Women make up half the U.S. workforce, but only 14 percent of engineers, a fraction that’s been trending down. For engineering and technology-heavy companies like Qualcomm, this is a problem — one that it’s willing to invest in to solve.
“You really need to engage girls early,” said Shawn Covell, vice president of government affairs for Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM), at the firm’s Thinkabit Lab, which aims to curb the outflow of females and engage young students of both genders in STEM fields.
“There’s research that shows that 74 percent of middle-school girls are interested in [science, technology, engineering and math], but, for example when you get to the university level, maybe 0.3 percent choose computer science degrees.”
The lab — part classroom, part creative space and full of equipment, including a 3D printer, laser printer and laptops for coding — began in pilot form in March, and is opening Sept. 8 for local students on day-long fieldtrips.
The lab will hold classes Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and is already booked through February with 60 confirmed classes and 2,000 students from San Diego Unified School District, Vista, Del Mar, Santee, Poway as well as private and charter schools.
In addition to these out-of-classroom experiences that enable middle schoolers to do hands-on work, Thinkabit Lab also hosts summer camps, including its inaugural QCamp for Girls in STEM.
QCamp, which ran from July 28 through Friday in collaboration with Women Enhancing Technology, aims to foster long-term engagement with the 30 pre-sixth grade girls from San Diego Unified School District that participated. In this first session, students built hats with robotic, movable parts, the coding of which is done on the Arduino platform in C++.
The camp works with the University of California San Diego’s CREATE program to develop curriculum, and with UC Berkeley to track the students’ engagement and evaluate the camp’s success.
“A critical component of this is ‘are we having any impact?’” Covell said. “And then the idea is to not let these girls go. We want to have this two-week camp, but then bring them back every summer, straight through to, ideally, they choose a STEM degree and go off to university.
“And as they get older, we’ll bring them back as camp counselors, as mentors to other girls. We’ll look at internships, potentially scholarships — but really take a more holistic approach to increasing engagement and interest of girls in STEM.”
The field-trip lab experience has the same goal of exposing students to real-world applications of science, technology, math and engineering, and helping them understand the work’s long-term benefits.
Ed Hidalgo, senior director of staffing at Qualcomm, said the first 45 minutes of the day will be spent in Qualcomm’s World of Work classroom space, which allows the students to explore the many career possibilities at Qualcomm, tech and non-tech alike, and see the education and experience required, as well as the salary potential and the day-to-day duties of each.
Then they hit the lab to code, hear from Qualcomm engineers, and see that STEM doesn’t have to be boring, strictly textbook work.
Hidalgo said it’s not just youngsters using Thinkabit — the lab is open to Qualcomm’s own engineers Thursday evenings, and will typically draw 40 engineers to work on their own projects in a different setting.
“What’s really neat and really special is there are a lot of engineers who don’t know each other — they’re men and women, young and old, software or hardware systems — and they come to the lab as a place for them to collaborate,” Hidalgo said.
“In the world of engineering you may have a concept that takes weeks and months to actually see come to fruition, but in the lab they can come up with the concept and next week it’s becoming a reality.”
Vanessa Myers, a statistics teacher at Scripps Ranch High School and counselor at QCamp, said none of the girls knew how to code before coming to camp, and now they’ve all built functioning robotic hats, and worked on developing their own apps.
“I’m used to working summer camps, but this has been above and beyond any sort of camp I’ve ever done,” Myers said. “It’s been really cool to see what they can create, and what they can actually do on the computers with the app inventor and programs on the Arduinos. It’s been really fun to see their creativity and mix it with engineering skills.”
Anindya Bhattacharya, who works for Johnson and Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) and is the father of a rising sixth-grade daughter in QCamp — selected by lottery from 100 applicants — said he’s already seen the benefits of this hands-on learning.
“Once she started this program last week, I can tell she’s totally psyched,” Bhattacharya said. “She goes home and plays with the website for making apps, and can’t stop telling us what she is learning everyday.
"I am a neuroscientist by training, so I always talked to her about medical science, but the second day she asked me how can I become an engineer? I think that’s really the goal — at this stage, at their age let them be open to all possibilities. I think this is a very good way of doing that.”