In the Company of Makers

A pioneering computer scientist inspires next-gen engineers with hands-on learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Susie Armstrong

credit-qualcomm-thinkabit-labThe increasing need in the U.S. to have more people prepared for STEM careers is alarming. The economy is producing more high skilled jobs than there are high skilled workers available to fill them. In fact, there could be as many as 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs in the United States by 2018.

This lack of STEM expertise begins in the K-12 years and becomes very apparent at the advanced degree level. According to the National Science Foundation, 77 percent of electrical engineering and 71 percent of computer science graduate students at U.S. universities were foreign nationals in 2013. As a computer scientist who has had the opportunity to work for two pioneering technology companies, this concerns me.

Looking back, it is wonderful to see what my early exposure to STEM has led to, but in a way it’s also troubling that not every student has that opportunity.

I was interested in math and science from an early age. With engaged parents and interested and invested teachers, I had a significant support system to pursue these studies. While I thought this would lead to a field in medicine, I switched to computer science after taking my first programming class in college. I had also always loved handcrafts and building, so programming felt like puzzles to solve and a new way of “making.”

I had eight job offers when I graduated Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. With a Bachelor’s in Computer Science, I took a job at Xerox, and had a hand in creating what many considered to be the first personal computer. Twelve years later, I ended up with another technology pioneer, Qualcomm. Again surrounded by engineers, researchers and technologists, I created a simple way to access the internet in our mobile devices. That same technology is used in the groundbreaking smart cities and Internet of Things technologies. Looking back, it is wonderful to see what my early exposure to STEM has led to, but in a way it’s also troubling that not every student has that opportunity.

At Qualcomm, a company of inventors, we believe a huge hurdle to getting students into STEM fields is the lack of exposure to how interesting and creative STEM fields and careers can be. We have a keen interest in inspiring students to pursue high-growth STEM careers. That’s why Qualcomm created the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab, which brings students and educators into a dedicated space—part lab, makerspace and classroom—to foster problem-solving, creativity, collaboration and help develop critical skills needed for 21st-century jobs.

The Thinkabit Lab has served thousands of students, teachers and administrators in the San Diego area since opening in 2014; many of those students had never been exposed to STEM and related careers.

As an engineer, inventor and someone who had experienced firsthand the challenge, excitement and pride of a STEM career, I was fascinated instantly by the Thinkabit Lab and its hands-on making and STEM activities, as well as its World of Work experience, which enables students to see what kinds of careers these activities could lead to. I wanted more people to experience it, to bring additional depth and expertise to Thinkabit, and to better support educators; expanding the Thinkabit Lab with universities was a clear path.

Our first collaboration outside of San Diego launched on September 8 with Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering and School of Education. Virginia Tech has strong expertise in engineering, education and education leadership, and for several decades has prepared thousands of talented professionals in these fields. The location of its Northern Virginia campus at Falls Church, Virginia is well situated for working with national capital region students and teachers.

I’m excited that Qualcomm and Virginia Tech are collaborating to leverage Thinkabit Lab initiatives with research to create new academic programs, and to promote innovative STEM experiences. Of course, we have all been eager to unveil the first Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab outside of San Diego region.

I am fortunate to work for a company of makers, problem-solvers, and innovators that realize the importance of inspiring the inventors of tomorrow to create the technology of the future, and this has given me the chance to wear many hats during the last twenty years. Through Thinkabit, I have an opportunity to help pass on some of that good fortune, working with an accomplished university. I hope the Washington, D.C. area will engage with the new Qualcomm Virginia Tech Thinkabit lab as the San Diego community has, and I look forward to helping others choose a career with the kind of creativity, challenge, satisfaction, and yes, fun, that I have in a STEM field.

Susie Armstrong is a Senior VP of Engineering at Qualcomm, and leader of the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab. She was a pioneer in bringing Internet protocols to the cellular industry, resulting in the first web surfing on a cellular phone in 1997, and Qualcomm’s commercialization of packet data in 1998. She subsequently led the chipset software group, and the worldwide engineering group that commercialize Qualcomm’s products into mobile devices. She is currently working to bring that engineering and product background to Qualcomm’s policy work.

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