Making access to STEM more equitable in your community

Today’s email blast included a note that FIRST is now accepting applications for the 2019 cycle of the FIRST STEM Equity Grant.

This grant program, which was established in 2016, addresses an issue that I care about deeply. The program has supported some really wonderful and inspiring efforts; I encourage everyone to read about the grant winners.

About 1 year ago, I sent a message to the FIRST Diversity & Inclusion Manager to ask a question about the program, but unfortunately I didn’t receive a response.

The concern I describe in my email is illustrated in the 2 picture attachments. In these images, the bold numbers are supported directly from the source material (FIRST Announces 2018 STEM Equity Community Innovation Grant Winners). The other numbers are my estimates and assumptions which come from my background of involvement in FIRST programs.

Increasing equity of access to STEM education, starting within our neighborhood, is something that my team will continue to strive for. The descriptions of the winning projects supported by the past 3 cycles of the FIRST STEM Equity grant have sparked many ideas for how we can create similar lasting positive changes in our own community.

To help us make a better impact in this area, I would like to know: what are the techniques that YOU have found effective in increasing access to STEM for underserved and underrepresented students in your community?



Our team also applied for this grant last year and came away with the same feeling that the selection process was very self serving for FIRST and more about boosting numbers and less about increasing access to STEM to underrepresented groups.

The high school in which I teach and have mentored for 15+ years (Albany High School, Albany, NY) may be one of the most diverse schools schools in the country. A recent story about our boys soccer team helps illustrate that diversity-

Our team however for many years came no where close to representing that diversity. Our team looks basically like most FIRST teams… white and mostly male.

This lack of diversity has always been a point of discussion with administrators and among the mentors of the team. We put extra effort into recruiting more underrepresented students this year and so far it has paid off… Still not good enough but it is a start.

As much as I love and enjoy FRC I do not believe the model that FIRST works in is best suited for making STEM more equitable.

FIRST involves a lot of travel, hours, and money- those things are all limited in many families. Being able to meet 2-4 times a week for hours at a time is not realistic for high school students who may also be in charge of babysitting younger siblings, etc. Many students do not have the ability to get a ride back to school once they have left. And traveling to events or paying team fees can eliminate many students who may not be able to afford to be part of a robotics team.

Our team pays for all students travel, pay for and supply meals, etc. for any students who want to be part of the team. This means that we need to do massive amounts of fundraising but it is worth it.
We also only hold meetings after school 3 times a week so students do not have to worry about getting a ride back to school.

Things outside of FRC that I have personally done that I feel work better-

  1. Going to the places in the community that these groups live, not expecting them to come to you.
  2. Summer camps with chances to design simple projects that can blow up, fly, crash, or make you say wow. Many of the students have had no experience at all with any STEM content. Building and programming robots is hard and cant be taught in a day. Making a soda bottle rocket that shoots 200 feet in the air- can be. And it grabs kids attention.
  3. Having engaging people present the information. Our school constantly has higher ed colleges looking to “help introduce STEM” (ie. using our schools demographic to obtain a grant). They promise to come in and present and speak to the students and 95% of the time the people talk way over the students heads and turn the students off and enforce even more how they dont fit the mold of a STEM professional.

I am very interested to read others efforts. Great topic

We (Exploding Bacon) worked to create a program geared toward your first point of taking the STEM education to them. Spark Science Kits is a global outreach initiative we started around 2014 designed to “inspire the imagination of children around the world.” Our goal is to share these kits with children lacking education in underprivileged areas, sparking (ha) passion for STEM in each child. We developed a set of completely reusable experiments to fit in these shoe-box sized kits that are sent to orphanages, schools, and other locations around the world. The experiments are hands-on activities designed to maximize fun and cost efficiency while keeping in mind travel customs. We have recently been working to refine the contents of the kits, such as 3D printing material over using wood for long-lasting results. We have sent Spark Kits home with FIRST Global Competition teams and FIRST teams from various events. Not just that, but our members themselves have taken kits to other countries and taught classes with these kits. We have partnered with churches and other travelling programs to get kits out to more areas.

On a slightly less rambling note, 1902 also hosts summer camps. As of recently we now have two kinds of camps; Exploding Science Summer Camp and EV3 camp. The EV3 camp consists of a variety of courses to teach children 8-12 years old about the basic concepts of teamwork, programming, and building “mechanisms” for their robot. Their challenges are a couple elements from a prior FLL game and challenges designed by our students, such as a maze or “sumo” match. The Exploding Science Summer Camp is less focused on the robot side and more focused on STEM education and basic principles of physics. We have a large variety of hands-on activities for the children to learn and participate as well as a few 1902 member conducted demonstrations to engage the kids. (More information about Spark!)
If anyone wants me to expand on or clarify anything I’m more than willing :slight_smile:

Perhaps constant exposure to the world of technology has influenced our opinions with respect to how quickly things can be made to change. You can update your software with a download that takes minutes or even change to an entirely new language in a matter of weeks. But the issues of families, of communities, heck, just the complexity of being a young person in a chaotic time. These don’t respond to any quick fix, to any crash program.

It is like trying to steer a gigantic oil tanker, go ahead and lean on the controls, you will barely be able to see the course change.

But of course things do change. Slowly.

I’ve been doing a low budget DIY middle school robotics program for 18 years now. Our FIRST team evolved from this as assorted “alumni” and their parents eventually stepped up and said “more please”. It is now our farm system where the FIRST kids help me keep the middle school urchins on track and safe with tools.

I’ve seen many changes in that time. The Bad? A near total extinction of any mechanical abilities. The interface of today’s young person with the world is a fingertip on a phone screen. Also I suspect fewer intact families. Single moms (and single dads) do their best but their logistical challenges are significant.

The Good? Well, maybe its a glitch but most years I have 0, 1, or at most 2 girls in my two class sections, which total 24 students. (btw, the robotics class fills in 3 minutes of online reg.). This year I have five.

Of course we try extra hard to support and encourage the girls, as well as other under represented groups. But you can offer them a lot. So often their interests change, or their home life goes critical, etc.

Soldiering On.

T. Wolter