Leidos Serves: Inspiring a new generation of Windy City engineers
“It really wasn't until after living through my 20s that I gained enough perspective to start looking back on life and really appreciate the people and circumstances that helped me progress through my career. I asked myself, 'How can I give back to the next generation as others have done for me?’”
Questions like those drove Aaron Dorsey’s participation in his community. “In Chicago, there are a lot of after-school programs, and a lot of people who pour themselves into the community and younger generations. So it just feels like it’s my turn to do the same because I’m a direct beneficiary, and I want to make sure I benefit others.”
And from that moment, he’s barely taken a breath since.
Dorsey is a member of the Chicago Professional Chapter of National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the Chicago chapter of 100 Black Men, an organization that focuses on youth mentoring. Professional adults from a variety of fields lead group discussions on developmental topics, such as self-esteem, professional etiquette, emotional intelligence, personal branding, and wealth-building. The setting enables boys to ask questions to lawyers, news anchors, engineers, doctors, and other professionals that they might aspire to follow.
“The idea spawned from conversations with me and the president of NSBE, where she suggested to me, ‘The NSBE summer camp programs really get these kids engaged, but when they go back to their schools, they’re seen as nerds or outcasts. They tend to light up when they’re together here and then they kind of fade when they’re back at school.’”
So it was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have some type of program throughout the school year where they could just get together, chill out and nerd out a little bit? Have a safe space for them. Then go on with the rest of their day. That would be a good idea.’
Dorsey’s understanding of the kids he mentors stems from his own experience participating in math and science camps and his high school’s architecture program.
“There's a consistency in math and science that you don't find in other areas. Some things you can finagle, or argue against, or debate whether it’s true or not. But two plus two is always going to be the same here as it is going to be on the other end of the world. If you throw something up, it will always come down, unless you exert other forces on it. There’s a level of truth to what you do. To see that consistently was very gratifying to me.”
It was in third grade that Dorsey decided he wanted to be an engineer. “I remember meeting one of my father's mentors, who had a home workshop and introduced me to the concept of creating something from your imagination. Later on, another friend of my father had an electronics repair store and gave me a record turntable to tinker with. I ended up taking it completely apart and making some gizmo out of the pieces. The gizmo didn't work, but that's around when my mother suggested that I had an interest in engineering.”
His older brother had a Hewlett Packard Navigator running Windows 3.1 in the early 1990s. Dorsey tinkered with it and familiarized himself with computers at a young age. “The fact that you could put together your own computer and connect into this world that was totally virtual, and create not only something that was unlimited by physical space, but now this virtual space, was very fascinating.”
But Dorsey’s enthusiasm wasn’t limited to math and science, “An interesting thing that I see in the South Side of Chicago is a growing affinity for Japanese influences among young African-American males, from video games to anime to art. It seems there's a certain level of individual expression and attention to detail within the culture that speaks to them.”
Dorsey went on to study Technical Japanese Studies while pursuing his degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An uncommon program, Technical Japanese Studies focuses on not only speaking and writing the language, but also communicating on a technical level. Dorsey felt his studies would prepare him for a potential career as a technical specialist representing an American company in the Japanese sector, where he would be able to travel back and forth from the U.S. to Japan.
However, during his junior year, he found himself more interested in the power side of electrical engineering than the programming and computer side, and accepted a position at a large electrical utility right before graduation. Luckily, his technical Japanese studies would not go to waste, as he would soon learn that, "Japanese connects more to mentoring than anything else."
"Speaking Japanese immediately grabs the attention of the students. Funny enough, I find it's often more effective than talking about the average salary for an engineer. Many kids don't readily relate to finances, but they will talk in depth about how their favorite anime character is better than anyone else."
“Recently, I was talking with some of our [Brogrammers] students and I said, ‘Well you know, I speak Japanese.’ And they didn’t believe me so I said 'Hajimemashite, Aaron Dorsey desu. Douzo yoroshiku [How do you do? I am Aaron Dorsey. Nice to meet you].' For the kids, it's an immediate attention grabber. For a moment, it removes any mental blocks between something they're already interested in and someone who looks just like them, which strengthens the possibility of them seeing themselves doing the same thing in the future. I'll segue that moment into my profession and how the STEM field can open opportunities for things that they also like to do.”
It’s not like, ‘No, you’re only math and science, and you can’t do anything else.’ You can still be an artist. You can still play the jazz saxophone if you want to. It’s not the end all, be all.
That’s what Dorsey wants to impress upon the 10 kids involved with Brogrammers, as well as exposing them to programming and technology well before they get to college. He notes for many African-American youth that higher education is the first time they are formally introduced to STEM skills like programming and machining.
“Good math and science grades alone won't prepare you to be successful in today's world. Kids need to be well-versed in key concepts like the engineering design process and computational thinking prior to entering college. For some, that's a steep learning curve to take on freshman year. Ideally, I'd like to ramp up our mentees to a point that they're programming their own mobile apps before they even submit their first college application.”
Although the Brogrammers robotics program started just last fall, the rookie team has already placed in the top 10 in the Chicago South League FIRST competition, among more seasoned teams. In the future, the Brogrammers plan to expand their pilot robotics program to include multiple teams and more STEM topics like 3D printing and mobile app design.