A group of teen students huddle around a lab table working on a project in a classroom.
iUrban youth participate in STEM-related activities. Credit: Courtesy of Deena Pierott

In the United States, racial minorities continue to face considerable barriers in participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors and professions.

According to a 2021 Pew Study, Black people are still highly underrepresented in the STEM workforce, making up only 9% of those in the industry, compared to 13% Asian, and 67% white.

From an early age, Black youth are exposed to exclusionary messages about who belongs in the STEM field and are left without positive examples in these spaces.

For many who live in communities where schools are under-resourced, the access to high-quality STEM programs are limited.

Headshot of Deena Pierott, with black and grey braid extensions and dressed in a green paisley blouse against a white backdrop.
Deena Pierott, Founder of iUrban Teen. Credit: Courtesy of Deena Pierott

That is what inspired Deena Pierott to create iUrban Teen, a STEM+ Arts education program that brings together underrepresented teens and young adults for career exploration and mentoring.

She was moved to create the program when she served in a governor-appointed role on the Commission on African Affairs in Washington State and observed the increasing high school dropout rate.

While the target demographic for the program is African American and Latino males, the program is inclusive of all youth who fall within the non-traditional STEM learners category, and has a strong representation of girls as well.

iUrban Teen has plans to expand in Houston with its partnership with Seismique, a new experiential art museum in West Houston’s Village at West Oaks on March 25. The exhibition will include artificial intelligence, interactive learning activities, and a chance to learn about STEM+Arts-related careers.

The Defender spoke with Pierott about this partnership.

Defender: Why did you want to bring iUrban Teen here and what should we be expecting?

Pierott: I moved to Dallas from Seattle because I wanted to expand. In fact, we actually had a launch in Houston right before Hurricane Harvey came. It was highly successful. We had it at Houston Community College. When the hurricane hit, all of my volunteers who were going to help me expand in Houston were displaced and it uprooted everything. Families who were involved kept asking when I would bring it back. Then Seismique (a new experimental art museum) reached out and asked if I wanted to partner and have some events there. That triggered the spark again. We have concurrent workshops, one of them is created by Intel focused on aerospace careers. We’re going to have DNA Testing workshops, and another on circuitry. Artists from Seismique will be going over their framework on their exhibits. There will be parent round tables, tours of the workshop and meetings with me to learn more about iUrban.

Defender: What barriers do these young people face when embarking upon STEM careers. Why don’t we see enough of this in schools?

Pierott: What I see and what I hear from teachers and administrators and the media is that they’re not interested in STEM. They don’t do well in STEM. They are getting these messages early on. That’s the barrier for them. Then, there is the equity issue with some teachers. There are some great teachers out there, but there are some who are going to marginalize our students. That’s what happened to my son and I had to be that advocate for him consistently, especially in the Pacific Northwest where it’s a very highly white-dominated environment. The child might be the only person of color in the classroom. I try to take a deeper dive to find the students who are at risk of dropping out of school. These kids are brilliant; they just haven’t found the spark yet.

Defender: Black and Latino males are an important demographic for you. Why?

Pierott: Yes, that is our target demographic, but we are inclusive. In fact, when I was honored by President Obama for this program back in 2013, there were seven of us being honored for White House Champions of Change for Technology Inclusion. Everyone had programs focused on girls until it got to me to describe my program. I said that I don’t focus on girls, we focus on boys. Truth be told, when people stress about women and girls in STEM, they are usually talking about white girls and women, while our boys of color fall through the cracks. We don’t turn away any child, but you can clearly see who are demographic is. Everything we do is free for families.

Defender: You are a mother of two Black men. Did you develop programming concepts from engaging with them and their experiences in school?

Pierott: My oldest is 38 and my youngest is 28. Raising Black boys is not easy. One of the things that is really important to teach our kids is how to advocate for themselves and how to be comfortable in spaces where no one else looks like them. I can’t fathom another generation going into spaces where they feel they have to code switch. I pretty much developed the programming ideas, except for the sports program. My son came up with that. One of our professional sports team supporters from the Portland Trailblazers reached out and wanted to do some work together. So my son and I brainstormed and came up with the iSports program. I’m looking to partner with the Dallas Cowboys and hopeful partner with a team in Houston, as well.

Defender: Where can people find you?

Pierott: You can learn more about us at www.iurbanteen.org

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...