Inspiring Students to Aspire to Careers they Didn’t Know Existed through the Maker Movement

By Ed Hidalgo

This is the story of how I, along with a team of passionate colleagues at Qualcomm and school administrators and educators in the San Diego community worked together to develop Thinkabit Lab, a maker space, lab and program designed to expose middle-school students to the world of work and have hands-on experiences with science, technology, engineering, art and math.

This piece is part of a series highlighting the work and stories of Makers across the U.S in the run up to National Week of Making, June 17–23, 2016

Students work with computers, Arduino microcontrollers and servos to design their own creations. Photo: Ed Hidalgo

After struggling throughout high school and college with grades and the desire to find where I fit in the world, I was fortunate to eventually land a position in human resources. Finally, I found people who understood and valued the same work values. I found that I could use my interests in working with people to engage in activities like coaching, training and hiring, while honoring the values of cooperation, generosity and service to others. Progress!

Working in human resources at Qualcomm, I met with employees who were seeking internal mobility. Often I noticed that the person was in the right role, not yet ready to move, and they weren’t developing or growing in their role — they were really just focused on movement. I could relate to that feeling because I too had spent time in roles feeling the same way. But in the 21st century world of work, we need to own our careers and movement isn’t always the right next step. Yet many workers don’t know what it means to own their career. So our team started a career counseling practice called Career Explorations — to help employees learn how to manage their careers. Much of the work centered around supporting individuals in clarifying, communicating and aligning their career strengths and aspirations. The foundation of this practice continues to be the combination of high quality assessment combined with coaching. Eight years later the program is still operating at Qualcomm.

Along the way, a group of us started to wonder, what if we adapted these concepts to kids — for example, underserved youth. Could we make an impact in the lives of kids in our community? Our boss, who would often say, “crush the core of your work and you can do other things too”, allowed our volunteer team to start the Hire and Youth and World of Work Programs in collaboration with a local non-profit called the San Diego Workforce Partnership and UC San Diego Extension.

Students present their robotic creations to classmates. Photo: Ed Hidalgo

To build on this initiative, in June of 2013 a five member team, including my then boss and I attended the US News STEM Solutions conference in Austin, TX. Upon returning home from that trip he said, “We need to do something — it’s the right thing to do” and the idea evolved to create a dedicated space at Qualcomm headquarters to provide World of Work exposure, exploration of strengths, interests and values, but also offer a hands on experiences with engineering. After all, our company is made up of 70% engineers. Our foray into empowering students to engage in engineering through Making started with the idea that to understand what you might want to be when you grow up requires you to be able to see and experience what your choices are, whether that be a career in engineering, in science or in my case at the time, HR.

Students end their day with tabletop reflections about their experience at Thinkabit. Photo: Ed Hidalgo
Inspiring our future inventors by combining STEAM and the world of work. Photo: Ed Hidalgo.

To help lead the hands-on engineering experience, we looked beyond Qualcomm to collaborate with an electrical engineer from UC San Diego, Saura Naderi, who had been working with youth in the area to introduce them to engineering and design through projects that combined the arts and electronics, using hardware like Arduino.

In the weeks that followed I had the opportunity to speak with the Superintendent of San Diego Unified School District, Cindy Martin. Several weeks later, Cindy came to Qualcomm to learn more about the project and discuss how we might collaborate with the School District. We also met with the Director of the Career and Technical Education program for the District and talked about how this project aligned with many of their goals, such as enabling students to explore career interests while learning job-related skills.

To help us dream up what the Thinkabit Lab space could look like, we turned to the community and asked San Diego students, parents and teachers to brainstorm ideas for the maker space. The students asked for chairs on wheels, writable surfaces, color and the ability to create. The wanted relevance and control. They wanted to work like grownups.

To help lead the hands-on engineering experience, we looked beyond Qualcomm to collaborate with an electrical engineer from UC San Diego, Saura Naderi, who had been working with youth in the area to introduce them to engineering and design through projects that combined the arts and electronics, using hardware like Arduino.

More than 3,000 unique robotic creations have been designed by middle school students at the Thinkabit Lab. Photo: Ed Hidalgo.

In the weeks that followed I had the opportunity to speak with the Superintendent of San Diego Unified School District, Cindy Martin. Several weeks later, Cindy came to Qualcomm to learn more about the project and discuss how we might collaborate with the School District. We also met with the Director of the Career and Technical Education program for the District and talked about how this project aligned with many of their goals, such as enabling students to explore career interests while learning job-related skills.

To help us dream up what the Thinkabit Lab space could look like, we turned to the community and asked San Diego students, parents and teachers to brainstorm ideas for the maker space. The students asked for chairs on wheels, writable surfaces, color and the ability to create. The wanted relevance and control. They wanted to work like grownups.

Writeable surfaces in our maker space allow students to sketch while they learn. Photo: Ed Hidalgo.

