Angelica Willis: Makerspaces and Student Innovation

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Angelica Willis is a Computer Science major from North Carolina A&T State University. This year she is completing an internship at Apple in Silicon Valley and is also developing a community makerspace at her school set to launch in the Fall. She is another shinning example of student leadership and has a great story to tell!

How did you get started with Computer Science?
When I choose my degree for college I was interested in many things around science and engineering. But I had to make a decision and decided on computer science because I really like problem solving and I see computer science as problem solving on a massive scale. 

“I see computer science as problem solving on a massive scale.”

As a senior are you thinking about grad school?
I know there are a variety of ways to reach my career goals and right now I am considering all the options. I know that I am very interested in machine learning and data science so that will have some part in it. I never want to stop learning, so I also want to learn 2 or 3 more languages and travel to as many countries as possible.

What is your take on entrepreneurship?
When I was 8, I started my own jewelry business and I went to craft fairs to sell my jewelry. In high school I created a graphic design company and created flyers and websites for companies and individuals. I have always had a passion for entrepreneurship and the idea that you can solve a problem and monetize it. Another way I have come to look at it is, entrepreneurship is creating something that didn’t exist before and attaching value to it.

How do you innovate at your school?
I became a University Innovation fellow which is a Stanford initiative for students to create an entrepreneurship ecosystem. This allowed me to bring my passion to my campus in a positive way and become a student leader in the innovation space. I also started a student entrepreneurship and innovation group on campus called Aggie Innovation Network. In this group we bounce ideas off of each other to see how we can create and pursue innovation on campus. We decided to start a makerspace with the goals of making it an interdisciplinary effort across campus. But we also wanted to help the greater Greensboro community as well. As we worked to come up with ideas to help our community we realized the best people to solve social problems are the people facing the challenges. We decided to create the opportunity and resources for these people to solve their own challenges. Coming from that angle we had a whole new perspective.

Starting a community makerspace at your school is a great idea. How did you go about raising money for this venture?
Entrepreneurship is creating something that didn’t exist before and attaching value to it.We really needed to raise some money so we starting entering a number of different community contests for social entrepreneurship. At the last moment we found out about a HBCU Innovation Challenge. We applied and out of 23 teams we were accepted to the finalist round. We went to Detroit and presented a showcase of innovation to four different executives. Our showcase included interviews with prominent people in the STEM community. And at the event we heard from Charles Bolden, who is the director of NASA. We ended up winning the challenge and walked away with $15,000 and iPads. When we got back the people at our school were so impressed we were able to bring together everyone and move forward on the makerspace project, with the library donating the space. This was an important lesson to me to not let anything that was out of my control hinder our progress. There are multiple ways to get where you want to go.

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Can you share more on your plans to use the Makerspace to reach the greater community of Greensboro?
We think of the makerspace as being a command center and the students as the ground troops to put forward these ideas of innovation. As of right now we have two projects in the makerspace.

The best people to solve social problems are the people facing the challenges. We started partnering with community organizations in Greensboro and began to see more of the issues first hand that we could start building solutions for. Greensboro has the highest rate of food insecurity in the nation which means there are not that many opportunities to get fresh food. Greensboro is also number 18 for food obesity in the nation. Which when you think about it, that makes sense. If you don’t have access to grocery stores and fresh food you are eating more unhealthy and processed food. We wanted to see how we could change this with technology.

Our solution is to build an app for high school students. When they come home from school hungry these students are going to their fridge and making a food choice that might not be so healthy. Our app would use computer vision technology to analyze the food in their refrigerator and pantry to pair healthy food items in a fun way. We also tackle the issue of what if instead those healthy options just aren’t there. We have partnered with food banks, local farmer’s market and others companies in the food industry to partner with these students who need healthy food choices. We took this idea to another innovation challenge with UNCF and the whole team traveled to Washington DC where our primary goal was to network and share our ideas with stakeholders. We also attended the national maker faire and picked up even more ideas. Today we are moving forward with the app and the makerspace and hope to launch both of them sometime this October. It feels really fulfilling that I am able to do something that would help real people in my community as well as the students at my school who will participate.

How do you serve the White House as a student ambassador?
My job as a White House student ambassador focuses on HBCUs and innovation and entrepreneurship. President Obama has designated HBCUs as a national treasure to make sure they last for a long time. With this project I have had meetings with my school Chancellor and the Dean of the College of Engineering. My goal is to bring a more interdisciplinary environment so that people are not siloed off into their individual programs and departments. It creates an exciting opportunity to be one of the first people to hear about NSF grants and opportunities for HBCUs. I also participate in calls with the White House and I visited the White House to listen to Chancellors from other schools speak, attend sessions on technology and obtain information on how to get my school more funding and connections to industry partners.

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What is the Code2040 experience like?
Code2040 is a San Francisco based program that recruits African American and Latinx students to work at top tech companies with internships during the summer and attend informative workshops and networking events. The students who go through this program are called Code2040 fellow. Find out more about this program here.
There are many groups of people left out of the round table of this discussion on technology.This summer has been amazing experience and I have learned so much. I have learned everything from how the venture capitalist system works to personal finance for engineers to design thinking. It is also a great environment to be in. I have the chance to work with top engineering professionals in the industry with people who look like me. What I think is the coolest part about the program is that the perspective is not that these companies need diversity or that they want to meet a diversity quota. I really feel the team is passionate about diversity making the world a better place. Code2040 refers to the year 2040 when minorities will be a majority in the United States. Technology will be an even more integral part of our lives then. Currently there are many groups of people left out of the round table of this discussion on technology. Code2040 aims to change that and when you do see a tech company representing the diversity of the US that is powerful. With Code2040 I have learned a lot in general but I have also learned about myself.

What is some advice for those who are seeking out new opportunities?
I believe in working on something small and keep going till it never stops.Don’t be afraid to start small. I am completing an internship at Apple and that is a great opportunity but that wasn’t my first opportunity right out the gate. It started when I was 14 by taking the first opportunity I could which was the Greensboro Math and Science. It was a weekend program and really science focused. I knew it was a great opportunity for someone just starting out and it was also connected to NASA. My next opportunity was a Biomedical engineering summer institute which I went back as a counselor the next year. Through programs like these I strengthened my work ethic and doing well in team environments. I believe in working on something small and keep going till it never stops.

Find Angelica on Twitter!

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Written by:

Cami is about to start her senior year in Mechanical Engineering at Boise State University. She currently holds a Machine Learning internship at HP and is looking to break into industry with Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. After starting with the NASA Aerospace High School Scholars she has also participated in other NASA programs such as Microgravity University Undergraduate Research. She is also a committed and active volunteer for other STEM and Diversity groups and organizations. Stay tuned to see what she does next!

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