It is 5 p.m. on Saturday evening. After three full days of activities and events at the Technology Student Association (TSA) Colorado State Conference in Denver, I settle into my seat for the flight back to Washington, DC and reflected on the many events and activities of the conference. Weeks ago, I accepted an invitation to give the keynote address at the two opening sessions – one for the middle school and one for the high school. I am excited to share with you what I experienced.
The TSA is a national organization of students engaged in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). It is open to students enrolled in or who have completed technology education courses. TSA’s membership includes more than 250,000 middle and high school students across the United States. TSA is supported by educators, parents, and business leaders who believe in the need for a technologically literate society. Members learn through exciting competitive events and leadership opportunities. A wide range of activities makes TSA a positive experience for every student.
TSA Colorado is one of the largest TSA groups in the country. At the event in February, there were over 1,700 middle and high school students competing in more than 70 different events from robotics to debate to fashion design, just to name a few. From the first events to the closing awards ceremony, my days were packed.
The opening session was impressive. The eight elected officers – all high school students - ran the entire show. From the opening gavel by the president through the roll call, each officer stepped up to the podium with confidence. Every one of them a leader. I spoke to the assembly about the efforts of CompTIA and the Center for Technology & Workforce Solutions (CTWS) to support the TSA and the work being done to inspire young people in technology. I also shared my story and what the Center is doing to define skills and to help expand the tech pipeline. I explained that the skills most in demand by employers, regardless of industry, are soft skills (people skills, social skills, communication skills, and character or personality traits) and that the work they were doing – particularly through their LEAP program – at TSA was enhancing those skills.
Following my keynote presentation, the candidates running for next year’s officers each had two minutes to make their case. Again, I was impressed by the strength of character that these young people displayed, some of them just freshmen in high school. Each took their turn explaining why they were the right person for the job. One young man who was composed and articulate, explained that up to that point, the largest group he had ever spoken in front of was his English class. Here he was in front of hundreds of his peers, as if he had been presenting for years. Another of the candidates almost made it to the end of his speech before he seemed to lose his way. He managed to finish, but it was clear he was rattled.
But the story doesn’t end there because this was the first of two opening sessions. Having gone through all of the procedures and presentations for the middle school groups, an hour later we did it again for the high school teams. Opening gavel, roll call, keynote, and then the speeches from the candidates. And once again, this young man stepped to the podium to deliver the same speech which he struggled with an hour earlier. BUT this time he nailed it!! This is what TSA does. Yes, technology is the main event but the skills that these kids develop and the support they receive along the way is special. TSA helps kids develop the skills that employers – no matter what industry – are looking for. The students learn how to present themselves with a handshake and direct eye contact. They know that first impressions are important and they all dress for success. One of the hardest skills to learn is resilience. How do you try and fail at something and then find the ability – the courage – to try again…and again? Clearly, that struggling candidate had learned resilience. Throughout my time in Colorado, I was struck by the way everyone was learning soft skills.
One of my responsibilities was to judge the Middle School Challenging Tech Issues event where teams of two students each were given 15 minutes to prepare to debate the pros and cons of an issue. As I sat there taking notes and scoring their work, I couldn’t help but think back to my days in middle school. I don’t remember a single person in my classes, least of all me, who could have stood in front of a stranger and debate the use of digital books in the classroom or the benefits of a space force. My heart ached for the students who struggled but, at the same time, I was impressed by those who stepped up and took such a risk.
Over my three days here, I was able to wander around and observe some of the many events taking place. Flight endurance was amazing. In a huge atrium, rubber band powered balsa wood planes circled overhead. Some planes managed to stay aloft for a few seconds. The best one I saw floated in the air for minutes. All the competitors cheered one another on.
I was able to have dozens of conversations with middle and high school students, teachers, parents, organizers and the team of officers. Everyone had a story of how they came to be in TSA and what TSA was doing for them. Many of those stories mirrored in some way my own story of how I came to be in the technology industry.
I spoke with a teacher who was mentoring a group of middle school students. He had been an electrical engineer until five years ago. He had been coaching at his child’s school and was drawn to the work of instilling values and soft skills in his players as they practiced. He left his full-time job to begin a career as a teacher. His students, clustered around us as we spoke, sang his praises and were so grateful to have him on their side.
Another teacher, just a few years out of college wanted to talk to me about gender and equity issues. She is a physics teacher and sees how young women, who are so enthusiastic about technology in middle school, begin to move away from the field. While young women made up 60% of the conference attendees, that translates to only 27% of the technology workforce. This teacher was determined to improve those numbers and I am equally determined to help her.
I was privileged to have lunch with the officers on my second day. They were everything you would expect to see in a self-selected group of young people, determined to do well for themselves by doing good for others. We spent much of our time talking about how to expand the tech pipeline and what their role could be in bringing more students into the TSA and supporting them once they are there. Several of the officers were seniors who will be graduating in the spring. This was a bitter-sweet conference for them because with high school graduation comes their departure from TSA. It was inspiring to hear them talk about the many ways that their experiences in TSA had helped them to grow and be prepared for both college and their careers beyond.
In fact, many of them already had careers of a sort. I was thrilled to hear about the apprenticeships and part time jobs these young men and women were engaged in. The training and skills that TSA members receive provides them a leg up when they’re ready to step into the workforce. They are poised, articulate, and possessing many of the skills that employers are looking for – and some of them are still too young to drive.
If you are a company looking for ways to improve your bottom line AND grow the tech pipeline, consider connecting with the TSA. The students in their program are exceptional young adults and will serve you well as they learn about your work.
The closing, awards ceremony was indicative of the overall mood at the conference. While the events were called “competitions” it was clear that everyone in the room felt supported and included. As trite as it may sound, there really were no losers.
And remember that candidate who struggled so and came back for more? He was elected to serve as an officer next year!!
David Hyman is the President of the Center for Technology & Workforce Solutions (CTWS). He can be reached at email@example.com.