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Tonya Groover attracted attention as a budding entrepreneur when she was still a teenager. Now, as a Pitt alumnus and computer scientist, she’s addressing a growing national problem with help from today’s teens.

Smart Drive

Elaine Vitone

Entrepreneur of the year Tonya Groover (in red), on the high-tech highway to success with her TLI students (Tom Altany photo)

The noontime sun shines relentlessly on a July day as 25 teenagers enter a campus classroom full of fluorescent light.

Most other teens are enjoying the sweet rhythms of summer, swimming at neighborhood pools, hanging out with friends, sleeping late. But these students have chosen to do something more, a six-week something that’s likely to change the course of their lives.

Inside the room, the youths meet their new classmates—a cluster of 10-inch tall, Lego-like robots. The mechanical creatures have tiny, orange binocular-eyes that seem wide open to everything. Their gray-and-white plastic torsos are about twice the size of iPods. Their black rubber wheels are poised to move.

“It looks like the robot from that movie,” one student says as he takes a closer look. “It’s Johnny Five,” he says, referring to the mechanical star of Short Circuit, a Hollywood film in which a robot goes haywire in an electrical storm and begins to act as though it’s human.

The teens are here on a field trip to learn about robotics, a highly specialized field of computer science. Their task: Design a computer program to give robots the technological DNA that will bring them to life and have them automatically move through a maze.

In small groups, the students write and download their programs to the robots, then watch them wheel forward, turn, and respond to obstacles en route. At first, the room is quiet as the techies-in-training practice basic maneuvers. But soon, things get lively. Robots bang into walls and spin in circles. They back up, then lurch forward. The room hums with excited voices and the whir of tiny motors. It’s not your typical classroom. It’s a Robo Rally, but it’s a lot more than that, too.

The students troubleshoot, going back to their computers, trying new codes to stop robots from running into walls. A teacher moves among them, offering encouragement. She’s a tall, confident 22-year-old in a blue pinstriped suit and heels. “Try, try again,” she says. “We’re the programmers, remember? The computer does what we tell it to do.” She recites this as a kind of credo, because she knows something the students haven’t yet learned. Everything they do is about taking control, creating one’s ideal world, settling for nothing less.

A little more than two years ago, when she was still in her teens, Tonya Groover—the smartly dressed, confident teacher, who has auburn-tipped locks and a ready smile—founded the Technology Leadership Institute (TLI), a program that encourages high school students from underrepresented groups to pursue careers in computer science and technology. At the time, Groover was a Pitt junior majoring in computer science. Since then, she has found herself making her credo-like announcements often, because she passionately believes in what she’s saying and doing.

At its core, TLI is about teaching math and computer science skills to high school students. But TLI is also about unlearning—debugging these teens’ mindsets to challenge some of the negative ways they’ve been programmed to see themselves.

“They just get caught in that trap where they start to believe the stereotypes,” Groover explains later. “I tell them, ‘Don’t listen to that. Set yourself apart.’”

When it comes to standing out from the crowd, Groover has always been a quick study. Growing up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Penn Hills, she was a self-starter from childhood, selling lemonade, candy, and Tupperware to neighbors. She grew up watching her businessman father tinker with technology in his spare time, collecting all the latest gadgets and building computers at home. With his encouragement and her mother’s support, the curious youngster thrived. “I wanted to know: How does this thing work, and how can I get it to do what I want it to do?” Groover says, then laughs. Before she entered her teens, she was creating her own computer address books and password-protecting her files—her first forays into programming. Soon she was hooked, staying up all night creating Web pages. She even began tutoring friends and classmates in computer science.

At age 16, she attended a Biz Camp at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center offered by the National Foundation of Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). There she learned, among other things, how to write a business plan, which won her an honorable mention from the foundation. But it was as a Pitt freshman—fueled by an NFTE advanced business seminar in New York City—that the seeds of TLI were planted.

In fall 2003, Groover enrolled in the University’s computer science bachelor’s degree program. She’d taken computer programming in high school, where she was the only African American in the classroom. It didn’t bother her. She’d grown up with her classmates and knew them well. “In college, though, it’s different,” she says. “When you’re going through so many changes in a whole new environment, and you don’t see anyone who looks like you, it’s difficult. You feel like an outsider.”

Her Pitt classes in sociology taught her to observe her surroundings more closely and caused her to wonder: Why weren’t there more students like her in the department, or in computer science programs in general?

In her sophomore year, she wrote a proposal for a research project investigating just that. It won the Moyé Information Technology Initiative Summer Research Experience, a grant awarded by Pitt’s Department of Computer Science and established by Alfred Moyé (A&S ’68G), a University trustee and former Pitt vice chancellor of student affairs and chemistry professor. Groover researched the digital divide in educational institutions and later developed her proposal for TLI. Moyé created the grant to support underrepresented students in technology research. He also recognized the larger potential of Groover’s proposal to enrich the lives and careers of many students.

