This Tech Giant Taught 3,000 Kids to Build Robots in a Year

THERE ARE PLENTY of ways to promote diversity in tech, and over the last year, tech companies, now acutely aware of the lack of women and minorities in their ranks, have started exploring many of them. For some, like Intel, it involves creating a $125 million fund to invest in startups with diverse founders. For others, like Google, it involves partnering with organizations like the Anita Borg Institute to attract more women to its annual developer conference.

For Qualcomm, the wireless technology company based in San Diego, it involves approximately a dozen beanbag chairs, a few whiteboards, a handful of IKEA tables, and lots and lots of props. These are the makings of Thinkabit Labs, a mini-school within Qualcomm’s headquarters that launched last year. Three days a week, busloads of middle schoolers, many of them from groups underrepresented in tech, take a field trip to Thinkabit, where Qualcomm staffers aim to expose them to all the careers the industry has to offer. Oh, and they get to build their own robots, too.

In that way, Thinkabit Labs is not all that different from the hundreds of tech bootcamps for kids across the country. The difference is, Thinkabit is doing it at scale. While other programs may cycle through a few dozen students a year, during the 2014-2015 school year alone, Qualcomm says it brought more than 3,000 students from around the San Diego area through Thinkabit Labs. And while the day trip is far from the full-fledged educational experience kids might get at, say, a month-long bootcamp, educators involved with the program say it’s already making a difference in students’ lives.

“Many of our students come from low-income backgrounds, and their parents don’t have careers where they go off to a nice office building in San Diego,” says Dr. Eric Chagala, principal at San Diego’s Vista Innovation and Design Academy, also known as VIDA, where some 79 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and a full 36 percent are homeless. “We talk about college a lot with kids, but we don’t show them the why. I think of Thinkabit as showing kids the why of what we’re doing in school.”

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