The Zebra-sponsored FIRST Robotics team
By Deanna Self | December 14, 2022

How Can We Show the Next Generation More Meaningful STEM Experiences?

A good first step is to identify existing technical—and life—skills and show them how they translate to STEM careers.

“We have the opportunity to create the future and decide what it’s like,” said Mae Jemison, a former NASA astronaut, engineer, physician and the first Black woman to travel into space.

I, too, had a similar thought as Mae Jemison after I came across an article a colleague had written about some work they were doing with a local STEM (science technology, engineering and mathematics) school. I thought to myself, “If I’m trying to create a warehouse of the future, why am I not working and learning directly from my potential future employees?” 

As I started to dig deeper into it, and as I connected directly with the school, I realized the opportunity to partner with these students was much greater than I had anticipated, and the work that was started with the school had merely scratched the surface.  

As the Global Skills Gap Widens, the Criticality of Local Action Increases

When it comes to STEM education, there’s no debate: today’s students need to learn STEM skills to be excited about and qualified for the jobs of the future. Opportunities in STEM-related fields are projected to grow by over 10% by 2031, double the rate of all occupations (5.3%) in the U.S. And, globally, it’s estimated that, by 2025, 85 million jobs may shift such that responsibilities are divided between humans and machines, creating the new jobs structures of tomorrow. In fact, 97 million new roles for people may emerge as a result of this shift, all requiring extensive STEM skills. (To put that last stat in perspective, Vietnam’s current population is 97 million people. Imagine all of them needing STEM skills to be able to earn a living.)

In other words, the future looks bright for students who are prepared for a STEM-related career. But so many are not. Only 20% of U.S. high school graduates are prepared for college-level coursework in STEM majors. And currently, federal investment in diversifying STEM education and opportunity focuses on higher education, with less funding dedicated to K-12 students, leaving a big window of missed opportunity. This is just in the U.S., mind you. Students in many other countries around the world are struggling to access the STEM education they need to qualify for millions of open jobs, which is an even bigger problem given that there is no such thing as “local” recruitment for STEM careers anymore. Talent pools don’t have geographic boundaries.  And STEM skills aren’t just necessary to become an engineer, roboticist, material scientist, or other science/tech professional. 

Look inside your organization: how technologically powered have your operations become? Are there really any jobs that don't require some level of technology expertise – or at least tech familiarity? Probably not anymore. That's why I am calling upon you to really think about the value you assign to STEM education and the role you (as an individual and organization) are playing to provide that education to students of all ages. 

Together, we must do better to prepare today's students with the skills that will allow them to thrive in tomorrow's workforce, world and society.

Now, I know there has been an increased focus on STEM education and opportunities in and out of the classroom the last several decades. Plenty of professionals take the time to speak to students, company- sponsored mentorships are growing, and there are more programs that offer hands-on STEM experiences as extracurricular activities. However, it’s been slow progress attracting more students – especially women and students from underserved communities – to STEM careers. Clearly, we’re missing something. 

As Einstein famously said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It’s time we change our approach. 

So, what can we do? 

Let’s start with questioning what we’re doing and why as individuals and organizations:  

  • How do we ensure the time and money being allocated toward STEM education are being used in a way that positively – and measurably – shapes students’ futures? 

  • What does real inspiration and education look like? How do we make students want to go home and learn more about STEM topics or (depending on their age/status) apply for a job in a STEM field? 

  • How can we help educate and enlighten all students—especially female and underserved students – on the doors that STEM can open? Better yet, how can we become the ones who open those doors? 

  • How do we move past incremental STEM education efforts and establish a new standard where STEM careers are guaranteed no matter who you are rather than just a “possibility” for the future?

Turn Passion into Action

Every time I mention my recent involvement in establishing a partnership with a STEM school in an underserved community, the reaction from colleagues is consistently, “That sounds amazing—I want to help.” But, while the genuine passion, interest, and intent are there, when it comes time to execute, many disappear. 