Moyé says that computer science is an essential industry for the future, and there are too few Americans seeking the field as a career. “Ms. Groover’s program is critical,” he says. “It exposes young people to computer science and gives them an outlook on and preparation for the hard work it’s going to take to be included in a future where they can have a better quality of life. It’s just that simple.”

For her research project, Groover began canvassing computer science course offerings in western Pennsylvania’s inner-city schools. She discovered that, in most cases, curricula were limited to basic skills like word processing and simple programming. There was nothing that would significantly prepare students for university-level computer science courses. She also found that students in low-income areas weren’t getting exposure to computer science outside of school, either. An out-of-reach $1,000 price tag for a weeklong workshop was not uncommon. She also analyzed national statistics on computer science enrollments and degrees earned, which confirmed just how vastly disconnected many students are from the high-tech industry.

After completing her research, Groover submitted a report of her findings. The report included a recommendation—the creation of a six-week summer camp that would give underrepresented teens a head start on building the skills they’d need to get into competitive computer science programs. Her conclusions were so convincing that Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences and its Department of Computer Science, along with the School of Information Sciences agreed to provide financial support for her vision. TLI was launched in fall 2005, and this year Groover was honored as NFTE’s Entrepreneur of the Year and received the Oppenheimer Funds’ Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

During the past two summers, her institute has enrolled more than 50 students at no cost to the students or their families. Essentially, for six weeks, TLIers walk in the shoes of college students in a bit of role-playing à la Groover. They study in computer science department classrooms and eat lunch in the Cathedral of Learning and in restaurants around Oakland. They carry Panther Cards for their meals and thick binders for their portfolios, which showcase what they learn—aspects of programming, Web design, mathematics, and topics in information and computer science. The curriculum is designed by computer science faculty and taught by undergraduates and graduate students who are majoring in computer science and/or mathematics.

Hannibal Hopson (left) and Omar Curges work together to program a robot during a TLI field trip. (Photo courtesy Tonya Groover.)  

Activities include building computers using Pitt’s lab facilities and trekking on a campus scavenger hunt, guided by Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. Field trips and presentations by professionals help to expose the high school students to the breadth of possibilities available. Workshops prepare them for college and the world beyond, with sessions on study skills, financial aid, job interviewing, and more. They also apply their new skills in community service-learning projects that benefit local neighborhoods.

One former student, Tyrone Harris, entered Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock University as a computer science major this fall. Denise Jones, an 11th grader and budding Web designer, attended TLI for the second time this summer. She plans to major in computer science in college.

Other TLI alumni are also pursuing possibilities in technology—something they hadn’t considered an option before.

Groover’s initial benefactor, Moyé, says he’s thrilled to be part of what she has accomplished: “TLI is achieving bigger things than what would have been possible by simply giving one student a research experience.”

In that sense, Groover is a quintessential entrepreneur, expanding options and possibilities for others while also achieving her own bountiful goals.

Back at the Robo Rally—on a field trip to neighboring Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute—TLI students have learned enough to guide their robots into a cardboard maze. Soon, piloted by their teenage programmers, all of the robots are taking turns heading through the corridors. Though this is a math-and-logic activity, there’s a lot of room for creativity. Each group of teens takes a different approach. Some robots turn while in motion, gliding in S’s. Some stop, then turn crisply, like soldiers on parade. Some use sensors to react to their environment, while others rely on their programmers’ careful measurements of each length of the maze.

After working diligently at debugging the software, students Omar Curges and Hannibal Hopson are part of the first group whose robot navigates the entire maze successfully. They celebrate with a high five.

The two students wait, watching the other groups’ working at programming, cheering them on. They notice one robot making a few quick turns, faking left before pivoting right. “It’s breakdancing,” Hopson says, which gives him an idea. He heads back to his computer for one more programming task, just for the fun of it.

Groover, meanwhile, is part of the action, too, doling out words of encouragement. More of her credo. Try your best. Always go for the next level. In this and every other class she teaches, her rapport with the students shows. She keeps them engaged, makes them laugh.

When someone is having a little too much fun, she can stop them with a look. They respect and admire her, and the feeling is mutual. Groover says TLI is her “life’s work,” and she follows her own advice—she wants to do more and to do even better. This fall, she began a master’s degree program at Pitt in computer science. Next stop—a PhD.

As the students pack up to leave, Hopson is ready to show off his latest program. “Check it out—he’s got beats,” he says, as classmates gather to watch. On a table near the door, his robot spins this way and that, moving to the rhythm of a newly downloaded track that is pulsing from the robot’s built-in speakers.

For Hopson, it’s not merely a one-time performance on a bright summer afternoon. It’s the real thing, a lasting lesson. He is a programmer.

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