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Empowering Our Youth Through Computer Science

When MSU identified a lack of qualified computer science applicants, the Information Technology Empowerment Center was created to foster a new generation of IT enthusiasts in Lansing. Here's how ITEC and an array of community partners are making it happen.
Empowerment is a bold word; it's a dramatic concept. And none of those terms – drama, boldness or empowerment – are ones young students often associate with math or science. They didn't used to, at least. Lansing's Information Technology Empowerment Center, or ITEC, has been working to change all that.
"We're all about confidence and competence," says ITEC Executive Director Kirk Riley. "It's not good enough to be able to do but find it boring. We're doing it through innovative, IT-based methods."
What that means is fifth graders building robots with Legos, and third graders learning to design video games during a variety of afterschool programs throughout Lansing. Though that may seem nearly impossible to even well-educated adults who view robotics and programming as highly specialized skills, ITEC is defying that mind frame with the help of software such as Kodu, a Microsoft product that allows beginning game designers to create projects through simple coding.
Though ITEC doesn't turn away students of any socioeconomic demographic, the program focuses on at-risk students in the Lansing area. All students qualifying as H.O.P.E. scholars are invited to join, with the aim of exciting these young minds in the STEM areas.  
"We're setting up a learning environment where kids are free to explore," Riley says. "They are free to explore at their own pace. There is no answer key in the ITEC classroom. Instead there is creativity and ideas."
In order to empower kids to love math and science, however, ITEC first empowered themselves by building partnerships with organizations citywide, such as the YMCA, Capital Area District Library, Impression 5 and more.
"Partnerships are important be cause we work all over town," says Riley. "Our partners do a lot of what is needed to enable ITEC to succeed. If we had to pay for every computer lab and every snack, our cost would be a lot higher."
ITEC, in fact, began as a partnership. The organization launched in 2007 after Michigan State University identified a shortage of qualified computer science applicants. The idea behind ITEC was, instead of retraining college students and professionals in the field, to instill computer science competency and enthusiasm in students from a young age.
"These were real issues for [MSU]," says Riley of the talent shortage, "but the real motivator in creating ITEC was to do the right thing by Lansing youth, and that was to give them a leg up in IT and STEM careers. And yet, the economic development portion of ITEC has drawn in a lot of partners."
Six years later, about 250 students are enrolled in ITEC courses, and Riley expects 400 to participate in summer programming. For most of that time, ITEC classes have taken place in the venues of their partners, such as the YMCA and Lansing Schools. And though meeting kids where they already are is an important part of ITEC's mission, when the non-profit opened an official headquarters in 2011, it helped to further establish their identity in the community.
" We kind of put down roots here," Riley says of the Foster Community Center location. "It helps a lot to be able to have people come here. It's the ITEC."  
New digs isn't the only thing changing at the ever-evolving organization. ITEC is constantly developing new partnerships and new programs, such as iMath, a new web-based math-tutoring program rolled out in late 2012, which recently received a $20,000 grant from Jackson National Community Fund and in-kind donations from Hungry Howie’s of Lansing and Dean Transportation.
ITEC is clearly growing within Lansing, but the sky is the limit for the organization. ITEC is already active in three Flint locations, and Riley hopes kids elsewhere in Michigan will soon be able to benefit from the innovative programming.
"We have a model that works at multiple locations," he says. "We're growing by leaps and bounds. There is a lot of demand for what we offer. Entities approach us, rather than the other way around."
The kids really say it best. As Joshua, a 15-year-old ITEC student says in an ITEC video, "Hand-on learning, it's all real and right there, and it's something you can show to another person. You can't show someone your imagination."
Joshua is one of all sorts of kids in the video, smiling and showing off what they've made with their newfound knowledge of technology. And while creating a generation of well-prepared engineers and computer scientists was the impetus for ITEC, Riley says true success is measured through the enthusiasm of each student as he or she demonstrates his or her video game or robot.
"We can test them to see if they know their times tables or coordinates," he says. "It's another thing to say that, by changing their attitudes, they can then go on to more success." 

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