Why We’re Supporting Youth STEM Initiatives (and You Should Too)

Learn more about why businesses need to invest more in STEM education – and start even earlier than college.

A robot created by students for a FIRST Robotics competition
by Tom Boehm
November 09, 2021

Each year, Zebra hosts an annual event for our internal and external software developers, a diverse community of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) professionals who write the code behind the applications our customers use on or with Zebra devices. 

Before these developers entered the global workforce, they were students, of course. And both developers and students are critically important and valuable to Zebra (and should be to every company in the technology industry).

That’s why, for the first time ever, we’re thrilled to have offered the Zebra developer and technical communities an opportunity to support FIRST®  (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) during our annual worldwide developers’ conference, DevCon, hosted from November 3-5, 2021.

FIRST is a global robotics community that inspires young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators. Zebra has worked with FIRST in the U.S. for over 20 years and globally since 2019, sponsoring tournaments, serving as mentors, and contributing technology like our Zebra MotionWorks™ real-time location solution (RTLS) to give real-time visibility into game play during competitions.

On National STEM/STEAM Day, which is celebrated today in the U.S., we honor everyone around the globe who has dedicated their career to STEM. They’re responsible for giving us an in-depth understanding of the world around us – building bridges and planes, powering countries and homes, and continuously innovating for a better, brighter future.

So, how do we support STEM students and professionals? And why is it so important? Read on to find out:

STEM Organizations Help Bring Gender Diversity to STEM Careers 

We know inclusion and diversity have many benefits in the workplace. One of the most notable is the wide array of valuable perspectives brought to each task, decision, and project. Problem solving is driven by a mix of learned experiences, acquired skillsets and individual assessments. Yet, most STEM organizations still lack diversity.

While women have been entering the STEM workforce at increasing rates, they still remain underrepresented, making up only 27% in 2019. As we support women in STEM with corporate inclusion and diversity initiatives, we need to look outside of our businesses and support younger girls as well. 

In a longitudinal study now in its seventh year, it was found that female FIRST participants are 1.9 times more likely to have significantly stronger outcomes in STEM attitudes, knowledge and interests compared to their peers who don’t participate. Further, 51% of female FIRST alumni declared an engineering major in their fourth year of college, compared to just 14% of their female peers who never participated.

When we can foster a culture that everyone wants to be a part of, regardless of gender, we can start gleaning the benefits of a diverse workforce. That starts with telling young girls that they, too, can be scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. Organizations like FIRST show the world’s girls that STEM is exciting. They can build things in environments that are collaborative, fun, innovative and powerful – both as students and into adulthood.

Robin West, Data Services Engineering Lead for Zebra and FIRST volunteer, has seen this firsthand.

“One of the most memorable experiences I have from judging a competition was seeing all the teams work together – especially one of the all-girls teams,” Robin said. “They huddled together like they were sharing secrets. Then, they turned to us judges and presented like it was a solemn occasion and not like they had been giggling away just seconds before. They excelled in the teamwork challenge, they hit a homerun with their idea and execution, and they placed third overall among roughly 30 teams. It was great to see they took it seriously while still having fun with it.”

Today’s STEM Students are Tomorrow’s STEM Professionals

Recruiting STEM talent is difficult, to say the least. For one, there are more STEM jobs than workers with STEM skills. And when you have more than 12 requisitions for every unemployed eligible worker, recruiting is extremely competitive. 

By the time STEM-oriented students graduate, many have multiple job offers lined up, from both local startups and international behemoths. Every company should be thinking about how it can differentiate itself from its competitors and peers. 

“There are fewer and fewer opportunities for people who don’t understand technology and are not able to keep pace with it,” Robin added. “Supporting an organization like FIRST means kids are both learning technology and learning to enjoy working with technology. This is especially critical for girls who tend to move away from having fun with tech in the upper grades.”

So, how can we have a better chance of recruiting the best talent for our businesses? We must show up. It’s no secret that STEM organizations need to be present at college job fairs, hackathons and the like. Candidates are also far more likely to apply to work with a company they’ve at least heard of before, and studies show that brand awareness in children can occur as early as three years old

This research tells us that if we’re just getting our name in front of students when they’re in or graduating from college, we’re already too late. 

FIRST offers three tiers of programming for students ages 4-18. Apart from increasing brand recognition in this age range, it’s important to promote STEM in early childhood education because young minds are the most malleable, enabling the establishment of lifelong thinking skills.

When you or your business mentor FIRST teams, volunteer at FIRST competitions, and sponsor the organization via cash or technology contributions, the kids notice – and they’ll remember. Just ask us, as we proudly employ a few FIRST alumni ourselves! 

We Need to Prevent the STEM Skills Gap from Widening

Although median annual wages are much higher for STEM occupations than non-STEM jobs, employers are still struggling to find skilled workers to fill open requisitions. In 2018, it was estimated that 2.4 million STEM jobs went unfilled. Further, the vast majority of students graduating college with a STEM degree are not ultimately working STEM jobs.

With nine million STEM-related jobs set to be available by next year, every technology company needs to be thinking about how to garner more student interest in the field. 

FIRST is poised to address this challenge. Its evidence-based programs feature strategies known to increase student interest and engagement in STEM, including opportunities for hands-on learning, working as a team on real-life problems, and celebrations where students can showcase what they’ve learned and created.

“Zebra has a responsibility as a technology company to help offer the next generation an opportunity to excel, but we can’t do it alone,” Robin stresses. “A little bit of your time and experience goes a long way.”

A key FIRST philosophy is Coopertition®, which means displaying unqualified kindness and respect in the face of fierce competition. It means competing always but assisting and enabling others when we can.

In the equally fierce technology industry, let’s all commit to a bit of healthy Coopertition by supporting FIRST and similar organizations – it’ll serve us all greatly both now and in the future. 

Join Us!

Interested in learning more about how you can support FIRST® Inspires? Consider making a cash contribution here or read about various volunteer opportunities here. We are eager to see more of our developers, customers, partners and fellow tech innovators at regional competitions on Long Island, in the Midwest and in Taiwan in 2022!

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Tom Boehm
Tom Boehm has over 35 years of engineering experience. In his current software engineering role, he is focused on fulfilling customer requests for unique new features within Zebra’s Data Capture Solutions (DCS) Custom Products group.
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