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 COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers created digital learning environments from scratch, FIRST students used their robotics skills 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 challenges in their communities. And tomorrow, they will be the workforce pushing progress forward.
To realize this tomorrow, we need to address the deep-seated equity issues plaguing our country and education system.
Problems revealed and perpetuated by the pandemic
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 movement igniting; and young people falling behind due to digital deserts and lack of in-person learning.
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 study 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 parents.
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.
Future innovation and invention depend on representation
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 opportunities 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.
A promising path forward
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 Grants, 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 access, 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.