Microsoft Uses STEM Saturdays to Give Students Hands-On Experience
Demand for STEM workers continues to increase at a breakneck pace. For example, while U.S. tech employment has reached 7.3 million, that’s not enough workers to keep up with demand. The challenge is to get more students interested in STEM subjects, and Microsoft is using a variety of creative programs designed to create curiosity and provide active participation.
In addition to its year-round programs offering hand-on technology opportunities, Microsoft Store is conducting STEM Saturdays throughout the month of May in all of the company’s full line locations.
How serious is the STEM shortage? Technology is advancing so rapidly that by 2027, smartphone literacy levels will exceed those of 24 million adults. Meanwhile, robotics is projected to create half a million jobs, so it’s easy to see why the tech industry is working to grow the talent pool.
Microsoft’s Saturday workshop series, Building Machines That Emulate Humans, allows participants to construct a flex sensor that they can use to control a robotic finger using their own finger. In addition to learning about the anatomy of human hands, participants are introduced to the basic skills used in mechanical and electrical engineering and data science.
Chad Ortega, assistant store manager at the flagship Microsoft Store in New York, explains, “STEM Saturdays are part of Hacking STEM, a Microsoft Education initiative to create affordable STEM lessons and hands-on activities that build scientific instruments and visualize data across space, earth, life, and physical sciences curriculum with students.”
How the Microsoft program works
The program functions by bringing Microsoft Education’s pop-up classrooms to Microsoft Stores around the country, Ortega says, “Making technology more accessible and creating programs to inspire and empower young people is helping a new generation of innovators build the skills and education they need to prosper.”
The 30-minute project is designed for 11- to 14-year old students, but younger students (with help from adults) can easily complete the project as well. There is no cost and no age limitation. “Anyone, including teachers, students and parents can register to attend STEM Saturday workshops at their local store,” Ortega says.
While the STEM Saturdays program only is offered during May, students have plenty of other opportunities. “In partnership with the Microsoft YouthSpark initiative and programs like DigiGirlz and Hacking STEM, Microsoft Store hosts a range of free programs year-round that empower youth by providing direct access to technology and hands-on learning,” Ortega explains.
Other projects included in Hacking STEM include the following:
- Using Computational Thinking to Understand Earthquakes, which teaches students to make a seismograph to visualize earthquake data and explore modern engineering techniques to mitigate earthquake damage.
- Increasing Power Through Design, which teaches students how to build a windmill and a wind turbine and measure its capacity to lift weight.
- Analyzing Wind Speeds with Anemometers, which teaches students to build anemometers from everyday objects and use them to measure wind speed.
The importance of access
Exposure and direct contact can play a crucial role in developing and piquing a student’s interest in technology.
Linda Burtch, managing director at recruiting firm Burtch Works, believes that these types of experiences provide a fun way to explain what could be considered a difficult topic, and can make the difference in students choosing to pursue a STEM career. “Providing people with direct access to technology and hands-on training has several benefits,” Burtch says. “Many people find hands-on learning to be the most exciting and interesting, since it shows direct applications of what a technology is capable of.”
Needless to say, students are less likely to choose a career field if they don’t know what the career entails. And the desire to help people is a motivating factor for many students. “If participants are able to see a technology at work that can help people, they may be inspired to pursue it as a career field,” Burtch says. “The current project at the Microsoft Store is an example of what we would refer to as ‘mission-driven’ careers, which are becoming increasingly popular with Big Data professionals who want to use their data skills to make the world a better place.”