Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Dean Harris: technologist teaching computer science to Philly high schoolers

Every Saturday morning since January, a group of about 17 Philadelphia teenagers have been trooping over to a Temple University computer lab to learn about computer science. WHAT IT TAKES to be a black tech entrepreneur: The organization that helped Dean Harris first instruct kids is hosting a special Philly Tech Week lunchtime event. WHEN: […]

Every Saturday morning since January, a group of about 17 Philadelphia teenagers have been trooping over to a Temple University computer lab to learn about computer science.

WHAT IT TAKES to be a black tech entrepreneur:

The organization that helped Dean Harris first instruct kids is hosting a special Philly Tech Week lunchtime event.

  • WHEN: Thursday, April 26, 2012, 12-1pm
  • WHAT: Panel discussion on challenges and strategy
  • WHERE: WHYY, 150 N. 6th Street, Old City
  • FREE RSVP
  • Light lunch provided by Saxbys

The students, mostly from area charter and magnet schools, are largely college-bound and predictably excited to learn, say those involved. So it’s surprising that their teacher, Dean Harris, sees himself as unlikely role model, he told Technically Philly, but his track record as an innovative digital electronics technologist suggests otherwise.

So does the apparent respect of the teens, who are giving up sleep and Saturday morning cartoons to be in class with him and his co-teachers, leading Java Presenter and DRUPAL expert Tariq Hook, mechanical engineer L Dollio Durant and Harris’s son, Askia Harris.

To explain why Harris still sounds a little surprised when he says that he teaches Computer Science 101, despite the fact that he’s taught eight classes so far, begins when Harris was a teenager in Philadelphia in the 1970s, about the same age as some of his students.

His path — from lost kid to student to heavy technologist to teacher — is instructive in the city’s battle for digital access illustrated by STEM education.

A younger Dean Harris with a different era of technology.

With an absent father and a mother working a second shift, Harris says he had a lot of time and space to do what teenagers stereotypically do. Were it not for an influential friend headed to study technology at Devry University in Chicago, Harris says his life could have turned out a bit differently.

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“Everything was osmosis,” said Harris. “The universe just pushed me there. I was a child of the 1960s and 1970s, a young black teenager just kind of finding my way, learning life on life’s terms.”

As it happened, Harris decided to find his way by following his friend from Philadelphia to Chicago, enrolling in Devry’s three-year engineering program. Though he left Devry early to pursue training and an entry level position at IBM, the decision ultimately put him on a career path that took him from IBM, to a project management role at DuPont to Bell Laboratories, the famed telephony research laboratory in Murray Hill, New Jersey — all while he was still in his twenties.

“Bell Labs: they had everything, but what they didn’t have early on was people who had a good handle of both hardware and software,” said Harris. “That was my in.”

Harris was able to lead projects at DuPont and gain an edge over some of the leading researchers in the field of telephony because, as he tells it, he was a rebel, but a teachable one. Though he was trained in engineering, Harris says he learned to program on a Heathkit, a pre-Microsoft version of the personal computer that he got access to thanks to a rebellious coworker at IBM who took Harris under his wing.

“I got saturated at IBM as a young teenager and that’s how I got into this whole digital electronics thing,” said Harris. “Of course I was young and impressionable and I’ve always been a rebel free spirit.”

After DuPont, Harris told Technically Philly, he became interested in the theory of computer science, as well, teaching himself from books and joining hobby clubs in the area.

At Bell Labs, he put that intensity to use building test equipment for a mini-computer called an application processor the Lab was building. Harris says that within three months he was leading the project.

Harris stayed at Bell Labs for about a decade — his longest tenure at one job throughout his career — working on various technologies, including digital PBX systems, early ethernet, AT&T’s PCs, modems and core processors.

By his 30’s and the 1990s, Harris had moved to Toshiba Labs, where he helped Toshiba develop the world’s first DVD premastering systems in partnership with Warner Brothers. The project won a technical Emmy Award in 1998.

