The University of Michigan College of Engineering and Qualcomm Incorporated have partnered to form the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab, an interactive workshop for high school students to learn about STEM careers and experience a hands-on learning experience. Thinkabit officially opened its doors last Thursday in the Detroit area.

While dialogue between the Qualcomm and the College of Engineering has existed in the past regarding other projects, the Thinkabit Lab has been the first to materialize.

The Michigan Engineering Zone was elected as a now-shared location for the Thinkabit Lab, continuing its work as the rendezvous for various Detroit high schools’ FIRST Robotics teams, which take place after the regular school day. Zone Director Julian Pate believes the integration of the Thinkabit Lab in the Zone will inspire potential programs for high school students.

“The Michigan Engineering Zone was opened nine years ago; the objective was to offer year-round activities to engage the students in the city of Detroit,” Pate said. “That has been accomplished partly with the nine years of the high school program. The Thinkabit Lab provides the opportunity to do that down the grade ladder, across the entire school year.”

Engineering graduate student Wayne Lester has been involved with the MEZ since he was a student at Cass Tech High School in Detroit. He now works with the organization as a FIRST Robotics mentor, and echoes Pate’s enthusiasm about the partnership with Thinkabit.

“I’ve seen a lot of students come in and out learning a lot about STEM fields and just getting a good opportunity to be exposed to the field,” Lester said. “With the Thinkabit Lab, it definitely just expands on the mission of the MEZ. It’s really to be a collaborative space and really engage students in STEM fields, and with the Thinkabit Lab it’s the perfect opportunity for… giving more students the opportunity to navigate the STEM field and really be educated on what it is.”

The Thinkabit Lab functions much like a school field trip for the middle school students. It is split into two halves: the first of which focuses on engaging students, with experiences that teach them about STEM fields, as well as others. This part is led by Lab coordinator LaShawn Sims, who explained the importance of introducing youth to career fields and the emphasis of personal assets.

“They do an activity that is called the Strengths, Interests and Values, where they look at their own individual strengths, interests and values,” Sims said. “They are able to look at about 45 different careers and determine what would be a good fit for them based on their own characteristics.”

The second half of the program follows with the conceptualization of an idea or invention by the students, and then its subsequent creation. Lab coordinator Haley Hart facilitate this part of the program, which highlights the engineering and hands-on aspect of the program.

The lab hosts about 30 students per day and is predicted to host approximately 3,000 students in one year.

While the original Thinkabit model has been functioning at Qualcomm’s San Diego headquarters for four years, the Detroit Thinkabit Lab began its soft launch in September and has been perfecting the program for the past two months.

The Detroit lab is the second Thinkabit location, excluding the headquarters in San Diego. Virginia Tech partnered with Qualcomm in fall 2016, opening a workshop at its Northern Virginia Center.

Plans for the MEZ and the Thinkabit lab include possibly expanding available programs to the summer.  

“Really, the progress or the outcome that we’re looking is for kids to have opportunities to learn about STEM careers, and get involved in hands on activities that would get them interested in learning and following down that pathway,” Hart said.

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