What does it mean to gain entry to the Amazon Future Engineer Program?
For students with a passion for computer sciences, it could mean everything. That’s because this multifaceted initiative aims to inspire and educate hundreds of thousands of students from underrepresented and underserved communities — giving these bright minds opportunities they might never experience otherwise.
“It felt like, within STEM education, there was an opportunity to address the abundance of job growth and the inverse lack of publicly available computer science education,” says Mat Wisner, Senior Manager of Product Management at Amazon, and creator of the Amazon Future Engineer Program. Wisner tells Parentology, “At Amazon, we felt like we were uniquely positioned to make a bigger impact with computer science because of our resources, technology and experts that we can leverage to engage classrooms.”
How the Amazon Future Engineer Program Works
Wisner started the program in 2018, with the long-term goal of increasing access to computer science education from a “childhood to career” trajectory.
At the kindergarten through eighth-grade level, the Amazon Future Engineer Program provides thousands of students with a number of programs, from after-school computer science workshops to coding camps and online computer science courses. In addition, Amazon’s robotics grant program provides more funding for computer science and access to tours of Amazon Robotics fulfillment centers.
At the high school level, the AFE currently provides more than 2,000 schools with Introduction to Computer Science and Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science classes. Amazon’s funding provides preparatory lessons, tutorials, professional development for teachers, fully sequenced and paced digital curriculum for students, and live online support for both teachers and students.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the AFE is even offering free computer science classes online and free robotics classes for coders. For Wisner, this is all about giving students opportunities and education.
“We have different program areas for different age groups, and there are a number of opportunities for students should they decide to persist,” he says. “I felt it was the right thing to do. You shouldn’t be excluded just because your school doesn’t have access to computer science curriculum.”
The 4-year scholarship program is unique in that it invests heavily in its recipients over a long-term commitment, a factor that Wisner says is critical to a child’s development in the computer science discipline.
“We like to think of it as a long-term investment into a child’s lifetime academic achievement,” says Wisner. “The cost of post-secondary education is astronomical, and that challenge doesn’t go away once a student attends post-secondary education.”
Starting Young Matters
Kids are naturally curious and inclined to participate and engage early on. “Hearts and minds are won much sooner than high school and college,” Wisner laughs, adding that giving students access to resources at a young age is critical to their success. “It’s very early in a student’s career when they decide what’s cool and what’s of interest to them. We want to ensure they have access and choices — that they have the prerequisites to accelerate and the inspiration and confidence to succeed.”
Equally important for the success of these students is the critical work experience and connections that come from a prestigious co-op opportunity at Amazon. The job experience happens at an earlier stage, between freshman and sophomore year, whereas other programs typically engage students when they’re in their third or fourth year at college.
“This mission is important to me because it opens up opportunities to great careers,” Wisner says. “You don’t have to become a software engineer, but if you have a fundamental understanding of technology, it helps to understand how things can work better, and makes them less mysterious.”
These aren’t theoretical lessons, either. For example, over the past year, Amazon interns were challenged to create something for their community. Out of that, one girl who worked with local boys’ and girls’ clubs, developed a meditation app for Alexa.
“One of the challenges (these kids) were having was thematically around mental health; there were so many stresses for them both in and out of school,” Wisner says. “She was listening to their feedback and came up with a conceptual idea that addressed this challenge and then got to roll it out with a group of students, based on her lived experiences and getting close to those customers.”
It’s a principle that Amazon adopts in its own business model. “With teacher and students as your customers, they are not shy about giving their feedback. I’ll never learn more in a day than going to a classroom and hearing from that group,” he says. “We can address the issue far more quickly and deeply than if we try to figure it out by ourselves.”
Wisner’s advice to future Amazon Future Engineer applicants? Boldly go.
“Be brave in terms of trying new things. This is something that’s way easier for younger kids to do. Nothing bad can happen if you try and fail.” Failure was a big part of Wisner’s own success at Amazon. “It led to me having my dream job. I got told ‘no’ a lot. All the major CEOs have failed majorly in their careers, then go on to do amazing things.”
Learn more about the Amazon Future Engineer Program here.