First launched at our San Diego headquarters, the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab is a maker space that is part engineering lab and part art studio that, combined with the immersion to the World of Work, provides middle school students the opportunity to get hands-on experience in STEM activities. Working with Qualcomm educators on circuit boards, coding and robotics, students gain exposure to different types of engineering and non-engineering careers, needed to support technology companies. We are a small team of educators, coaches and makers with a passion for helping students get excited about the world of work and engineering.

Over the next 6 months, 900 students from San Diego Unified and Chula Vista School Districts came through the Thinkabit Lab. Because these were the first students to set foot in the Lab, they also played an important role in providing feedback to us about what they liked and didn’t like about the activities, the space and the experience. A Secondary Science Resource Teacher working for the San Diego Unified School District supported these visits and helped consider the things that were working and what we could improve upon. He continues to work full time in the District supporting science education, the Thinkabit Lab and the development of maker spaces within school and other corporations.

During the 2014–2015 school year, 3,000 students would come to Thinkabit Lab and we received our first national press. Students, teachers and non-profits wanted more of these opportunities. We also hosted 1,500 visitors from companies, universities, foundations and other organizations to the Lab that first year. Students created more than 1,500 robotic creations in that first school year.

Student reflections reveal the emotion of providing real-world experiences for students. Photo: Ed Hidalgo

The Thinkabit Lab has also hosted our Qcamp for Girls in STEM, a program launched in 2014 and developed in collaboration with the Institute of International Education and the University of California, Berkeley, focused on middle school girls. Qcamp aims to inspire 30 girls to stay engaged in STEM as they go through middle school, as it has been proven that it is during this period that girls often lose interest in STEM-related topics. The same 30 Qcampers returned to the program in 2015 and will come back for their third consecutive two-week summer camp in 2016. Throughout the school year we keep connecting to them with other engaging activities to keep their interest high. Preliminary results of a study being run by UC Berkeley, show that Qcamp helps girls develop the dispositions, practices and knowledge that enable success in future STEM learning.

6th grade girls taking part in Robocrafting, combining engineering and art to make robots. Photo: Ed Hidalgo

In less than two years, Thinkabit Lab has hosted and taught more than 6,500 students, from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds across San Diego County, with outstanding results.

At one school, a technology class went from only four girls enrolled in robotics to twelve girls by the second semester after they visited the Thinkabit Lab. The Mayor of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer, has recognized the Lab as a model to increase the exposure to STEM education and careers, and has encouraged other major companies in the region to replicate five labs inspired by it.

We’re hearing about more kids that are interested in engineering and their passion for combining arts and engineering. We believe we are influencing a new generation of makers by inspiring students to careers they never knew existed.

Our commitment to inspire young generations to pursue STEM education goes beyond our campus and San Diego. We know that in order to reach more kids and continue making a long lasting difference in their future, it is necessary to make the Thinkabit Lab accessible to more students.

Before we code, we sync, to create a human circuit and experience the flow of electricity. Photo: Ed Hidalgo

With this in mind, we kicked off the expansion of the Thinkabit Lab initially to three middle schools in San Diego. The expansion is not only about creating a space that resembles the one in our Headquarters, but we also work with the schools to train their teachers, collaborate in the development of their curriculum and share best practices.

Currently, we are also in the process of expanding our Thinkabit Lab to the Washington D.C. area through a collaboration with Virginia Tech’s Department of Engineering Education and School of Education. We are bringing the lab to the Virginia Tech Northern Virginia Center to work with students in that region.

People often ask why Qualcomm created and continues to support this program. When we envision our future, we take for granted that technology will be a fundamental part of it. We talk about more and more things being connected, being smarter and making our lives easier and more productive. Rarely do we step back to think if it could really be possible and how we would be able to get there. The idea that the future of innovation could be at risk doesn’t even cross our minds. However, while STEM jobs are growing nearly twice as fast as non-STEM jobs, it is estimated that approximately 1.2 million of high-skilled positions will be unfilled by 2018 due to a shortage of qualified workers.

Incorporating the arts with engineering inspires students to be makers. Photo: Ed Hidalgo

As a company of inventors and a technology leader, at Qualcomm we know that STEM education is essential for the future of innovation, and we know about the importance of dedicating resources to nurture STEM education at all levels. We also understand that, in order to address the STEM challenges that we are facing today, and in order to continue to advance as an industry and a society overall, the private sector, the government and educators need to work together.

Middle schools are often called the forgotten middle. We need to inspire students at middle school to get excited for STEM in high school. We also hear about business being in the business of writing checks, when education wants business involvement. To that we say, we not only write checks, but we also are deeply engaged in local education.

We know that the Thinkabit Lab model works and that we are tackling the problem at its roots. And, while it might not have an immediate result, we know we are having a meaningful, long-lasting impact, and that the kids that are visiting us today, will be the inventors of tomorrow.

Ed Hidalgo is a Senior Director in Qualcomm’s Government Affairs Department and head of the Thinkabit Lab.

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