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Innovation Lab

The Next Generation of Tech Talent

The third floor of the Roberts Science Building on the Shaw campus is an ordinary looking structure. But tucked away in a classroom on a long hallway, something special is going on.

Open the door to the Innovation Lab and you might be surprised by what you find. Robots and virtual reality headsets immediately greet any visitor able to look past the constructive clutter of stray computer parts, tools, and half-finished class projects. You’ll also find eager students and their enthusiastic professor, Dr. Lloyd Williams. Williams is head of the computer science program at Shaw, and in his unashamedly biased opinion, the program has the best students on campus. And they’re only getting better.

“We have better students now than we ever have, and a lot of our best students came to Shaw just because they went into the Innovation Lab and it was so cool that they had to come,” Williams says. 

No one can deny the Innovation Lab is cool. Who wouldn’t want to play with robots or create virtual reality programs? Pop on a headset, and you can watch Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech in front of Estey Hall. The program is only a prototype, but it feels almost real, and it’s 100% designed by Shaw undergrads. 

Students are working on building out the program over the summer to add in more campus buildings and details to make the experience more realistic. The ultimate goal is to give campus tours to people hundreds or thousands of miles away – or perhaps to alumni who want to take a walk down memory lane. That’s the beauty of the technology. There’s no reason campus can’t be designed to look like it did in 1973 – or 1873 when Estey Hall was first built. Like everything else in the lab, it’s up to the imagination of the students writing the program. 

One of those students is Darryl Rumph. 

Rumph decided to visit Shaw after former president Tashni-Ann Dubroy spoke at Wake Technical Community College a couple of years ago as a student there. Upon visiting, he fell in love with the Innovation Lab and decided he needed to be at Shaw instead of the large public university he originally planned on attending. Rumph’s coursework and time in the lab have paid off. He’s interning at Cisco this summer. 

“Darryl would’ve done well had he gone to the other school, but he probably wouldn’t have been at Cisco after one year,” said Williams. “He actually did full-stack development right here in the lab. For him to be able to talk about all of that stuff in interviews was huge.” 

Rumph says the hands-on experience he gained in the lab was crucial in helping him land the internship. 

“They wanted to hear about things I’ve built and so I talked about my projects here,” said Rumph. “One of the first things they asked was what I did in the lab and so I got to talk about that and it covers so many different avenues because it covers so many different technologies. This lab has been amazing. The projects I’ve worked on here have been really great for my growth.”

Williams’ goal is to reach students like Darryl before they decide to go somewhere else. Placing students in prestigious internships, high-paying jobs, and top-ranked graduate programs is the name of the game for Williams. He realizes that building a highly ranked computer science program takes time, and you have to build on past success to create momentum. Over the last couple of years, the computer science program has placed students in jobs and internships at places like NASA, the US Department of Homeland Security, Disney, and Intel. They’re also attending highly ranked graduate schools. 

Tiarra Derosa is one of those rock star students that Williams loves to brag about. As a sophomore, Derosa is already taking senior level classes, maintains a 3.8 GPA, and plans to attend the master's program in electrical engineering at North Carolina State University upon graduating. 

As if her academic accomplishments weren’t enough, Derosa is also a star on the Shaw women’s track and field team. She recently broke her own record for shot put distance at Shaw and is currently ranked second in the country in the NCAA DII. If all goes according to plan, she’ll be competing in the shot put for her native Bermuda at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. 

Derosa says she “just needed to get off the island” when she chose to attend Shaw on an athletic scholarship. Upon arriving on campus, she quickly learned about the opportunities available to tech-oriented students. She had always been interested in electronics and was able to supplement her Shaw computer science education with electronics classes at NC State. She spends countless hours every week in the Shaw Innovation Lab working on various projects – some for class and others just for fun. 

Such a grueling schedule balancing academics and athletics would seem to take a toll on a 19-year-old, but Derosa seems to handle it with ease.

“I just try to get as much sleep as possible,” she says jokingly. “Basically you just have to make a schedule and stick to it, and you got to have gaps just in case something comes up. One time our track meet was pushed up when I only had three days to finish a project. So I came back from the track meet and came into the lab later that night to finish up some work. I stayed so late the security guards were trying to kick me out.” 

