Shaping the Future Workforce – Susie Armstrong

Inspiring the next generation of inventors while building important STEM skills is the mission of the Qualcomm® Thinkabit Lab™ programs in California. Michigan and Virginia.

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WorkingNation consultant and workforce reporter Ramona Schindelheim reports on the innovative solutions for developing skilled workers for 21st-century jobs. As we observe Computer Science Education Week (December 4 – December 10), she takes a look at a program designed to get kids excited about a STEM-based career.

A dinosaur feeder may not be a practical invention, but it is certainly an imaginative one, which is exactly the point of the day-long Qualcomm® Thinkabit Lab™ program.

Using simple programmable circuit boards and other materials, Thinkabit Lab gives middle school students a hands-on experience in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Designing their own dinosaur feeder, robot arm or home of the future is more than a day of creative tech building for the kids, it’s exposure to a variety of potential careers that are essential to the workforce of the future.

Middle school students develop skills for the future at the Qualcomm® Thinkabit Lab™ in Detroit. Photo – Courtesy of Michigan Engineering Zone

“We like to say we are inspiring the next generation of inventors,” explains Susie Armstrong, Qualcomm’s Senior Vice President of Engineering and lead on the program. Invention is something Armstrong, who holds a B.A. in computer science, knows about, having had a hand in two advances in technology that have changed the way we live our everyday lives.

“I had opportunities in my career to work with two amazing groundbreaking companies. The first was Xerox, which at the time was doing the first work—the first bitmap displays—on what became Windows. And then ten years later, I ended up here.”

Armstrong’s pioneering work at Qualcomm led to all of us being able to surf the web on our smartphones. “I did a lot of the early work on what we call ‘packet data,’ which is basically how you connect your mobile phone and other mobile devices to the internet,” says Armstrong. “That was incredibly impactful and I’m very proud of that.”

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With 35,000 employees, the company’s goal is simple: inventing mobile technology breakthroughs. Armstrong went on to lead the group of engineers that integrate Qualcomm’s hardware and software products into mobile phones and other wireless devices worldwide.

For the past few years, Armstrong has been a part of Qualcomm’s Government Affairs group, and one of her chief missions is championing STEM careers and STEM diversity. On November 30, she and her team were in Detroit for the opening of the third Thinkabit Lab, this one in collaboration with the University of Michigan and located at the Michigan Engineering Zone (MEZ).

Like its counterpart at Virginia Tech and its home program at Qualcomm headquarters in San Diego, the Detroit program’s goal is to inspire students to explore different STEM-based careers paths, including software, hardware and systems engineering.

“We are not an educational program. We are not trying to take the place of teachers,” Armstrong tells me. “What we are trying to do is take students (and their parents) who may not see themselves in STEM careers or STEAM careers or any career for that matter, and show them that these careers are for them as well. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, what color your skin is, there is a need for people like you in STEM and STEM-related careers.”

Growing up, Armstrong didn’t see herself in a career in science. She had other dreams, but her early exposure to STEM classes ended up playing a role in the path to her impressive career.

“I was going to be a veterinarian, but I decided I couldn’t deal with the pain and suffering of the medical field,” recalls Armstrong. So, she entered California Polytechnic State University, also known as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, not knowing what she was going to do.

“I liked biology. I liked math. I liked the sciences, and I was exposed to them in high school. I took my first programming class and it was like a puzzle, and I was hooked. It was quite a nice combination of being captivated by computer science and then understanding it was a field very much in need,” Armstrong says.

It was also a field that was lacking in diversity. “I would say in my computer science classes, probably about 25 percent of those classes were women,” says Armstrong. “It’s pretty horrifying to me to see that in the ensuing 30 years that the numbers have actually gotten worse in computer science rather than better.”

In 2013, just 14.8 percent of the engineering jobs were held by women, while 6.8 percent were held by Latinos and 3.6 percent were held by African-Americans. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than half of the 1.4 million new computing jobs anticipated through next year could go unfilled because there are not enough people with the education and skills needed to perform them. Reaching out to diverse groups is key to expanding the numbers of people entering the field.

Since 2014, Thinkabit Lab has hosted more than 12,000 children, parents and teachers. “There’s a lot of good STEM programs out there for kids whose parents have the means. We really try to target underrepresented students and students of all ages. In San Diego, we work primarily with middle school kids because that’s where a lot of kids of color, a lot of girls, end up dropping out of STEM programs, or sometimes out of interest in school in general,” says Armstrong.

Armstrong is particularly proud of QWOW™ (Qualcomm® World of Work), the first activity of the day at Thinkabit Lab. The kids are taken through a series of exercises in which they learn about the many different jobs available at Qualcomm and other tech companies because, as Armstrong asks, “How can you aspire to a career that you don’t know exists? And, most, if not all, of the jobs are impacted by STEM.”

Armstrong is talking about patent attorneys, accountants, dietitians and even event planners. “I was talking to an event planner the other day and she says, ‘Yeah, I had to take statistics, and I use it.’ QWOW turns out to be very impactful, and a lot of the kids will take what we call our takeaway cards, wear them on their badges for some of these careers that they are aspiring to.”

Throughout the day, the Thinkabit Lab instructors focus on the Internet of Things, the concept that as technology grows, more things will be connected, and the need for engineers and inventors will grow with it.

“The Internet of Things is a great buzzword in a variety of industries. It’s a platform of technology that can be used in the health sciences, in automotive, in smart cities, in all kinds of products, and in careers that these kids can aspire to. And that’s turned out to be an impactful thing for the students and for the teachers and the parents. We’ve had a couple of parents say, ‘Jeez, I never knew what this whole IoT thing was all about.’ So that gives kids a connection,” says Armstrong.

Research firm Gartner forecasts that by 2020, there will be more than 20.4 billion things connected worldwide. Middle schoolers today will still be working in 2070, and Armstrong says Thinkabit Lab, through its hands-on tech projects, is trying to help the kids understand that they can create the future themselves. “They can create products, they can create tools. They can create music. They don’t have to just consume things going forward.”

Out of the IoT conversations come the inspired and imaginative projects the children experiencing the Thinkabit Lab come up with, like the dinosaur feeder created by Detroit middle schooler. “We had them present drones, machines that apply makeup, and machines that dress you in bed—that’s my favorite one.”

The IoT concept is import to the future of work, according to Armstrong, whatever it may look like. “We’re trying to use the engineering activities to show kids not only can they aspire to a career that they might not have known existed before, but they can also aspire to careers that we can’t yet tell them are going to exist.” They just need to use their imagination.

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