A place where students can gain self awareness into their unique value; where they can see how they might make a positive impact on the world; and where they can tinker to learn about interests they may never have uncovered. Sounds to me like a darn good mission statement for any school! These are the guiding principles around the design and development of a powerful industry-community-school partnership founded and funded by Qualcomm, Inc in San Diego: the Thinkabit Lab. I visited the lab yesterday, meeting with founder and chief flag-waver Ed HIdalgo, as well as Cajon Valley School District Montgomery Middle School principal Jackie Luzak whose students were busy coding, designing, building…and discovering how what they enjoy might help direct their lives after school.
I won’t go into the “what” of the Lab; you can see some great short video artifacts on their website, where they also have a ton of free resources. In the first 18 months the Lab has been open, they have introduced more than 6,000 middle school students and 3,000 other visitors to a combination of career-think and engineering design. In daily five-hour sessions, students, many of whom have never learned a bit of coding or design, end up producing fun, sometimes crazy, working prototypes of an engineered system based on the simple Arduino platform. They also spend time unwrapping their personal interests and motivations, and thinking about what kinds of careers those might lead to, in any field.
Jackie has had several groups visit the Lab, including her superintendent and board of trustees. After seeing the level of student engagement and coming to experience the lab themselves, the program has begun to percolate through the Cajon Valley District. Jackie has interdisciplinary teacher teams that lead students through combined math, English, and engineering projects. Every student gets to spend an hour a day for 12 weeks working on projects they design and build. A group designed and 3D printed new ideas for a community skateboard park, then presented their projects to the city council and local companies. News stations covered the event. According to Jackie the pedagogy that is on display at the Lab has become mainstream at her school, not just something that happens in a makerspace one period a day.
What prompted Qualcomm to build and fund this remarkable resource? A lot of it was the passion of Ed and a series of pilots that included high school internships and one-week STEM camps for employee children. Finally they just got approval and ran with it. There is no bottom line benefit to the company, other than great PR. But there is enormous benefit to the schools and students in the region. And it prompts the larger questions: why, for a relatively modest investment, with a tangible and enormous roll-on impact, are other big companies NOT doing something like this in every city in America?