Erin McCallum is excited for the weekend. She is looking forward to watching her teams compete in the FIRST Lego League competition — where students ages 9 to 16 join together with their coaches to pit the robots they built against teams from throughout the state, completing tasks on a thematic playing surface.

“There’s a part of the competition where the students meet with a panel of judges to talk about their project and how they designed their robots to do certain things, how they learned to work together as a team, managing their time and establishing their priorities and conflict resolution,” McCallum says enthusiastically. “All of those life skills that we need as adults — these kids are getting that experience through this competition!”

McCallum is president of FIRST (For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Washington, an organization that supports and engages today’s digital-native youth with a league of their own, inspiring them to build on their passions and preparing them to be the STEM leaders of tomorrow. FIRST Washington is a partner of Amazon Future Engineer, a comprehensive childhood-to-career program aimed at increasing access to computer science education for children and young adults from underserved and underrepresented communities.

Amazon Future Engineer inspires millions of students in kindergarten – eighth grade with coding classes, lessons, and camps, funds robotics grants for dozens of schools, provides over 100,000 young people in over 2,000 high schools access to Intro or AP Computer Science courses; and each year, awards 100 students with $40,000 scholarships and guaranteed, paid internships at Amazon. Amazon Future Engineer is part of Amazon’s $50 million investment in computer science/STEM education.

“Young people are naturally curious about technology,” says Mat Wisner, senior manager and founder of Amazon Future Engineer. “It’s important to introduce computer science at an early age so students build confidence and understand how the world works around them. Early exposure makes it much more likely for students to persist and become the inventors of tomorrow.”

The vast majority of the schools Amazon is partnering with, are classified as Title I schools — schools that are provided supplemental funds from the federal government because they have high concentrations of students on the free and reduced-price lunch program.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs are more in demand than ever, according to the Smithsonian Science Education Center. In fact, in 2018, 2.4 million STEM jobs were estimated to have gone unfilled. But when it comes to filling those jobs with qualified, diverse candidates, there’s work to be done.

Girls Who Code notes that 74% of middle school girls express an interest in engineering, science, and math — but fewer than 1% of them will go on to choose computer science as a college major. There is also disparity along racial and ethnic lines. Even though there is strong interest in STEM, black and Latinx college students are dropping out of STEM programs at higher rates than their white peers. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 37% and 40% of Latinx and black students, respectively, drop out of their major compared to 29% of white STEM students.

“A student’s capability to learn should not be determined by their family’s income or where they happen to live,” says Wisner. “It is important there is equity in computer science education, so that all students have an equal opportunity to learn skills that will prepare them for the jobs of the future.”

McCallum says that she is already seeing the payoff of Amazon’s program. Thirty Seattle Public Schools, which are part of the Amazon Future Engineer robotics program, are receiving support to launch FIRST robotics teams, including teacher professional development to learn about robotics, support from Amazon to expand access to computer science education in their school, and a tour of an Amazon robotics fulfillment center in Kent, Washington. She talks about how the process is not always easy — sometimes STEM, especially computer science, and getting robotic classes into schools seems intimidating to parents, teachers and students. However, McCallum says the robots and the sports format are simply the ‘shiny objects’ that initially grab the attention of students and pulls them in. The real intent of building long-lasting engagement in robotics early, to foster education and career paths and interest for these students in technology and computer science.

“I’ve been working closely with Rainier Beach High School,” she says. “For years, many parents at Rainier Beach have wanted to get robotics into the school. And [the Amazon Future Engineer] program allowed them to do that … and it’s just awesome to see how it’s coming together. We had about 25 students sign up who were really interested and really wanted to be on this team.”

McCallum says she’s seen students blossom under this program. She says the students at Title I schools are incredibly bright and are so capable — but they are not getting as many shots compared to kids at other schools.

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“We are in the first year of this partnership, and we’re hoping that it continues on for many more years because these kids deserve it. It’s an investment of time and people power and financial resources that Washington state has to have and make. Amazon making this program available to students in schools that typically would not have this — it’s pretty fantastic.”

McCallum says one highlight of the program for her has been the opportunity to take students to the Amazon fulfillment center in Kent.

“We brought a group of middle school girls into the fulfillment center one day,” McCallum says. “It was magical. You had these high school students from Kentridge High School coming in and working with these middle school girls and being mentored by adult Amazonians. Within 30 minutes, these middle school girls are absolutely engulfed and so curious and mesmerized. And you know what they did? They programmed a robot together and they are seeing it move! It’s tangible hands-on, project-based learning.”

Amazon Future Engineer is Amazon’s four-part, childhood to career program aiming to increase access to computer science education for millions of students from underserved and underrepresented communities each year.