Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab program is 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 from all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds a chance to learn about STEM careers and the world of work that exists at Qualcomm and to participate in actual engineering projects.
Francisco Velasco, executive director of the Feaster Charter School in San Diego, is an administrator whose 6th-to-8th-grade students have gone through the program. And Sarah Motsinger is Principal of the STEM Academy at Feaster. We asked them to share their thoughts on Thinkabit Lab and the impact it’s had on both students and faculty.
How did your school and students hear about and become involved with Thinkabit Lab?
FV & SM: We met with Qualcomm’s Senior Director of Staffing Ed Hidalgo and his team in 2013 when the idea of the Thinkabit Lab was in the early planning stages. The team at Qualcomm was looking for some insight from educators on developing a classroom setting, and at the time we were also in the beginning phases of creating our own lab here on our campus. We [and Qualcomm] were assets to each other, as we have the education experts and [Qualcomm has] the engineering experts. We were both working toward the common goal of creating a space for students to have hands-on access to engineering.
Was it a tough sell for any of your students, or were they enthusiastic from the beginning?
FV& SM: At first mention of it, many students didn’t know much or anything at all about engineering or Qualcomm for that matter—many of our teachers did not, either. But once we set foot into the Thinkabit Lab, there was nothing but excitement from students and teachers. They were quickly engaged in hands-on learning from the first moment they entered the lab. The students and teachers leave inspired, motivated, and confident that they have the skills to be engineers!
What kinds of changes did you see take place with your students over the time that they participated?
FV & SM: The biggest challenge for them was engaging in something that they had not done before. The words engineering, Arduino, and coding were foreign to them when they entered the lab for the first time. But throughout the day you can see their confidence level rise; they become excited. And when they leave at the end of the day, their sense of pride for what they accomplished is written on their faces and expressed in the language they use to tell us about their day.
What did they enjoy most about the experience?
FV & SM: They enjoyed seeing their final projects and the feeling of accomplishment for what they did in just a few hours. They begin with an Arduino and a few wires, and end with a project that has moving parts, blinking lights, and is an expression of their creativity.
Have you seen increased interest in STEM classes among your students?
FV & SM: Yes! Our lab is fully functioning here at Feaster. Although we have the luxury of being able to send 6th-to-8th grade students to Qualcomm, we wanted to be able to put all our students in grades K-through-8 through a similar experience here at school and begin to develop their engineering skills at an early age. The students who have the opportunity to go to Qualcomm come back inspired and are taking part in our Maker Mondays in the engineering lab after school, participating on the robotics team, and using their knowledge to push their thinking on projects they are working on in the lab here at school.
Do you have a particular student success story you'd like to share?
FV & SM: We have a 6th-grade student who began the year visiting my office often for behavior referrals. He was defiant, refused to work, was falling far behind his grade level, and headed down a bad path. The day his class visited Qualcomm, we were nervous about how he would conduct himself outside of school and hesitated to send him on the field trip. About an hour after they got there, the teacher texted to tell me that the student was a completely different person in the lab than who he was at school. He was engaged, focused, excited, energetic, and picking up the content faster than most of the other students. His group created a project that required more than one moving part and went above and beyond expectations.
Upon his return to Feaster, he started to spend a lot of extra time in our engineering lab during lunch and after school. He became the first student in the school to learn to code for the 3D printer and printed the first objects. When the pencil sharpener in the teacher’s lounge broke, the engineering teacher gave it to him and he took it apart and fixed it with ease.
He found his niche in engineering. We are so proud of him and the newfound confidence he has in himself.
What would your overall message be to educators and parents about Thinkabit Lab?
FV & SM: The Thinkabit Lab gives students and adults the opportunity to find the engineer in themselves. We can attest to that as we walked into this partnership as novices in terms of engineering.
Watching the students and participating ourselves has given us confidence that it is possible for anyone to learn the skills to work in the engineering field. The Thinkabit Lab inspires, motivates, and teaches kids that there is no limit to what they can do, and that if something in STEM interests them they can do it and be successful.
Qualcomm is a sponsor at the U.S. News STEM Solutions National Leadership Conference, which takes place in San Diego from June 29 to July 1. Qualcomm's Ed Hidalgo, senior director of staffing; Saura Naderi, staff career development specialist; and Dan Sullivan, executive vice president and senior advisor, will all be speaking at the conference.