So, it begs the question: 

“If this is important to people—and it is—why don’t individuals and organizations as a whole do more to make it a priority?”

Why don’t companies weave it into their long-term strategies and provide a path for interested employees to take a STEM journey with local schools? Teams can commit to support a STEM school – or multiple schools – throughout the year and build real, lasting, and meaningful relationships with students. Even better, they can choose to bring STEM education into schools that otherwise wouldn’t have the means to offer it, either due to budget limitations, a lack of access to STEM experts, or curriculum restrictions.

No matter how organizations decide to assume the role of “STEM partner,” they need to provide a structure that makes it easy for employees to act on their passions – to help spread the magic of STEM to students in a personal, ongoing, and real-life way.

At Zebra, education and STEM are two of our philanthropic focus areas. Teams and individuals globally have made a great impact by providing mentorship to students as a grassroots initiative for decades. Over the past couple years, we’ve been working on taking it further – end-to-end, cross-functionally and comprehensively. We’re aligning talent, technology donations and our time to drive deeper and wider relationships with those we serve. Meanwhile, we’re leveraging best practices, key learnings and common assets to allow for ease of replication in new target communities. Then, our local teams use their perspectives and expertise to tailor these approaches to the unique needs of each community, school, and student.

 A Word of Advice: Put Life Skills before STEM Skills

Figuring out life is hard. In fact, most of us “adults” are still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up. 

Only 27% of college graduates end up working in a field related to their major. So, perhaps the bigger opportunity for us to help students find their path to a STEM-related career is to focus our time and energy on helping them acquire and hone their soft skills – the skills developed through exposure, opportunities and experience. 

Many of the schools that need help preparing students for the future are in underserved and underrepresented communities, whose residents may not have the exposure or access to the resources and people beyond their communities. As one student reminded me recently, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

But there is so much students from underserved communities do know. And perhaps we can help them recognize how many of the life skills they’ve acquired without even realizing it —being strategic, thinking outside of the box, or whatever their “superpower” skill may be – are all transferrable to careers. We can show them that there is a place, and a real need, for them in the corporate world. They need to realize that they have what it takes within them, and sometimes that requires a change in perspective. When we step up to provide STEM education with life skills development at the forefront, we’re offering a path to help build and grow their knowledge so they can apply their skills in a different way.

When you think about it, these are all the things that we do as a company to drive success – and you probably do too. So, why wouldn’t we just start teaching people these practices earlier in life? I’d bet that would be more impactful to a student than a resume building class, as it would help them figure out how to create their own paths in life, no matter how they end up applying the additional technical STEM skills they acquire.

Bringing It Full Circle 

The opportunity for an organization to give back to the community through schools and other STEM education programs brings countless benefits. I know this personally because, at Zebra, we have the privilege to build relationships with students all around the world. We’re fortunate to have the opportunity to increase their awareness of the types of soft and technical skills that will be in high demand when they’re ready to enter the workforce, whether that’s next month or in the next decade. We also get to help them apply the practical life skills they’re learning in school today to the real-world challenges and opportunities they face. It’s almost more rewarding to see them win at life than it is to hear that they want to be a roboticist, software engineer or material scientist when they grow up.

What’s interesting though is that we have received even more from these students than perhaps we’ve given them – at least I have. I have learned as much (if not more) from the students I’ve met as they probably have from me. It’s incredible to watch how their minds work, see the opportunities and obstacles they identify, and truly understand the skill gaps that exist in what they’re learning today versus what an organization expects them to have when they apply for a job. 

So, if you’re not sure if it’s “worth it” to expand your role in students’ STEM education, remember, the insight they will share with you will pay dividends. When a company understands what today’s youth find important, it can align its employment and benefits offerings to attract new talent. 

