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  • Writer's pictureTraci Browne

We Owe Kids Like Ahmed Mohamed So Much More

The Internet exploded in outrage on Tuesday when word got out about Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest.

Ahmed, a 14-year-old student at MacArthur High School, said that he went to school excited to show his teacher a clock he had invented. You can read the details online, but for our purposes here we’ll skip ahead to the part of the story where Ahmed was arrested for possession of a hoax bomb.

I don’t want to get into the debate over the color of Ahmed’s skin and his religion being a factor in the arrest. Not because it’s not an important discussion, but because I cannot presume to know what is in people’s hearts.

It’s easy to get caught up in pointing fingers and taking shots at the ignorance of the teachers and the police who arrested Ahmed. We could poke fun at Ahmed’s teacher for not being able to tell the difference between a clock and a bomb. We could even declare our support for Ahmed like so many did, including engineers all over the world using the hashtag #EngineersForAhmed.

But social media outrage and hashtags only take us so far. Ahmed deserves our outrage and support, but our focus now should be on doing everything we can to prevent this situation from happening to another young engineer.

Our education system in the U.S. is trying to meet the needs of STEM students. Teachers are doing their best to encourage the creativity of their students but find themselves at a disadvantage. They are unprepared for the challenges they face in teaching their students because technology advances to quickly. Even teachers who have the knowledge, lack the budget to do the activities they want to do. But most of these teachers are doing the best they can. They are learning right alongside their students.

Organizations such as the Association for Manufacturing Technology and UBM are inviting students and teachers to their trade shows. These organizations and others like them are showing students and teachers how the technology they are reading about in books is being used in manufacturing. The teachers and students who attend benefit tremendously.

I have spoken to participants in these programs, both the teachers, and students. They all say that seeing what they are learning in the classroom applied in the real world has been an eye-opening experience. But we can do more to ensure that every teacher and every student has access to our expertise.

I think it is unfair to expect every teacher in every school district across the country to be able to recognize the difference between a clock and a hoax bomb. Beyond just trusting the word of the student, where can they turn for expert advice before raising the alarm?

I can’t help but think if more engineers in the Dallas, TX area were involved in the schools, this incident would have turned out differently. What if MacArthur High School administrators had engineers on call who could have taken one look at Ahmed’s invention and said, yes, that is most definitely a clock.

Our K-12 schools need your help. They need the help of local professional scientists, engineers, and roboticists to assist in showing our children where their talents can take them. They need help nurturing our students’ creativity. Students who will be your future workforce.

Organizations and individuals can reach out to their local schools and work with them to organize career days, classroom presentations, and after school programs. You can assist teachers by organizing field trips so they and their students can see what they are learning being applied in a real world situation. You can donate much-needed resources so kids can participate in hands-on learning. Parts and equipment that barely put a dent in your budget make a huge difference to schools.

Build a relationship with your local schools and be available to those schools as a resource. When incidents like the one at Marshall occur, and they will, administrators could pick up the phone or log in to Skype to reach out to their engineering mentors. An Internet storm can be diverted. A young man or woman will not spend the day in juvenile detention.

Ahmed’s tragedy brought the engineering and science community together. He received an invitation to the White House. He received an invitation from Google to participate in their science fair. He has an invitation to tour Facebook’s campus, an offer of an internship at Twitter, a scholarship to Space Camp, and a personal invite to Generator from astronaut Chris Hatfield. NASA even noticed their logo on the t-shirt Ahmed was wearing in the photo of him being led away in handcuffs and offered him another one. One that’s been in space. He deserves all those things and more.

Emil Protalinski, a writer at VentureBeat, suggested September 14, the day of Ahmed’s arrest, “be turned into an annual day of action to help fight discrimination against students and people everywhere.”

I would suggest every day be the day our industry helps support our future workforce and the teachers who are guiding them. Pick up the phone today and call your local school district and ask them how you can help.

Get involved as a mentor in your community after-school programs, science, math, and robotics clubs. Invite students and teachers to your place of business. Give them a day to ask questions about your technology, and how to prepare for a career in STEM. Send your school district a big old box of spare parts and equipment kids can take apart and put back together.

Ahmed didn’t go to school that day expecting to get an invitation to the White House. All Ahmed wanted was recognition from his teachers for what he built. Let’s make sure in the future that’s something every student can expect.

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