Vicki Mealer-Burke and Janell N. Catlin
Published 2 years ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: August de Richelieu/Pexels
For those who cultivate innovation and invention, it is our responsibility to provide opportunity for those historically marginalized. Our society must take the harsh realizations uncovered by the pandemic and use them to fuel ambition and drive, to ensure access and opportunity for every student.
To say the last year has been challenging is an understatement. What started out
as a new decade full of opportunity was quickly turned upside down: Companies
were forced to rethink business operations; many parents became part-time
teachers while also navigating working from home; and students entered a new
world of distance learning far from classmates and normalcy.
Despite a long list of rapid and difficult changes, we also witnessed innovative
minds and creative problem-solving come front and center in response to the
Teachers created digital learning environments from scratch,
FIRST students used their robotics
to support their communities, wireless communications technology and access
became critical, and scientists and the global health ecosystem collaborated to
create and distribute vaccines.
Reflecting on these major breakthroughs and inspiring stories, we can see with
such clarity that the path ahead will be driven by our future scientists,
engineers and technologists. Today, these are the students that are stepping up
to tackle the biggest
in their communities. And tomorrow, they will be the workforce pushing progress
To realize this tomorrow, we need to address the deep-seated equity issues
plaguing our country and education system.
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For those who cultivate innovation and invention — and provide space for ideas
and young people to prosper — it is our responsibility to provide opportunity
for those historically marginalized. Exposed and perpetuated by the pandemic, we
witnessed inequities across the United States: underserved communities
challenged to find essential needs suchas clean water, nutritious food and
medical supplies; a global racial justice
igniting; and young people falling behind due to digital deserts and lack of
Inequities in internet and technology access disproportionately impact Black,
Latinx, Indigenous and low-income families. We knew this long before the
pandemic; but major setbacks caused by nationwide shutdowns have made it even
more apparent, especially across K-12 education. A Pew Research Center
found that at the height of the pandemic, 36 percent of low-income parents
reported that their children could not complete their schoolwork because of
limited resources and access to technology such as computers and tablets,
compared to 14 percent of middle-income parents and 4 percent of upper-income
Youth from underserved communities are critical to future innovation, and we
cannot ignore these disparities. Without providing all students with access to
opportunity and instilling a culture of innovation, we drastically diminish the
potential of a diverse and inclusive workforce — and by extension, will fail to
solve our society’s toughest and most crucial problems.
Equity in innovation brings unique ideas, perspectives, life experiences, and
skillsets that allow creativity to blossom and thrive. We must have the faces
and voices of all people represented in science, technology, engineering, and
math (STEM), but achieving this will be challenging. Though on the rise, women
account for only 29 percent of the science and engineering US
workforce; and Black,
Latinx and other historically marginalized communities also continue to be
underrepresented. For this to change, it is essential that we start with making
meaningful STEM education and developmental
available and accessible to all students.
We all have a powerful role to play. Organizations should focus efforts on
building and empowering today’s youth and providing spaces for equity and
inclusion to flourish. Through this, industries can ensure there is a pipeline
of diverse and inclusive engineering talent that has the skills necessary to
keep them on the leading edge of technology.
These examples demonstrate the undeniable power of representation in innovation,
but there is still significant work to be done. It is vitally important for our
society to take the harsh realizations uncovered by this pandemic and use them
to fuel ambition and drive to ensure access and opportunity for every student.
Together, we have collaborated on a few strategies from our learnings during
COVID-19 to help others take the first step to broaden representation in STEM:
Collaboration with STEM organizations: To inspire students from a young
age and help them visualize themselves in future STEM careers, companies
must support students in their local communities through mentorship
opportunities; funding technology and tools for student use; and developing
paid internship programs for undergraduate students. Through
Qualcomm’s collaboration on the FIRST STEM
Equity Community Innovation
we provide funding to students not just for robot-building equipment; but
also professional development for coaches, food for team meetings,
transportation, and other access barriers critical to building sustainable
youth STEM programs. Initiatives such as this help provide new ways for
youth — many of whom have no family or acquaintances who work in STEM fields
nor obvious pathways to science and engineering — to access hands-on STEM
programming in hard-to-reach communities. This year, FIRST and Qualcomm
have also collaborated on the FIRST Innovation Challenge, where FIRST
robotics teams globally are identifying equity challenges in their community
and building solutions to create meaningful change.
Development of direct connections to students and families to understand
what students need in their communities and schools in order to create
inclusive pathways to STEM, and to engage with families to understand the
support that parents need so that they can continue to support their child’s
efforts to excel in STEM. Working with organizations including the Boys
and Girls Clubs of America, Girls Inc. and the Girl Scouts of
America can significantly increase reach and impact to diverse youth.
Promotion of representation and allyship awareness to help staff
understand how their actions can create equity and inclusion for the next
generation. Everyone can play a role in student success and workforce
development through mentorship, but it’s a role we must actively opt into.
The more we can recognize and celebrate female, Black, Latinx and other
historically marginalized groups in STEM fields, the more we show young
people that if they see it, they can be it.
As like-minded organizations work together to set a promising path forward, we
need effort and emphasis from the whole collective to cement lasting change. And
we have an amazing opportunity to do so. We can drive invention forward by
re-inventing our approaches to education equality and
and properly addressing existing inequities across science and technology. The
future starts today, and we have an obligation to empower the students that will
get us there.
Published May 17, 2021 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Vicki Mealer-Burke is VP and Chief Diversity Officer at Qualcomm Incorporated — a multinational manufacturer of semiconductors, software, and services related to wireless technology.
Janell Catlin is Director of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at FIRST — the world’s leading youth-serving nonprofit advancing STEM education.