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Closing the STEM Gap: FIRST Grants Help Educators Engage Disadvantaged Students

FIRST Robotics Competition Team 2881, The Lady Cans, pose between matches at FIRST Championship 2016 in St. Louis

As the demand for qualified STEM professionals continues to grow, inequalities in education and afterschool programs have disproportionally affected students of color and female students’ opportunity to excel in these fields. The implications of these shortcomings are evident in the current STEM workforce statistics – the STEM labor force is no more diverse today than it was in 2001, according to data from Change the Equation, a coalition of Fortune 500 companies focused on increasing diversity STEM education.

Now more than ever, it is critically important to provide underrepresented and underserved populations with opportunities to engage in hands-on STEM activities. Fortunately, there are a number of programs and resources already available for educators and administrators to take advantage of. One such opportunity is the STEM Equity Community Innovation Grant from FIRST, designed to support community coalitions seeking to provide greater access to quality STEM experiences for students in grades K-12. Each year, up to 15 communities in the United States and Canada receive funding, training, and program implementation support through this effort.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with William Nye, an educator at Meadowcreek High School, in Norcross, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. In a community where 88 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Dr. Nye sought funding to bolster the already-existing FIRST program in his district’s high school and to expand the program into six new elementary schools and two new middle schools.  Dr. Nye’s district had insufficient equipment and a limited number of adults who were confident enough to teach basic robotics programming to students or mentor a team. Dr. Nye applied for, and was granted, funds through the 2016 STEM Equity Community Innovation Grant.

Now, halfway through the grant cycle, the Norcross school system has expanded and seen improvement in its robotics and STEM programs. In addition to introducing more teams and robotics exposure at the elementary and middle school levels, the grant has enabled Dr. Nye to send his high schoolers back to their old elementary and middle schools to work alongside the teachers they use to look up to, boosting interest in STEM programs among students of all ages. Dr. Nye cites the increased collaboration, from kindergarteners to high schoolers to teachers, as one of the greatest outcomes from the grant, and recognizes the need to foster his students’ new and strengthened STEM interest to prepare them for the future workforce. He has also been able to engage more girls in the school system – one middle school’s robotics team is comprised entirely of Hispanic and African American female students.

Dr. Nye isn’t done – next year, he plans to expand partnerships to local professional and career organizations, including the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic Society of Engineers and more, to provide his students with access and exposure to meaningful role models who mirror their own demographics.

In looking back on his experience, Dr. Nye said, “One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in my 20 years as an educator is that it’s okay to ask for help. When you realize you aren’t alone in it, be prepared for it to take off.”

Click here to learn more about grant opportunities through FIRST, and learn more about FIRST’s Diversity and Inclusion initiatives here.

This sponsored article was written by Shelley Henderson, Diversity & Inclusion Manager, FIRST.