Military-affiliated middle school students from four schools throughout El Paso, Texas, attended the first-to-the-area YouthSpark program at Fort Bliss last week.
YouthSpark is an initiative by Microsoft to focus on STEM educational programming for young people and to encourage children to develop the skills needed for careers in the tech industry.
Sitting with a group of friends from Bassett Middle School, seventh-grader Zion Parker shared that he’s always wanted to build robots and even might want to work for NASA someday. He also said that he enjoys the “process of creating,” spurring a conversation with the other boys at the table discussing which video games increased their interest in learning the coding and software behind getting to play.
Cavan Christie, an eighth-grader, said he was hoping to learn “how to code more efficiently” at the event. They were both at the right place to get a head start on their dreams.
Microsoft Citizenship and Public Affairs Director for the Central United States, Raamel Mitchell, spoke to the room of excited tweens and teens about how every American is using technology, but only a few are producing.
Reminding the students of how many industry leaders got their starts as young people, Mitchell continued, “you have an opportunity to learn, create and grow… to do something, build something, make something great.”
In addition to his career with Microsoft, Mitchell is also on the board of directors for the Tribute to Valor Foundation that pairs veterans with opportunities to speak with students about how technology has impacted and improved their quality of life. Mitchell said he feels encouraged about the partnership Microsoft is cultivating with the Fort Bliss community and believes that while it is “incredibly important for all students to engage” with technology, for military students moving from community to community, opportunities like YouthSpark are an important avenue for engagement.
JJ Childress, Microsoft’s community engagement manager for the El Paso area, was also born and raised in El Paso. Childress said that El Paso and Fort Bliss have “such an important relationship” with unique opportunities for sustained engagement with these initiatives for veterans and military families. He said Microsoft’s TechSpark initiative aims to improve economic development in the tech industry through relationships in specific communities, like Childress’s hometown, while the YouthSpark initiative focuses on educational opportunities for young people.
While it was the first time YouthSpark has been held in the area, Childress said it is a national program, with events ranging from the East Coast to Hawaii in the past year. YouthSpark carefully selected four schools with a strong military family presence to have their military connected students be a part of the day.
Matt Brogdon, a veteran and Microsoft’s Western U.S. military engagement manager, acknowledges that military families are often in a transitional mode whether service members are getting out of the military, spouses are looking for portable careers or children are frequently changing schools, and he said these Microsoft programs aim to assist military families.
He shared that working with Microsoft in a capacity where he encourages engagement with military families is the “best decision” he could have made career-wise, and that while as a company Microsoft works with the military and other government organizations, these initiatives work to provide tools directly to those that serve.
Brogdon also stated that the YouthSpark program is exciting because it gives “the ability for kids to see something out of their normal day” that helps them to believe they can work in technology.
Throughout the day, students moved through different sessions that focused on various tech topics, such as an hour of coding with Minecraft, creating a business plan, robotics and Micro:Bit programming. Makayla Muse and Renea Manalastas were two girls that achieved the highest level in their group during the coding session, and worked together in a robotics session to put together a finger sensor that would move a small robot.
Muse shared that she appreciated the interactive nature of the day and getting to do things outside of normal classroom learning, including finding a skill set in coding, which the girls had not tried before.
In addition to the middle school students, Chapin High School Magnet Program Coordinator Joanna Daniels-Sherman brought high school students involved in the Magnet, Advanced Placement computer science and cybersecurity programs. One of these students, Gabrielle Franklin, said, “we get to interact with Microsoft, which sets us up for a career path” and was excited to learn right along with the participants.
Also in attendance was Jacqy Matlock, the commanding general spouse and manager of the Military Student Transition Consultant program through the Military Child Education Coalition. She and her husband have two platforms that they work on together: military child education and spouse employment. She said the Fort Bliss partnership with Microsoft has a connection to both.
Matlock also said she believes that military families are a special, unique population so anything that is dedicated to preparing their children for college, life, and career skills, while also benefiting companies with future employees that bring their military life experiences, “is fantastic.”
As Matlock oversaw the engaged students, she explained that YouthSpark has “entered an environment” where the community will be their biggest cheerleaders.
“This is a gift,” she said.Read comments