Qualcomm’s Irwin Jacobs Inspires Students To Go Full Steam Ahead
By Ray Huard…Irwin Jacobs, the legendary co-founder and former chairman of Qualcomm, was intrigued by a group of sixth graders who were using the computer coding skills they were learning to make toy dinosaurs move and small lights flash. “I’m very excited to see this lab set up and being used,” said Jacobs, as he moved from table to table to chat with students in the newly opened STEAM (Science, Technology, Arts and Math) lab sponsored by Qualcomm at Vista Innovation & Design Academy (VIDA) in the Vista Unified School District.
Modeled after the Thinkabit Lab Qualcomm opened in March 2014 at its Sorrento Valley headquarters, the VIDA lab meets what Jacobs said is one of the big challenges for business leaders and educators – getting students interested in STEAM at an early age.
The Thinkabit Lab was named for Link a bit Corporation, the company Jacobs co-founded in 1968 to develop satellite encryption devices long before there was a Qualcomm. What especially interested him about the VIDA lab was, “There’s an equal mix of boys and girls and the girls are equally interested. A few years ago, that would not have been the case,” Jacobs said. Traditionally, girls have shied away from STEAM careers. “We’re making progress in that,” Jacobs said.
Eleven-year- old Teya Schultz is an example. Meeting Jacobs and explaining her project to him was “amazing,” Teya said, “because I have a real interest in science, coding and math.” “I want to be an engineer or a scientist or both,” Teya said. “It’s really exciting that we have a Thinkabit lab here because we get to do all kinds of different things.”
The idea behind the Thinkabit lab and its offshoot at VIDA is to let students tinker, experiment and build whatever they can imagine. Jacobs told the students that that’s how he got his start growing up, making things with wires and cigar boxes. “I always liked building things,” Jacobs said. “I was always excited about technology and taking math courses.” The students were impressed. “I think it’s very cool that he comes here and talks to us,” said Sebastian Ferrer, 12. Although Sebastian said he had spent some time at the Thinkabit lab at Qualcomm, the day of Jacobs’ visit was his first time to try out the VIDA lab. “It’s amazing because we’re one of the only schools associated with Qualcomm and Thinkabit Lab,” Sebastian said. Eleven-year- old Jacob Bell, in his first visit to the VIDA lab, said “If we could, I’d come every day to learn about coding really, really good.”
VIDA is one of three San Diego County schools to have Qualcomm-sponsored labs on the Thinkabit model. The others are Harvey L. Lewis Jr. Middle School in the San Diego Unified School District and Fester Charter School in the Chula Vista Elementary School District.
In addition to sponsoring the VIDA lab, Qualcomm has donated classroom and office furniture to VIDA. Qualcomm engineers and other professionals also have met with VIDA students to talk about STEAM careers, said VIDA Principal Eric Chagala. “We feel very blessed to have this relationship with Qualcomm and to be inspired and learn from Dr. Jacobs himself,” Chagala said.
Tammy Solari, whose son is a student at VIDA, took time off from work to be at VIDA during Jacobs’ visit. “It’s amazing, he’s taking the time to talk with every kid here,” said Solari, who once worked at Qualcomm. “They’ll remember that forever.” Solari did a little tinkering of her own in the lab. “You don’t see this many places,” Solari said, adding that VIDA and the lab gives students the chance to try things out and discover their interests early on. “I felt like growing up, we didn’t have that. You went to college, you picked a major and hoped you enjoyed that,” Solari said. “I want to go back to middle school now. I feel I’ve been ripped off.” That sense of wonder is something Board of Education President Rich Alderson said Jacobs’ visit helped foster.
“It’s pretty amazing that someone of his stature would take the opportunity to visit a local school like this,” Alderson said. “He’s certainly an important figure for all of us, especially the children.” In coming to VIDA, Alderson said that Jacobs saw an example of how Visa Unified is transforming education. “One of the things I’m proud of in our district is that we’re trying to be innovative,” Alderson said. “I really hope the children continue to take away that sense of exploration and innovation. The kids have got to be able to problem-solve and look at new ways to approach things.”