In less than two decades, Harris’s work had covered telephony, computing,and video technology.

“All the stuff you see in Comcast? Basically all of that came from those places [where I worked],” said Harris. “Call me Triple Play.”

To Harris, the evolution of his computer science class is yet another link in the chain of serendipitous events he uses to tell his life story.

Dean Harris and other mentors with his computer science class.

Harris met Michelle Kuilan-Martin, the cofounder of minority youth mentorship program What It Takes Foundation, after a bad split with a business partner over a video production and consulting business they’d cofounded called Front Porch Video. Harris moved his side of the business to a spot at 4th and South streets and Kuilan-Martin happened to have the office space downstairs.

The What It Takes Foundation, which Kuilan-Martin cofounded with her husband Anthony Martin, connects young black males with high profile black male mentors and role models. Harris says Kuilan-Martin asked him to participate in a speaking event at Carver High School, an engineering and science magnet school.

“I tried to tell my story, in simple terms, and the kids came up to me and said, ‘I want to do what you do,'” Harris said. “So I said, ‘Let me come back and talk to y’all and let me see what we can do.”

Harris stayed in touch with the Carver students through What It Takes and went back to the school to talk to the students and their teacher about what they’d like to learn from him. Harris says he was a little shy to get involved with all of the bureaucracy of trying to set up a class through the school, so Kuilan-Martin put him in touch with Dr. Jamie Bracey of Pennsylvania Math Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA), a Temple initiative that runs engineering programs for urban youth.

Bracey helped Harris set up his computer science class through MESA, which helped Harris find class space in Temple’s College of Engineering building.

Harris says building the curriculum wasn’t too hard because he thinks computer science really could be taught in ninth through twelfth grade.

“I’ve mentored a lot of students in computer science and one of of the problems is that a lot of stuff could be easily done in high school,” said Harris. ” The problem is that you are waiting too long and there are too many prerequisites. The fewer prerequisites, the more productive a person becomes early on.”

Harris, who says he bases his class off of the Stanford CS 101 curriculum, is teaching the students JavaScript and showing them how to program for Android mobile devices.

His students range in age from 7th grade to seniors in high school, as well as a couple adults who he says found out about the class and wanted to join. Many of the students come from Carver, but Harris says he has students from the Harambee Institute, Central High School and other local schools, as well.

Harris says one of his students is now simultaneously taking CS 101 at Penn and has already built his own app. Harris wants all of his students to take a college level computer science class next year, but first he is having the student reverse engineer his application for the rest of the class so “the children will know how to go from idea to phone.”

“To me, that’s how most urban children learn — they learn by doing,” said Harris. ” Everything that they do well is learned by doing, whether it’s basketball or watching a guy gut a house. I can throw in the theory later.”

Aside from pushing his students to further their computer science exposure, Harris says he and Bracey are hoping to scale his class up by training high school teachers to teach computer science basics by incorporating it into the topics they are already teaching. The goal is to support the National Science Foundation and National Science Digital Library initiative, CS 10K, a national STEM-oriented program to add 10,000 computer science high school teachers in U.S. schools by 2015.

“I could take any algebra teacher and make them a Java 101 teacher, with enough tools behind it. I have an ecosystem of people who are in the field who could help out,” said Harris. “The bottom line is that it wouldn’t take much in three years to train a couple hundred local CS 101 teachers.”

Harris and MESA are hoping to secure NSF funding to support the work, as well. Harris says that this effort will be his new project for the next three years.

Harris’s technological expertise and network has put him in a position to architect a project that could go from a Saturday morning computer science class for curious Philly teens to one with important implications for STEM education throughout Philadelphia, as well as on a national scale.

Harris, who’s 54 and lives between the Logan and Olney sections of the city, says there’s a pervasive idea that it’s an impossible task to bring minority children up to speed in education. Whether you call it serendipity or talent, he’s living proof that conception is a myth.

“I want to break the myth,” said Harris.

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