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our readers about TAF?

CC: We're now looking at how to expand what we do both locally and nationally. For example, we're talking to a group in Detroit about going in and helping some of the inner city schools there. If anybody knows people who want to do this type of work, we're happy to talk to them.

To help support TAF's work, has made a donation to the organization. Find out how you can support them by visiting their website.

Read about how OpenWorld Learning is encouraging students to love to learn while promoting digital literacy.

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