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FIRST and Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab: How Qualcomm supports STEM education

In 2013, 35% of American 12th graders were failing math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Prowess 2013. Meanwhile, other studies indicate that around 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors switch to other subjects—or fail to graduate. In a 2012 analysis of student performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U.S. placed 27th out of 34 countries in math performance and 20th in science performance. And perhaps most disturbing, even though STEM jobs are expected to grow at a rate nearly double that of other fields, around 1.2 million STEM jobs will be unfilled by 2018 because of a lack of applicable skills in our workforce.

We consider the work we’re doing at Thinkabit and with FIRST to be a positively disruptive force for education. Our programs are giving young students hands-on experience with real-world STEM projects, and teaching them the practical importance of 21st-century skills.

Ed Hidalgo

Engineers are the past, present, and future of innovation in  this country and the world, and sadly, many kids who might thrive in a STEM-related career don’t even know what an engineer does.

The problem is that we are putting our children into what could be called an education pipeline—and we expect them to come out the other end ready to enter the professional world. That model just isn’t working.

Maybe it’s time to start changing the language and start talking about education as a freeway. Students still have a road to follow, but there are on ramps and off ramps; in other words, they have choices. They’re not just following the same path as everyone else.

Students have to be in charge of their careers, and we have to teach them how to do that.

Qualcomm is firmly committed to reaching out to our community and using our culture and tradition of invention to make a difference, particularly for kids who may not be getting everything they need from traditional education. At the same time, educators are also seeking opportunities to learn about the world of work from employers so they can prepare students’ for the future of work, regardless of what those jobs may be. Within Qualcomm companies overall, we have more engineer employees than employees from other disciplines. So we believe it’s important that we increase the awareness of the great future that STEM careers can represent. Not every child will be interested in a STEM career, but more likely than not, the majority of careers of the future will require some level of STEM capability.

That’s why we started the Thinkabit Lab program. It’s a combination laboratory, makerspace, and classroom, designed for middle school students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. We work closely with their teachers and administrators to give students a chance to learn about STEM careers and to participate in actual engineering projects.

The two main components of the Thinkabit experience are the classroom, where students from all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds are exposed to the world of work that exists at Qualcomm—and of course, the lab. Student-centered language will resonate with educators, but it’s the student-centered lab where children are able to experience a hands-on engineering work environment. An engineer leads the kids through creative and collaborative electronic experiments, and they’re introduced to equipment like Arduino, LEDs, servos, resisters, power supplies, and circuits. They’re inspired to create, to innovate, and collaborate on projects, limited only by their imaginations and the time they spend there.

We work very closely with many San Diego county school districts. Thinkabit Lab is free for participating schools (and we even provide lunch!). Approximately 3,000 students have participated in the program during this school year, creating over 950 projects, and thousands of lines of code have been written.

Qualcomm has also been a supporter of the FIRST Robotics Competition since 2007. In FIRST, student teams compete to build and program their own robots. Like Thinkabit Lab, our support of FIRST is part of our commitment to fostering future inventors, and to supporting and inspiring young people to engage in STEM programs. Some of our senior managers serve as advisors and judges, and our employees volunteer as team mentors and judges.

At Qualcomm, we have essentially enabled an industry. We’ve provided the toolsets that inventors need to realize their own ideas, and start their own companies. Now we’re doing our part to bring innovation and collaboration to positively impact STEM education. Technology is becoming an essential component of more careers than ever before, and students need to be exposed to it early on, and attain some level of proficiency with technology—because it truly will be a foundational 21st century skill.

We consider the work we’re doing at Thinkabit and with FIRST to be a positively disruptive force for education. Our programs are giving young students hands-on experience with real-world STEM projects, and teaching them the practical importance of 21st-century skills. Programs like Thinkabit and FIRST Robotics are changing people’s lives. So many kids will be able to approach the opportunities in their futures because of innovative programs like these. It’s an amazing initiative to be a part of.

Opinions expressed in the content posted here are the personal opinions of the original authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Qualcomm Incorporated or its subsidiaries ("Qualcomm"). Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries. The content is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to be an endorsement or representation by Qualcomm or any other party. This site may also provide links or references to non-Qualcomm sites and resources. Qualcomm makes no representations, warranties, or other commitments whatsoever about any non-Qualcomm sites or third-party resources that may be referenced, accessible from, or linked to this site.