At Zebra, we hope some of the students we’ve partnered with over the years through our STEM education efforts will eventually come full circle and bring the perspectives from the experiences they’ve had back into our organization – either as they finish high school and college or perhaps while they’re still in school. We have internship programs across all business functions and in all regions of the world. We also offer entry-level career opportunities with college tuition reimbursement for those who want a different type of “on-the-job training” experience. 

We know that the more we invest in students, the better off we will all be. But we know we are just one organization. Though we are nearly 10,000+ strong, we need 10,000 times as many people assuming “STEM partner” roles if we really want to lead today’s youth to a better future – a future in which STEM education is accessible, and standard, in every school so every student is prepared for the real world.

So, I challenge you to seek out the opportunity in your organization and to partner with the local schools and start making a difference in the lives of the students and within your company.  

And if you’re curious about how I’m approaching STEM education – or Zebra is structuring its STEM education efforts – feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. I’d be happy to share more about what I’ve learned so that you can start your teaching experience on the right foot.


Editor’s Note

Zebra recently teamed up with Chicago Technology Academy (ChiTech) as part of its Corporate Ambassador Program, as well as Lakeview High School, another STEM based Chicago school. Zebra employees will work students from both schools throughout the school year, on and off campus, to teach lessons each month/quarter that either aligns to the curriculum being taught in class or to focus on other practical and soft skills that aide in their development. Zebras will also offer mentorship to the students and potential apprenticeships over the summer. 

In fact, Deanna recently hosted the first “Zebra needs YOUth” event with a group of Lakeview students, which entailed them coming to our headquarters to learn all about Zebra and the many applications of STEM we apply each and every day. Deanna and team also discussed the importance of inclusion and diversity as part of a company’s culture and why it should matter to them. She must be doing something right because the students can’t wait to come back for the next session.

Zebra also has STEM education partnerships around the world, working with high school students to build awareness of careers in STEM and supporting schools with business skill development for the future. 

This December, we hosted students from nine high schools at our Taipei Design Center in Taiwan. These students, who represent eight FIRST Robotics Competition teams, were invited to demonstrate to Zebra employees the robots they built and programmed. Each team also created a presentation to showcase their technical and project management skills, fundraising and recruitment tactics, English as a second language and more. To further encourage innovation and skills development, we awarded cash prizes to top teams to help cover their registration fees in the upcoming competition season.

And, through our work with a local UK-based charity, aptly named The Education Business Partnership, we have hosted more than 100 high school students at our Zebra Experience Centre (ZEC) in Bourne End. In 2023, we will have a cross-school innovation event, sponsored by Zebra, with finals hosted at the ZEC. Our amazing Zebra colleagues have also volunteered at career events in our local schools and gained valuable insights from the future generation of talent too.  Let’s not forget the early years education and the impact that having exposure to STEM at an early age can have on a child’s longer-term prospects. Our work with the National Literacy Trust in the UK has also paid attention to those who are underserved in our communities. Again, through hosting events at our ZEC, we have managed to capture the imaginations of young children by showcasing our technologies and the jobs our solutions help to enable. Zippy was clearly a hit, too.

If you’d like to learn more about the other STEM education programs Zebra is supporting, check out these posts:

Corporate Social Responsibility, Best Practices, Leadership, Inside Zebra Nation,
Deanna Self
Deanna Self

Deanna Self is a supply chain executive with Zebra Technologies, responsible for the oversight and management of Zebra’s largest order fulfillment distribution center. She is an industry veteran with over 25 years of in-depth knowledge and experience in sales, operations, and information technologies. Deanna’s passion and focus is to transform business with new and sustainable solutions that drive efficiency and customer satisfaction. 

Prior to Zebra, Deanna spent over two decades in the food and beverage industry. She started out owning and operating her own distributorship to most recently as an IT executive for Nestle USA.  

She holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Queen’s University of Charlotte and was most recently named one of Supply and Demand Chain Executive 2021 Pros to Know. She is also a winner for Supply and Demand Chain Executive 2021 Women of Supply Chain award.   

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