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Verizon program helps bridge digital divide with STEM workshops for middle schoolers

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Allen Zhu, left, and Dihan Feng code a rover to follow a specific path for the STEM Achievers Mars Challenge.According to a survey conducted by Emerson, a global technology and engineering company, two in five Americans believe there are not enough science, technology and engineering workers to meet the demands of the labor market.

Despite ongoing efforts to boost interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields among students, the survey also showed that respondents do not think there are enough opportunities for students in the U.S. to gain the needed skills.

Verizon is trying to fix this problem.

Since 2015, the Verizon Innovative Learning STEM Achievers program has gathered thousands of middle school students from under-resourced schools and helped them get exposed to, engaged in and excited about STEM learning.

Throughout the three-week program, middle schoolers learn through hands-on experiences, including experimenting with 3D printing, artificial intelligence and augmented reality, entirely free of cost.

This summer, middle schoolers from around the Portland metro area convened at Portland State University's Business Accelerator campus in South Portland, where many explored engineering concepts for the first time. Each day, 75 students from 58 middle schools gather at PSU from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to work together with peers, problem solve and pitch their ideas.

On Friday, Aug. 5, students were working on a Mars Challenge project, which asks them to build a model bridge suitable for a miniature Mars rover to pass.PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Verizon STEM Achievers campers create virtual environments for a Mars Challenge during a summer workshop at Portland State University in August.

Diana, a middle schooler at Twality Middle School in Tualatin, said she was encouraged to do the camp as a way to socialize and learn new things.

"My sister said it would be perfect for me because I'm normally in the house a lot," the middle schooler said. "They thought it would be a great chance for me to get out and learn. I've never done anything like this."

Saai, a student in the Beaverton School District, said he's familiar with computers, having built his own in the past, but the STEM Achievers program introduced him to new skills.

"This is the first program I'm actually involved in," Saai said, noting he's learning "design, using different softwares and coding."

Saai said he's interested in a future career working with robotics and engineering.

Funding for the Innovative Learning STEM Achievers program comes from Verizon's Innovative Learning initiative, which is working to provide programs and resources to schools to close the digital divide. So far, Verizon has reached 1.5 million students around the country from 500 schools, said Mariah Scott, president of Verizon Robotics Business Technology. Verizon has invested $1 billion into the initiative, with a goal of reaching 10 million students by 2030.

The STEM Achievers program focuses primarily on middle schoolers, and works on the campuses of 44 historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and community colleges across the country.

Portland State University (PSU) is one of those colleges.

"PSU has such a strong track record with entrepreneurship, so [Verizon] is grateful they were able to pick up the program and to run the camp for us," Scott said. "It's a big commitment to try to expand access and bridge the digital divide, especially after the pandemic, so this has been really important for the company."

PSU first held the program virtually last year due to COVID-19. This year, the first in-person program was held from June 8-29. The second program of the summer, which began on Aug. 1, is currently being run and will end on Aug. 19. This month's program has been a massive success, said Abigail Van Gelder, assistant program manager at the Portland State Center for Entrepreneurship and director of PSU's STEM Achievers program.

Van Gelder noted the importance of exposing students like Saai to the STEM field as early as possible.

"When young learners see all of the avenues that exist for their futures, they get confidence and faith in themselves to continue exploring these paths," she said. "We help to build the confidence and the pool of people who continue on in STEM and take that innovative spirit that they have as middle schoolers and continue to change our world."

Find out more about the Verizon STEM Achievers program here.

This story is made possible thanks to Amplify, a high school journalism program from Pamplin Media Group and CareOregon.

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