By Tommy Kabiawu, National Society of Black Engineers Pre-College Initiative Chairperson

In the late 1990s, a movement began to address the digital divide that limited opportunities for many across the country. Throughout the nation, black leaders and organizations organized Black Family Technology Awareness Week in 1999 to connect African American youth and adults to their rich heritage in technology in ways that would help them find pathways to the new careers and business opportunities that were on the horizon, and more than 180 organizations hosted events in the first year.

Dr. Deborah Nazon, the assistant provost for Institute diversity at Rensselaer at that time, met the challenge and organized an event on February 2, 1999, on the Rensselaer campus. Black Families Technology Awareness Day started as a way to get underrepresented students and their parents or guardians involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at Rensselaer. Dr. Nazon collaborated with the community of Black professors, staff, and students to demonstrate that “technology can be user-friendly for the Black community.” The first event was well-received by the community, and subsequent events grew in scale and in participation.

What started as a Rensselaer initiative of students, staff, faculty, and alumni became a collaborative effort that now includes local churches and schools, national fraternities and sororities, businesses, and industry leaders. Our participant reach expanded from families in the local Troy community to the entire Capital Region — and even downstate and to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. From 1999 through 2020, the event was held in person. In 2021 and 2022, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rensselaer held the event virtually, which helped expand our reach across the country and around the world.

What makes this event so impactful is the commitment of Rensselaer students who are not much older than some of the K-12 participants in attendance. The Rensselaer students want to engage all the participants and encourage them to celebrate the beauty and wonder of STEM. Their passion for their studies and their accomplishments motivates young students to pursue studies and careers in these fields.

One inspirational example is the story of a former student and Rensselaer alumna, Tahira Reid, who invented a solution to a problem she had growing up — not having enough people to play the popular jump rope game Double Dutch. In her Introduction to Engineering Design class at Rensselaer, Reid invented the automated Double Dutch machine that would allow kids to play Double Dutch any time they wanted. But that’s not all — Reid secured two patents for the machine. Participants in Black Families Technology Awareness Day met Reid and got to experience the invention when she was earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees here at Rensselaer. Today, Dr. Tahira Reid Smith is a professor in mechanical engineering and engineering design at Penn State University and associate department head for inclusive research and education.

There are many examples and many talented Rensselaer students, staff, and faculty who are excited to share their passions and inspire young students to dream big. The 2023 Black Families Technology Awareness Day — “Diversity in STEM” — was sponsored by National Grid, and took place on RPI’s campus on February 4, 2023. This year’s event offered students the opportunity to learn how rockets fly, how plants grow in space, how to code, how bridges work, how architects create, and more. By showcasing science and technology in a fun and interactive way, Rensselaer endeavors to motivate more underrepresented minority students to pursue careers in these fields. Learn more about this year’s event by reading the Times Union article “RPI event aims to get more young people of color in STEM.”

We hope that everyone will join us at next year’s event as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Black Families Technology Awareness Day!