The importance of the personal relationships they build with faculty and other students is a common theme you will hear when talking to Shaw University computer science students. Rumph said it was a big reason he chose Shaw, especially after seeing a WRAL interview with Dr. Williams and a former student, Lionel Morgan. 

“I wanted a place where I could go and have my talents nurtured and grow,” he said. “At larger schools, you’re treated like a number. At Shaw, the professors invest in you and I could really tell from seeing the interview with Lionel and Dr. Williams.” 

Not only do students find camaraderie in the Innovation Lab, but computer science majors live together in a living-learning center designed specifically for them. As a result, there’s a closeness among the cohort that can’t be found in most programs at Shaw or anywhere else. 

“Seeing these faces all the time is a comforting feeling,” says Jerome Boyce. “If I have any problems I can just knock on a door find someone to talk to.”

“When I first got here, we were forced to get to know each other because we all lived together and had class every day together,” says Jahmir Stokes. “It eases you in and gives you a sense of community.” 

 Unfortunately, the Innovation Lab can only hold so many visitors, and students have to come to Raleigh to visit. But Williams and his students have a solution to this problem. Why not take the innovation lab to aspiring computer scientists? 

Enter the Mobile Innovation Lab – a 40-foot long trailer that Williams purchased from the military after it was done serving its purpose of training soldiers to detect IEDs. It’s chock-full of cameras, flat screens, and LED track lighting, and the students haven’t even started renovating it yet.

Williams sees the trailer as a mobile billboard for the program and the university. 

“This is going to let us take the Innovation Lab all across the state,” he says. “When we show them robots, virtual reality, drones, they’re going to want to come play with that stuff. It would’ve worked on me.” 

Beyond the recruiting effort, the Mobile Innovation Lab also gives Shaw the opportunity to show off an even more valuable resource than robots and virtual reality headsets: black computer scientists. 

“The potential for this to be life-changing for young people is enormous, whether they come to Shaw or not,” says Williams. “This is going to change the lives of young people who see a Shaw student mastering a technology more complicated than anything they’ve ever seen. It’s going to make a lot of kids realize ‘hey, I can do that too.’” 

For Williams, his mission at Shaw goes beyond simply teaching 20-year-olds how to code. He worked as a faculty in residence at Google last summer but returned to Shaw to complete work that he feels is just as important. He’s looking to create social change, and he wants Shaw to be at the forefront of that movement. He sees the Mobile Innovation Lab as another tool to make that happen. 

“My life’s work is bringing more diversity to the tech sector, and this is a tool that has the chance to actually move that needle rather significantly,” he says. 

It’s not just racial diversity that Shaw has the opportunity to address. Recent reports have highlighted the lack of gender equality in the tech industry, and Shaw computer science classrooms have the potential to be a catalyst for change. 

Walk into a computer science classroom and you’ll notice that the male-to-female ratio is skewed heavily toward men, but talk to the students and it’s clear both male and female understand the need to support women trying to make it in tech. 

The Shaw computer science women are particularly optimistic and believe it’s just about letting women know tech is a career option – and a lucrative option at that.

“They need to be exposed to it,” says Derosa. “I believe when women become more aware of these opportunities we’ll see the gender gap start to close.” 

“It’s true there aren’t a lot of women in computer science,” says Neftania Harris, one of Williams’ students. “Some just need to see it being done by other women. I always let them know they can make a lot of money in these careers.” 

“People are going to want to be pioneers for this program,” says Sidney McLaurin, a male computer science student. “I think many women feel restricted in their opportunities. If we create more awareness and show them they can do it, we’ll get more women in the program.” 

Whether it’s the cutting edge technology in the Innovation Lab, the opportunity to reach the next generation of black and female tech talent, the supportive community, or a combination of many factors that attract these students to Shaw, there is a common theme: pride. Shaw computer scientists take a tremendous amount of pride in their program, each other, and themselves, and they’re all excited to be on the ground floor of something big. 

Learn More about the Program  See Pictures of the Lab