October is Global Diversity Awareness Month, and it’s a great time to reflect on inclusive values–the kind of values that inspire organizations to help the underserved and underrepresented in their communities.
FIRST® takes this kind of inclusive approach seriously. In fact, one of our Core Values– Inclusion–sums it up nicely: “We respect each other and embrace our differences.”
And when the mission of your organization is to build STEM literacy among students across the huge state of Texas–from a wide variety of regions, socioeconomic conditions, and cultural backgrounds–taking inclusiveness seriously becomes a practical necessity, not just an inspiring ideal.
Building a Vibrant Culture of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Across Four Programs
To thrive in the four programs–FIRST LEGO League Jr., FIRST LEGO League, FIRST Tech Challenge, FIRST Robotics Competition–students must not only have a clear, unobstructed pathway to learning, but they must also feel welcome and confident every step of the way. Students from a variety of backgrounds and locations must first have access to FIRST® programs, and when they gain that access, their experience in the programs should be positive in every aspect. Our STEM programs work best when every student feels the sense of security that comes from knowing they belong and are able to say, “I’m a valued member of this team.”
To accomplish this, FIRST in Texas works hard to build a culture of inclusion for Texas students and teams. In this ideal setting, differences are not barriers to learning and relationships, but strengths that are celebrated because they add depth, uniqueness, and diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to each team.
Clearing the Pathway
The first step is simple: develop an outreach strategy that is equitable and offers a helping hand to those who are underrepresented, underserved, and vulnerable. If we can do everything in our power to clear barriers of access for these groups, we are creating an inclusive environment from the beginning of the process.
FIRST in Texas is intentional about this, and we prioritize students from Texas who come from these underrepresented populations, which include (but are not limited to):
- Hispanics and Latinos
- African Americans
- Native Americans
This effort also emphasizes the support of underserved populations such as:
- Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds
- Girls and young women
- Youth who are disconnected
- Students living in urban and rural locations
- Youth who have disabilities and (or) are involved in special education
Of course, this list isn’t comprehensive, but it makes a simple point: FIRST in Texas is working hard to reach youth who are especially vulnerable. Instead of overlooking students from these populations, FIRST in Texas prioritizes them in their efforts to open doors to its programs. By being proactive and going out of our way to remove roadblocks for these populations, we’re making the valuable opportunity of STEM literacy available to everyone.
Making the STEM Journey a Confidence-Building Experiencing
Once we get these students into the programs, it’s essential to have an inclusive environment that makes them feel valued and welcome at every point in their journey. This means encouraging a respectful community that embraces differences.
Students from Texas are not only welcome to join the FIRST in Texas family, but to thrive in it and enjoy every phase of the journey. This applies as much to the adult volunteers as it does to the students. (If you have a passion for STEM, we want you aboard. And we will do everything we can to make you feel welcome.)
Comprehensive Training an Important Part of Our Inclusion Strategy
Proactive training is essential to building the vibrant culture described above. One way we do this is by collaborating with the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) to develop training modules (https://www.firstinspires.org/resource-library/training-equity-diversity-inclusion) for coaches, mentors, volunteers, partners and any key stakeholders who will be working directly with students. These modules are free and available to everyone.
The goal of this training program is simple: to create diverse, inclusive and equitable teams, and to make sure we have volunteers who are equipped to do that.
A Wide Open Door to Success: Giving Every Student Access to STEM Literacy
In today’s society, technology saturates everything. Its presence in every detail of our lives is growing exponentially with each passing year. Therefore, the more STEM literacy a student gains while they’re in school, the more open doors await them in their futures. Their chances of thriving and succeeding increase dramatically.
But it’s not enough to simply put them in STEM programs and hope it all works out. It’s essential to have confidence-building environments ingrained into the culture every step of the way. This not only ensures maximum learning, it ensures maximum fun. We want our Texas students and adult volunteers and mentors to have the time of their lives while they’re building robots and learning about science. Building a respectful, inclusive environment makes sure that happens.