User Experience Researcher, Intel Corporation

Exposure to STEM Impacted Career Trajectory

Challenger Learning Center of Richland County School District One

As a child, France Jackson visited Challenger Learning Center of Richland County School District One with both my elementary and middle school classes, as well as for a week-long camp. She continued her education to receive a B.S. and M.S. in Industrial Engineering from Clemson University, and a Ph.D. in Human-Centered Computing from the University of Florida.

Now, she’s a User Experience Researcher at Intel Corporation.

What do you remember most from your Challenger Learning Center experience and how did it affect your decision to pursue a STEM career?

I was always good at science and math as a kid, but I did not decide until around 6th grade that I wanted to be an engineer. I was very interested in how things work, building with Legos and taking things apart. Middle school is when I started to attend various STEM nurturing activities such as science camp.

Participating in camp at the Challenger Learning Center played a major role in my decision to become an engineer. I am not sure I would be an engineer if it were not for the hands-on experience I was able to engage in while at the Center. I remember how hands-on the experience was. I still mention some of the experiments we did in interviews today. I remember making rockets with film canisters, vinegar, and seltzer tablets. I especially loved the space mission. It was such a fun experience. I remember being extremely fascinated by all the moving parts and the puzzles we had to solve. I think, as an adult, I would still enjoy the space mission activity. I definitely consider the Center and my experience there a major event in my life that I often look back on and consider its profound impact.

Why is STEM education so critical at a young age?

I think exposure or the lack thereof is one of the major reasons we don’t see more people interested in STEM, particularly girls and minorities. People can’t aspire to be something they have never heard of or don’t know exists. We should expose kids to STEM early, often, and in many different forms. There are still people who think engineering is for boys. There are still toy companies that only make the toolsets and microscopes blue or grey to appeal to young boys. Why? Why don’t we buy our young girls science kits instead of only giving them dolls and Barbies? If you don’t show a girl early that it is okay to be interested in STEM and nurture that interest she may think she is different, she may suppress the interest. I also think It is important to expose kids to professionals in STEM careers early on. Let them see people who look like them who are doing jobs they may have never heard of. I don’t think they have this problem in places like Silicon Valley. Kids are exposed to all kinds of STEM professionals, entrepreneurs, and startup owners. Their parents may work in STEM, their friend’s parents, or even someone from their church. It’s all around them. Here in South Carolina, we have to work a little harder to make sure our children are exposed.

What advice would you give to students who want to pursue STEM degrees or careers?

I would encourage students to stick with it! Search to see what kinds of STEM degrees and jobs are out there. If you see a job, work backward. What kind of degree is required to get that job? Research the degree and see what schools offer that program. What kind of classes make up the curriculum? Still interested? Awesome. Now see what you can teach yourself how to prepare you.

I would encourage them to look for STEM mentors. When you do have an opportunity to meet someone in a STEM profession, ask them a lot of questions.

I would also highly advise them to find ways in their community to help nurture their interest, such as attending summer camps and weekend programs, or visiting STEM centers like the Challenger Learning Centers.

Finally, I encourage anyone interested in STEM to start to learn basic programming. Use one of the online course sites to teach yourself to program. You will thank me later.

Why should people support Challenger Learning Center’s STEM programs?

Challenger Center’s STEM programs offer the community a unique experience. Not only does it expose kids to robotics and aeronautical engineering, but it also offers hands-on experiences. I’m not sure of another place in South Carolina where you can be an astronaut and a member of the mission control team and learn to work together on a space shuttle mission. I honestly can’t even find the words to describe how amazing that experience is. The equipment, the spacesuits, the puzzles, and problem-solving – everything about the Mission exercise is innovative and unique. Since my time at the Center, the programs and experiences offered have grown so much. The Center is such a gem and we should not only support it but take pride in it. It’s an opportunity for kids to get hands-on experiences that can have a profound impact on their lives. If it were not for the Challenger Learning Center, I would not be months away from being Dr. Jackson with three STEM degrees and a job at Intel. I know I am not the only one with this story.