Naje Wright, 16, snapped photos of her friends one recent evening as they watched and grooved to their music videos inside a recording studio at Minneapolis' Hope Community.
Other teenagers filled the state-of-the-art computer lab at the Best Buy Teen Tech Center, dabbling in computer coding, digital drawing and other activities using cutting-edge tech tools.
Wright and her peers are learning new technology skills at a growing number of teen tech centers in the Twin Cities and elsewhere established by Best Buy to address disparities in technology education. Nearly 3 million American students don't have access to home internet, according to census data. The U.S. Labor Department projects 80% of jobs will require tech skills by 2020.
Education researchers say the disparities are widespread across the state, and they are calling for a broader effort to combat the digital divide. They say the gap affects all areas of life including health, economic opportunity and civic engagement.
"A lot of people have these pictures in their heads of schools being very wired and that students are using tablets and new technologies in their classrooms, but it's not the reality for a lot of students," said Amanda Sullivan, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota's educational psychology department who has studied educational inequity. "Career and employment options are changing, so this kind of access is critical to learning, engagement and advancement of individuals and communities."
Since the teen tech center at Hope Community opened in 2018, hundreds of youth have received hands-on learning opportunities. For many, those experiences led to paid internships at Best Buy or other partner organizations. Now, there are about 370 teen members who visit the free center after school for 20 hours a week to learn how to develop apps, code computers, operate 3-D printers and use a green screen for video production or digital photography.
"Best Buy gives us everything we need so that we can excel in our dreams," said Wright, a junior at Minneapolis' Patrick Henry High School who's learning photography at the center and interns at Best Buy. "As a woman of color who comes from north Minneapolis, I don't get to have an opportunity like this on a day-to-day basis."
With the help of other teens and adult mentors, they also learn how to create their own music from scratch using a high-quality software recording program that allows them to edit videos and fine-tune their vocals.
The center is one of five sites in the Twin Cities and the 29th of its kind in the nation. The goal, Best Buy says, is to give youth access to high-tech computers and equipment in a safe and interactive space. They also receive leadership opportunities, mentoring and college and career "pathways."
"This is not just about learning technology skills, it's also about leadership-building and forming positive relationships," said Andrew "DHop" Hopkins, Hope Community's director of youth and family engagement. "Technology is just a way to pull them in."
But for leaders in the tech industry, who are adding 1.4 million jobs in the coming years, there's a sense of urgency to curb the skilled-labor shortage and prepare workers with different racial backgrounds and experiences. Best Buy officials say there's still a large proportion of people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are unemployed and not in school. By the end of 2020, the Minnesota-based company plans to open more than 60 centers with the goal of training 1 million youths annually.
North Minneapolis' Summit Academy OIC, Jerry Gamble Boys & Girls Clubs, Plymouth Christian Youth Center and CLUES in St. Paul are among partners that will get a new state-of-the-art tech center. Similar to other centers, the new locations will have several different kinds of technology tools, including high-end camera equipment provided by Canon and makerspace items, such as a T-shirt press and sewing machines.
For some youngsters, it's a rare opportunity.
On a recent evening, the tech-savvy teenagers at Hope Community filled the recording studio, watching several of their award-winning recordings, including a spoken-word video written by and starring Wright.
She and two other north Minneapolis youths were chosen to participate in Best Buy's nationwide awareness campaign. Their creative work has earned local, national and even global accolades.
Adults at Hope Community say the goal is to move youth from being tech consumers to developers simply by tapping their interest.
"It's fine if kids want to record or play games," Hopkins said. "But they have to put in the hours to learn the whole entire process from start to finish so they can be self-sufficient in what they do."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.