Early STEM Investments Add Up

June 2020
Topics: Inclusion, Education and Training, Learning Environments, Cognitive Systems Engineering
How can the country accelerate innovation and breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics? First, spark the curiosity of today’s tech-enabled generation. Second, open the STEM pipeline to all perspectives. MITRE is doing just that.
Kids taking apart and testing circuit boards

Today’s children and young adults are true digital citizens.

“This is the ‘i’ generation—iPhones, iPads, iTouch,” MITRE systems engineer Jamar Owens says. “Now we need to spark their interest in what’s behind their devices.”

Indeed, if few young people become curious about what’s under the hood of the platforms, screens, and systems that power their lives, a dangerous domino effect occurs. The pipeline of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals narrows, innovation slows, and our nation’s competitive standing declines.

MITRE, with our deep systems engineering expertise and more than 7,000 engineers and scientists, is committed to nurturing the next wave of STEM leaders.

We’re dedicated to widening the pipeline to include students of all ages, races, genders, and backgrounds—recognizing that national and global challenges require diverse perspectives. It’s how we’re delivering on our mission: solving problems for a safer world.

Stephanie Turner, MITRE vice president of inclusion, diversity, and social innovation, says, “We’re strengthening and expanding our networks with organizations whose perspectives are important in shaping our national social landscape. STEM education in underserved communities is key to making a lasting impact.”

“Lack of exposure often means lack of interest,” MITRE’s manager of inclusion and diversity, Adrienne Thomas-Loftin, says. “Engineering and technical professionals reaching back to share the exciting work they do would spark that interest.”

“Our goal is to raise awareness around science and technology. We want to reach kids who are less likely to know about these fields.”

To do this, MITRE’s STEM Council, Multicultural Council, and our sites across the nation partner with schools, organizations, government, and industry to introduce STEM in a variety of forms to students in kindergarten through high school.

Connecting the STEM Dots

Last year, Michael Long, a software and technology security expert, created a STEM curriculum with Owens, Jordan Carlile, and Justin Williams for BEST Kids, Inc. , a nonprofit organization that pairs mentors with children in foster care in Washington, D.C.

“We realized there was a big gap in STEM learning opportunities,” Long says. “So we acquired 20 Raspberry Pis and developed program coding sessions for the students to do on [the McLean, Virginia] campus.”

Over four months, 12 students in fifth through ninth grade came to MITRE to learn Python™, an open source programming language, hear from engineers and cybersecurity experts about their career paths, and discuss the outlook and skills needed for STEM-related jobs.

“These are young people who are usually left off the technology learning curve, without the same resources many kids have,” Owens says.

All graduates received their own Raspberry Pi to use for schoolwork and to practice writing code. Post-pandemic, Long, Owens, Carlile, Williams, and Michelle Rogers—all members of the McLean STEM Council and Multicultural Council—have modules ready for the second cohort and new material for returning students.

The BestKids team (from left to right): Justin Williams, Michael Long, Jordan Carlile, Michelle Rogers (all from MITRE), Jonathan Jones (FireEye), and Prescott Burden (Deloitte).

Playing to Our Strengths

In brainstorming outreach activities with fellow Bedford (Massachusetts) STEM Outreach team members, signal analysis engineer Gabrielle Robertson says, “We kept coming back to capitalizing on our strengths and sharing what we’re passionate about.”

The team is a new creation by Bryn Dews, who wanted to transition the yearly Young Women in Engineering event at MITRE to a volunteer community bringing frequent STEM demos to underserved communities.

Dews, along with Robertson, Becky Hack, Ryan Jobson, and others, connected with the Lowell, Mass., Kids in Tech program. The nonprofit provides disadvantaged students with interactive, free afterschool programs in computers and technology.

“We created several demos—how to use Python, how to develop a music app, and finding math paradoxes in everyday life,” Hack, a software engineer, says. “They’re off-the-shelf demos so that anyone at MITRE can teach the lesson.”

In true systems engineering fashion, the team catalogs presentations and maintains a Wiki site of presenter and student feedback. Jobson, a navigation systems engineer, adapts the curriculum to stay relevant.

They’ve reached nearly 100 kids since November 2019.

Powering Young Minds

Bobby Blount, Jr., who leads MITRE’s San Antonio site, is known locally as the “solar race car guy.” Twenty-three years ago, he established MITRE’s partnership with the 106,000-student Northside Independent School District to hold the Texas Solar Race Car event. The mini car-building process became an afterschool science program for fourth and fifth grade students. Today, the annual Air Force-sponsored event draws 1,300 students.

“At a high school graduation last year, the valedictorian told me what an impact building her first race car had on her,” Blount says.

Blount also established the MITRE-U.S. Department of Energy partnership 16 years ago to organize the agency’s National Science Bowl. Each year, he recruits MITRE employees to participate as judges.

Our San Antonio office collaborates closely with the city and with neighboring University of Texas at San Antonio’s Center for Infrastructure Assurance and Security (CIAS).  

“CIAS asked MITRE to adapt their Cyber Threat Defender card game—originally created to educate military cybersecurity warriors on strategy and techniques—for younger students,” Blount says. “Now we’re working with them to scale the program for schools across the country.”

Volunteers at other MITRE locations will adopt the game for their mentees and interns.

Opening Doors to Opportunity

Lydia Thomas, who in 1989 became the first African American female executive at MITRE, says, “Science and math are like languages. When parents and teachers expose children to STEM early, they learn as easily as a second language when it is a part of everyday life.”

Owens echoes those sentiments. “We have to try to help position kids with a STEM mindset early on—before their decisions might make it too late.”

By reaching kids in the beginning of their school careers, encouraging and providing STEM learning opportunities for young women, people of color, and other underrepresented populations in technical fields, the pipeline grows and diversifies.

Long adds that introducing students to STEM is about “making a good investment—in a life. To see, after time and maturity, what that investment can do is exciting.”

—by Karina Wright

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