Holding the Line: How Zebra is Helping High School Students Maintain Access to STEM Education Programs During the Pandemic

Zebra employees in the United States hosted a three-part virtual tech camp for FIRST® Inspires and STEM students in January to help close the learning gap.

A Zebra employee gives a virtual demo to high school students during the U.S. tech camps in early 2021.
by Therese Van Ryne
February 09, 2021

From graduation ceremonies to socializing during lunch periods, both big and small career development opportunities have become scarce for students over the last year as the COVID-19 pandemic made physical distancing and virtual learning the new normal for many.

Yet, onsite educational experiences are critical in positioning students for futures in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). They help build the social and technical skills that facilitate personal and professional growth and allow for collaborative innovation, even if conceptual.

In a study funded by the National Science Foundation, it was revealed that one out of every 13 STEM undergraduates in the U.S. has delayed graduation due to the pandemic, while 18% of master’s students and a staggering 35% of doctoral students followed suit. The reason? Restricted access to academic facilities and resources topped the list (62%), with delayed completion of coursework or degree-required projects coming in second (41%).

And though there were other personal contributing factors to such decisions (such as health and financial concerns), it is clear that access to laboratories, workshops, internships and similar resources is crucial to sustained advancement in school, work and life.

That’s why Zebra employees in Taiwan hosted a tech camp for FIRST® (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition students on our campus in late 2020. Taiwan has experienced more relaxed pandemic-related restrictions than most countries due to its low infection rates, and we had an opportunity to bring students and mentors together for an engaging day of technology demos and discussions.

In the U.S., the FIRST competition season for high school students has been in limbo for months, and most after-school STEM clubs and summer internships were cancelled in 2020. When we realized these programs would not be able to restart in early 2021 as hoped, we felt we had a responsibility to continue to provide enriching programming to our next generation of builders, doers and problem solvers.

We want to help students ideate their paths forward regardless of COVID-19 circumstances. We also understand that some of these circumstances are not actually isolated to a pandemic – think lack of inspiration, barriers to entry for higher education and lack of exposure to career environments.

So, we set course to build a virtual “tech camp” curriculum focused on three key areas:

  1. fostering a continuous learning mindset;
  2. preparing for STEM careers; and
  3. learning how STEM concepts are applied in the real world.

The Power of Curiosity

To start off with some much-needed inspiration fuel, we invited Shawn Harris, Director of Sales for Zebra’s SmartSight™ solution, to talk about how continuous learning has equipped him to succeed at Zebra, in the technology industry and in life. Going into his self-described “rabbit holes” and coming out versed in programming languages, machine learning, systems thinking and other concepts enables him to see the future of tech before it gets here.

From tinkering as a child to joining the Army National Guard to founding a fashion company, Shawn has spent his life entertaining his curiosities. This mindset, paired with being a principled thinker and a master of managing priorities, has led Shawn to a place where he can continue innovating freely and passionately. Luckily for us, it’s at Zebra.

Shawn also spent time discussing how practicing just two skills, math and science, can create a path to being an engineer. Agriculture, architecture, aerospace and other industries reliant on math- and science-based problem-solving help make the world go ’round.

In fact, the message that Shawn relays to students and mentees of all ages and backgrounds is that “being passionately curious will lead to success,” no matter where life ultimately takes you.

Preparing for STEM Careers

Figuring out what to do after high school can feel like one of the most difficult decisions a person makes in their entire life. Zoe Gordon, Senior Early Careers Program Manager for Zebra, helped students understand that it doesn’t have to be.

Starting your career or seeking higher education? Trade school or university? Computer science or structural engineering? High school graduates will be faced with many choices, but life is not a multiple-choice question, and there isn’t one “right” answer.

Zoe reminded students that no matter what decision they make, it should be one that allows for continuous learning. She encouraged them to keep gaining experience in the STEM fields and maximize their exposure to thought leaders who will challenge their thinking and facilitate their intellectual growth. Getting involved in clubs, engaging in research projects, taking classes to enrich skills, and networking with peers will prove to be highly beneficial no matter the initial course a student pursues.

Zoe continued with tips on how to find internships and jobs, how to write a winning resume, and how to interview like a professional. She also invited three Zebra employees, all former Zebra interns, to serve on a panel and take questions from students interested in learning about each of their unique paths to an established career.

From FIRST to the Forefront

Conceptual learning is foundational to STEM but can be difficult to grasp by nature. Many students may ask themselves at some point in their studies, “What’s the point?”

At Zebra, we’re in a unique and influential position to answer that question. We help nurses give the right medications in the right dosage to the right patient at the right time. We enable delivery services to deliver critical packages where they’re needed most. We aid retailers in stocking up essential goods before there’s a shortage. The list goes on.

There’s no better place to see where the rubber meets the road than in a Zebra Experience Center (ZEC). So, we brought students along on a live virtual tour of our ZEC at our headquarters in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

We showed students how the very same concepts they apply in FIRST and STEM classes, like RFID and intelligent automation, are used in everyday life. Students learned where to spot our solutions, including mobile computers, printers, scanners and more, in hospitals, storefronts, warehouses and even on screen while watching the Super Bowl.

A Final Note

Today, students might be building robots for competition. Tomorrow, they may be curing cancer. Making this bridge clear to our next generation will continue to be one of our priorities this year and beyond. Early research suggests the impact of the pandemic will be longstanding for all STEM students, so we want to give them the support they need to flourish and innovate both inside and outside the classroom.

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Therese Van Ryne
Therese Van Ryne is Global Director of PR, Thought Leadership and Advocacy for Zebra Technologies. One of PR News’ 2019 Top Women in PR, Therese also has experience as a journalist, editor and producer, reporting nightly from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
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