Best practices: Altec Innovation Challenge gets students thinking about real-world problems, STEM careers

Seventh graders from Malachai Wilkerson Middle School won $10,000 for their anti-bullying app idea.

Seventh graders from Malachai Wilkerson Middle School won $10,000 for their anti-bullying app idea.

At Altec, building a talent pipeline is a long game.

To help pique interest in the company, it starts recruiting potential future employees young. Really young.

“[Our mission is to] invest in K-12 students, keep them engaged and give them ideas of career opportunities earlier so that, ultimately, one day they’ll come to work for Altec as a developer or an engineer,” said Stacia Gaines, who is a Talent Acquisition Manager at the company.

This year, Gaines and Altec, an equipment and service provider, created The Altec Innovation Challenge, a program that encourages students in Birmingham City Schools to use technology to solve real-world problems with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) solution, thereby exposing students to STEM careers. The challenge was originally intended for high schoolers, but an oversight in the application allowed middle schoolers to apply as well.

“And lo and behold, middle schoolers won,” Gaines said.

The winning team, comprised of seventh graders from Malachai Wilkerson Middle School, won $10,000 for their idea of creating an anti-bullying app that features music, games, a chat space and a place to report bullying. The seventh graders have teamed up with the University of Alabama’s Capstone IT Development Team to launch the app in 2019.

“We were able to shine the light on Birmingham City Schools and show how great the students really are,” Gaines said.

Altec CEO Lee Styslinger, left, was a strong supporter of the Challenge.

Altec CEO Lee Styslinger, left, was a strong supporter of the Challenge.

In its pilot year, 10 groups applied from eight different schools. Each team had between five to 10 members and were sponsored by a faculty member at their school. Applications included a problem and proposed solution, and teams were helped by Teach for America and Venture for America fellows, as well as volunteers from Altec, to create a project management plan in round two of the competition.

“They helped facilitate learning about how to solve problems and how to come at problems from a strategic perspective,” Gaines said. “One of the most exciting things is to see students utilizing problem-solving skills to solve real, serious issues in the community.”

Four finalists were chosen to create presentations on their ideas, and a team of community judges, including the Birmingham Business Alliance’s Manager of Workforce Development Brittney Smith, chose the winner last month.

“The Altec Innovation Challenge is a good example of an employer-led effort to build the workforce of the future through career exposure initiatives, with the added bonus that there’s a community investment component to the initiative,” Smith said.  “It’s extremely exciting to see industry take an active role in engaging students at the K-12 level.”

Though every team couldn’t win the $10,000 grand prize, every finalist team went home with some winnings.

“Altec was so impressed with the students’ presentations that runner-up finalists’ teachers were awarded $500 to spend on classroom supplies,” Gaines said. “It was really difficult for judges to choose [a winner] as each of the presentations was outstanding, every single one of them.”

The Challenge had an added benefit, Gaines said.

“It ended up being a strong retention tool for Altec,” she said. “Our associates were so excited to be working with students. It’s a nice glimpse into what’s going on in Birmingham City Schools, and it gives you so much hope in this generation. It ended up being a retention tool for us.”

Altec employees are already anxiously awaiting next year’s competition, as this will be an annual event, Gaines said, and is just one of the initiatives the company employs to build its talent pipeline. The Altec Challenge might even still be around when the winning seventh graders are looking into full-time employment themselves.

“My hope is restored that kids are bright and looking to solve problems,” Gaines said. “These seventh graders are so articulate, engaged and are solving real problems in the community. I think it’s so exciting.”

Take a look at a video of the winning team here.