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Right now, thousands of aspiring young engineers and computer programmers across the world are tightening bolts and tweaking code in preparation for the big event: the FIRST Robotics Competition World Championships. They have spent millions of hours building robots, creating game strategies, and participating in regional competitions. And next week, they will flood the streets of Houston, clad in bright team colors, face paint, and spray-painted hair to experience what they routinely call “the Super Bowl for nerds.”

Each year, high school robotics teams have only six weeks to build a robot that can compete in a game designed by FIRST, an organization focused on encouraging children to pursue coursework and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) through robotics.

This is an incredible opportunity for the children fortunate enough to have school robotics teams. I was one of them. Throughout high school, my classmates and I were able to engage with science and technology with the guidance of full-time engineers that volunteered their nights and weekends to help high school students learn how to build a robot. This led many of my peers into STEM fields, a pathway they may not have pursued had they not been exposed early on.

But what about the students who attend schools without robotics teams? Or the students who attend schools where challenging STEM coursework isn’t even offered?

That is the reality at many U.S. schools serving low-income students and students of color. Despite increases in course access, schools serving high proportions of low-income students and students of color are still less likely to offer the advanced coursework that prepares students for college — let alone a career in the STEM fields. And even in schools where advanced courses are offered, high-achieving Black and Latino students are less likely than their White peers to be enrolled in rigorous STEM-oriented classes like Advanced Placement math and high-level sciences.

Not surprisingly, these inequities in schools persist into the workforce.

Currently, 70 percent of STEM positions in America are filled by White people; Black and Latino individuals each only represent 6 percent of the STEM employment force. And just a quarter of all people in the STEM field are women. Do these numbers sound like the outcomes of an equitable system?

No. But they are outcomes of our own making. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

Student survey data from the NAEP assessment make clear that Black and Latino students are just as likely as their White peers to enjoy science and math in fourth grade. Schools and districts can harness that early enthusiasm and provide high-level science opportunities both inside and outside the classroom to give students exposure to STEM opportunities and the tools they will need to pursue and succeed in careers in those fields.

In today’s increasingly connected, wired, and high-tech world, our young people — all of them — are primed to access, excel, and thrive in STEM fields. When schools don’t provide the exposure or the opportunities — to all students, regardless of race or income or educational background — how many enthusiastic children are dismissed from the STEM field without even giving them a chance to try? And how many future engineers, groundbreaking scientists, thrilling mathematicians, and brilliant coders are we losing in the process?

It seems that it’s not the students — but adults — that need reprogramming if we want to right these long-standing inequitable patterns in STEM exposure and achievement. And it starts in our schools.

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