Getting Young People Excited about STEM? There's an App for That

The alarming rate of American students' deficiencies in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) seems to have reached a national tipping point. Statistics show we're simply not preparing young people with the skills needed to succeed in tomorrow's most promising industries. And, as many U.S. business leaders readily lament, the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in an increasingly global marketplace in which students from other developed and high-growth emerging market economies are embracing STEM subjects at significantly higher rates and view them as key to their future prosperity.

How do we engage America's young people in STEM and equip them with a solid foundation in the subjects and technologies that will power the economy of the 21st century? While there is no silver bullet, it is clear that we need to leverage technology that is popular with young people outside of the classroom.

The answer of the moment: apps.

A national survey of over 500 American students aged 12-17, commissioned by Lenovo and conducted by Kelton Research in December 2011, shows that students have a very strong interest in mobile apps. Many use them on a daily basis on their smartphones and tablet PCs, and they see app development as an interesting, valuable skill. Yet, at the same time, they lack the confidence that they will have the technological skills needed to succeed in some of today's most promising fields, including mobile app development. Consider that:

  • The students surveyed use an average of 14 apps on mobile devices regularly
  • 80 percent of American teens would be interested in learning how to create their own mobile app
  • Almost a quarter (22 percent) think that mobile app development will be the most important technology skill to have when entering the workforce in a few years
  • Only 37 percent are very confident that the technology know-how they have now is enough to secure a good job upon entering the workforce

High school students today already use an array of technologies to communicate with each other outside of the classroom, but too often our schools are not teaching students on the devices they use most. If we could engage and excite students via the devices and apps they use every day, and teach them skills that they themselves believe will be beneficial in the long term, we could have a much greater impact.

That's why the National Academy Foundation (NAF) is working with PC maker Lenovo to teach mobile app development to high school students, piloting it first in five schools across the U.S. The course we have designed can be implemented as a 12-week after-school or "out-of-school time" activity to supplement NAF-developed IT courses students take during the school day or as part of the existing IT curriculum. Student teams right now are developing working wireframes, business plans and implementation schedules for an Android-based mobile application.

Participating schools are part of the NAF's network of 100 Academies of Information Technology. The schools are using Lenovo-provided technology products, including Android-based ThinkPad Tablets and large format ThinkCentre HD All-in-One desktops, among other items. We plan to bring this rigorous curriculum to students in every pocket of the country to help create our next generation of developers and entrepreneurs.

Currently, we're half way through the pilot curriculum, and reports from the classroom are beyond "excited." The win-win as I see it is that we aren't just getting these students enthused -- we're getting them prepared. The market demand for professionals with mobile app development skills continues to skyrocket across the globe. And whether or not these young people end up as developers, their appetite for STEM has been whetted, their teamwork, project management and presentation abilities have been exercised, and they can be sure that the technology they are using and the skills they are developing in school are relevant.

From the classroom to the boardroom to the family room, all of us have a stake in preparing today's students to succeed in tomorrow's workforce. Encouraging a greater interest in STEM via the technology devices and the language our kids already speak just makes sense. And best of all, feeding into that innate interest, pays off in students' STEM skill sets.