By Etelka Lehoczky

At Amundsen High School on Chicago’s North Side, there are a few things no student is ever without: jeans worn with just the right attitude; a bulging backpack; and, the most important item of all – a cell phone.

The importance of phones in teens’ lives inspired a unique exercise at Amundsen on a recent day in May. The challenge: Design a smartphone app. Divided into groups of 4-6, students sought to envision apps and plan ways to develop them.

Guiding the teens were volunteers from global IT firm Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). How did a multinational company with over 350,000 employees come into the lives of kids at a neighborhood high school? It’s thanks to Chicago-area nonprofit Lumity.

The Amundsen activity is part of Lumity’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Career Readiness Program. After 32 years in operation, Lumity is focusing its mission on providing transformational experiences for at-risk youth that prepare them for lifelong STEM careers.

“Nationally, we know, there are significant unemployment problems for young adults aged 16-24. And it’s much higher among people of color,” says Lumity’s Director of Career Readiness Jack Stonebraker. “We hope to eventually see many of these kids in good STEM careers making a living wage or better and making a difference in their communities.”

Whether or not students decide to pursue high-tech professions, Stonebraker adds, STEM programming will get them excited about learning. That’s because technology is everywhere in their lives.

“With the way these kids are wrapped up in technology, it’s easy to get them interested in studying it,” Stonebraker says. “They’re used to dealing with it, so they thrive when they can creatively explore all the possibilities it presents. Through programs like this one at Amundsen, students learn about jobs they didn’t know existed.”

Teaching the students about those jobs are the volunteers from TCS, who move from group to group throughout the afternoon. Karthikeyan Boopathy, a TCS business analyst, said his own journey to learn about technology-centered careers made him want to pass knowledge along.

“When I was in school, I never knew what was going on in technology or what jobs were available,” he says. “I had to complete my schooling and then figure out what to do next. Now I never want to miss an opportunity to interact with students – to mentor them and help give them some direction.”

One of the main challenges facing STEM proponents is students’ perception that such subjects are particularly difficult. TCS’s Chandrika Shrinivasan says she must frequently counter that assumption.

“A lot of kids think of science and math as being very tough. But I believe once they start enjoying the subjects, it becomes easy for them to understand the basics,” she says. “The major roadblock I see is that when someone’s doing math they don’t know how to apply it to real-life situations. If you bring those kinds of situations in and say, ‘This is how you apply it,’ it becomes easier to comprehend.”

The Amundsen students today are discovering plenty of real-world applications. Besides learning about how apps work, they’re picking up subtler lessons as well, says Amundsen teacher Bridget Welch. Praising TCS’s curriculum for incorporating “social and emotional” elements, she lists some of the skills being developed today: collaborating, troubleshooting an idea, pitching an idea to a client and delivering a presentation to an audience.

That latter skill comes into play once the students have finished developing their apps. Now it’s time to present their ideas to the whole group. Some of the presenters are confident, while others are clearly nervous. The TCS volunteers root for them from the sidelines.

As the presentations conclude, everybody gives the presenters a hand. Shrinivasan claps along and waves goodbye to the students she helped today.

“You could say what I’m doing is selfish because I get so much out of working with these kids,” she says. “Every time I learn something new.”