Disrupted: Future Innovation Talent Costs of the COVID-19 Crisis

March 10–13, I attempted to attend the SIGCSE 2020 conference on computer science education. The event was cancelled by order of the Oregon Governor, before it could even start. Basically, I traveled there, turned around, and came back. While an inconvenience, this was not a major loss for me professionally. SIGCSE is certainly an important annual event for the #CSforALL community, but it is not critical for my work to progress, as I am already well connected in this community. However, for the graduate students presenting their first research papers, the CS teachers for whom this may be their only touchpoint with the education research community, the CS education startups hoping to connect with research collaborators, or faculty hoping to build cross institution research collaborations— the cost is real and innumerable. How do we measure the cost of connections not made?

Computer Science undergrad Priscilla Rodriguez meeting IBM computing pioneer Eleanor Kolchin in 2014

ver this past week of cancellations and postponed events, I have been thinking about how this impacts our youth, especially those making the critical transition from high school to college or work. There are scores of capstone events and rites of passage ceremonies (e.g. graduation) that occur annually during the Spring semester. In my universe of tech and engineering education, we’ve seen the cancellation of the National Aspirations in Computing Award ceremony and many of the regional award events — affecting nearly 4K high school young women. The Regeneron Science Talent Search gala has been postponed, the entire FIRST Robotics competition season is suspended, and the AFA CyberPatriot championships have gone virtual. I suspect the International Science & Engineering Fair scheduled for May 10–15, 2020 will also be disrupted as air travel is constrained and schools are closing. Add to the list countless hack-a-thons, science fairs, scholarship ceremonies, and leadership institutes typical for high-achieving students.

These events are important rites of passage that serve to formally induct students into their chosen STEM field, as well as act as foundational resume and network builders.

The San Antonio Award for Aspirations in Computing is hosted by San Antonio WIT and Rackspace and honors high school young women in tech from Central Texas.

It is likely nearly all of the capstone events, award ceremonies, competitions, and rites of passage that students strive towards and aspire to simply will not happen in 2020. I can’t help but fear what this disruption might mean for career progression for these young people, and long-range impact on the science and tech innovation talent pool going forward.

It is impossible to quantify the loss of the opportunity to connect with the right mentor early in your career, earn a prestigious scholarship or award that signals promise and potential in the field, connect with peers on a similar path, or network with future employers? This is particularly important for low-income STEM students, who often rely on competitions and recognitions as a stand-in for the increasingly important social capital and networks in the field that they and their families may lack.

Meanwhile SAT exams are cancelled and AP exams will be done at home, and the classes preparing students for those gate-keeping exams are abruptly going virtual. We are poised to have a large population of future STEM talent whose educational path has been irreparably disrupted.

How Industry Can Help

We are all moving to virtual work as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean our volunteer contributions should end. Reach out to the education programs you usually support, and ask how you can help. Do you judge the science fair or local robotics competition? Perhaps you volunteer at an after school STEM program? These organizations are probably trying to figure out ways to replace their work and deliver services virtually, and could likely benefit from some industry expertise.

  1. Share your tools. Most schools and nonprofits can’t afford enterprise level collaboration tools — meaning they likely have time, storage and participant limits for virtual meetings. If you have access to premium Zoom, Go To Meeting, Microsoft Teams, Blue Jeans and other virtual collaboration tools — consider sharing that access with your nonprofit and school partners.
  2. Keep giving, and give more. Don’t suspend your financial support just because in-person events are no longer happening. For example, even though SIGCSE was cancelled, GitHub Education kept all their sponsorship in place to support the organization. Educational events you support will still carry costs, even if they don’t happen. And, the burden of pivoting to virtual may mean new, unexpected costs — like shipping trophies to 4K students (yikes). We need our nonprofit education sector to remain intact, and come out healthy on the other end.
  3. Dismantle structural barriers to the future success of these students. Frequently the automation of tech hiring and recruitment relies on indicators like test scores, GPA, prior experience, awards, and timeliness to identify talent. We know these indicators and the unconscious biases we all hold when judging a candidate’s potential are imperfect and cause valuable talent to fall through the cracks. If anything, this crisis is going to result in a new breed of really nimble and resilient young people entering the S&T workforce. Make sure your systems don’t count them out before they get to you.

At minimum, all employers should be ready to pivot and adapt along with this new crop of students. Their path is not going to be what they expected. Industry expectations must adapt as well.



#TechEquityEntrepreneur, Chief Evangelist @csforall, Founder @MileFund, fmr @ObamaWhiteHouse @OSTP44, @ncwit, @ncwitAiC, @TECHNOLOchicas, lifetime @girlscouts

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Ruthe Farmer

#TechEquityEntrepreneur, Chief Evangelist @csforall, Founder @MileFund, fmr @ObamaWhiteHouse @OSTP44, @ncwit, @ncwitAiC, @TECHNOLOchicas, lifetime @girlscouts