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By Chandra Wu and Peggy Gray, STEM teacher and youth advocate, FIRST Washington.
We have all seen stats about the future of our state’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workforce: STEM jobs are expected to continue to multiply to 1.8 million openings in 20181. We understand that our interconnected global marketplace and emerging tech challenges mandate that our workforce have high-quality STEM skills in order to compete. Collectively we are alarmed at the statistic that 45,000 jobs in Washington State will go unfilled due to the lack of qualified candidates 2 and that Washington businesses will have to look outside the state for future workforce.
There’s an organization in Washington State that is helping to solve this problem. FIRST (For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Washington inspires young people ages 6-18 to be science and technology leaders, by engaging youth in the sport of science, technology, and teamwork, through fun and competitive robotics programs and competitions. The organization has exciting mentor-based programs building science, technology, engineering, and math skills (STEM), inspiring innovation, and fostering well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership. It is the largest afterschool STEM program in Washington. Forty-four percent of Washington State school districts have at least one FIRST program. Take a few minutes to learn about one of the teams, the SOTABots Story.
Youth in the FIRST programs show statistically significant gains in interest in STEM. Participants are 50 percent more likely to go to college, and twice as likely to major in a STEM field. Roughly, 40 percent of FIRST participants come from Title 1 schools, which have a higher percentage of disadvantaged kids. Twenty-three percent of our participants are minority youth. Through its Girl’s FIRST Initiative, the organization has increased the number of girls participating to 42 percent across our 1,140 afterschool programs (our goal is 50 percent). In every community, we are pro-actively working to engage youth who come from the most challenging circumstances. Our vision is to bring FIRST programs to every community and school across Washington.
I founded an FRC (First Robotics Competition) team with FIRST in 2016 because I believed that young adults who immigrated into the U.S. and we’re still learning the English Language should have full access to STEM educational opportunities. I felt our Seattle World School students5, who face many challenges to access to secondary and higher STEM education, should enjoy the hands-on learning that robotics offers in 21st-century career skills. It was a risk that paid off for our small team. Team members report learning English faster as they collaborate with other high school teams, which is by far, their favorite opportunity afforded by FIRST. The ability to communicate and collaborate is a foundational Learning & Innovation skillset of the 21st Century Skills Framework4 being rolled out across Washington State that is especially valuable for English Language Learning (ELL) students. The framework also outlines the Life & Career skills, that are
exemplified by FIRST such as flexibility, leadership, and cross-cultural skills. Today, FRC 6503 team Iron Dragon is excited to prepare for their 3rd competition season, armed with more knowledge about how to access STEM careers and technical fields. They would like to see more ELL students, especially “newcomers” who arrive after 14 years of age, to get involved in a FIRST program that supports ELL learning and leadership. Many people do not know that it can take 4-6 years of English instruction to gain language fluency, and these students enjoy hands-on approaches to learning and communicating while their language is still developing. And of course, the hands-on, 21st century-skills approach to project-based learning while competing in FIRST programs, is also a lot of fun.
Our founder believes that twenty years from now one of our alumni might cure Alzheimer’s or cancer, or build an engine that does not pollute. In our programs, kids have the hardest fun of their lives. “I feel like I can go anywhere or do anything because of this program.” Our youth enjoy rare opportunities to see engineering in action and develop their career skills even before entering STEM fields in secondary education. FIRST students may have more knowledge about applied skills and opportunities real-world jobs even before attending college or trade schools, as well as an understanding of how rewarding these fields can be.