Microsoft Tests New Approach to Experiential Learning

Since 2013, success for the Minnesota Aspirations in Computing Awards Program (MNAiC) has always meant strong partnerships… like the one we have with the Edina, Minnesota Microsoft team.  The technology company supports MNAiC program in numerous ways, including the annual Generating SPARCS with Microsoft experience, which they faithfully host to inspire and empower young women in grades 9-12 to pursue their technology passion and interests.  

This is why we were thrilled to end the decade with a program partner like Microsoft, who has positively impacted hundreds of young women.  The SPARCS with Microsoft experience last December included technical and professional skills workshops, and personal engagement opportunities with professional women from Microsoft and other MNAiC partner companies.  It’s become a highly anticipated day of learning and connecting for students, educators, technologists, and the occasional parent chaperone.  

Microsoft is a big proponent of generating excitement for tech, especially with youth.  Through a range of initiatives and partnerships, similar to the one with Aspirations, they help young people discover a passion for tech and envision a future filled with possibility.  Many of these partnerships allow Microsoft to lead the movement for gender equity, influence inclusive business practices and drive unbiased products within Tech —  Black Girls Code, Technolochicas, and Girls Who Code are among these partnerships.  Their disAbility employee resource group awards a scholarship to a current high school senior challenged by a disability. Blacks at Microsoft (BAM), a company-wide ERG, awards two $5,000 scholarships to outstanding high-school seniors interested in pursuing tech careers.  BAM also hosts the annual Minority Student Day encouraging students from underrepresented backgrounds to look at tech as a career. Students can find internship opportunities at Microsoft Internship Program

Given Microsoft’s commitment to diversity initiatives, their strong commitment to the SPARCS program is of little surprise.  SPARCS… is about Sustaining Passion, Ambition, and Resolve for Career Success…and in this case…career success with computer science.  Unique to this year’s offering was Microsoft’s desire to work hand-in-hand with two high school students, training and supporting them to co-lead one of their technical skills workshops.  For a number of weeks leading up to the full-day SPARCS experience, senior Claire Jensen and sophomore Mary Ghebremeskal from South High School in Minneapolis, worked with technologists from Microsoft, preparing for their peer teaching debut.

Claire and Mary are 2019 Aspirations in Computing Award Recipients who have demonstrated strong technical skill advancement and leadership over the past few years.  They were invited to participate in the Microsoft experience as ‘peer educators’ to showcase the software company’s newest technology located in their Technovation Alley space.  Two days after school the young women worked closely with Microsoft architects, Valerie Bergman – Data/AI Architect, PJ Johnson – Principal Architect, Jeff Brand – Developer Architect, and Todd Van Nurden – Principal Architect to learn about the new technologies, and be provided public speaking and presentation skills support and guidance.

The students presented technology demonstrations ranging from “AI for Good” to IoT (Internet of Things) to 3D Image capture to creating videos in PowerPoint.  They had NO PowerPoint safety net.  However, the Architects did stay in close proximity during the tours for technical support in case something didn’t quite work or someone asked a question they were not equipped to answer. 

According to Van Nurden, “Internally peer-to-peer is how we learn. Having students be tour guides was an experiment.  We’ve never attempted this before but thought it might be time.” —  As a point of context, peer here at Microsoft is considered anyone from CEO to Developer.” 

The team at the Microsoft Technology Center (MTC) specializes in communicating deep technical concepts to audience ranging from executives to 7-year-old’s.  “Reaching the audiences in their mid to late teens can be a challenge,”  Bergman, Microsoft Data/AI Architect says.  “We wanted to see if: 1) could the students grasp enough of the content to deliver a good experience?, and 2) would their peers listen more attentively to someone from their age group?  The observations seem to indicate that the hypothesis was correct. Given the right partners, we’d do it again,” she adds.

When asked how they felt the exercise of preparing and presenting to their peers helped them better understand the technology and/or build specific skills; Claire Jensen, said, “I think presenting is a difficult thing to do, especially if you don't have much experience doing it.  Fortunately, I had a previous public speaking experience, but staying on time and not talking too fast or too slow proved to be very challenging for Mary and I.  We started to get the hang of it towards the middle of presenting, but presenting is always a skill that I can get better at.  I was completely fascinated by the Innovation Alley the first time I saw it two years ago, and I think that reflected in our tours.  I am still amazed by the technology that is displayed there, and I tell people about it any chance I get.  I happened to see the Tobii eye tracker in the Microsoft Store at the mall, and it was cool to see something that I learned about and presented on actually available in a store for purchase.  Overall, the whole experience was awesome and I would encourage any girl to try it out and step out of their comfort zone to present if they have the chance.”

Mary Ghebremeskal says this about her experience, “It expanded my knowledge of the current technology available while showing me the possibilities of tomorrow.  Having the opportunity to see this firsthand, and teach it to people my age, gave me an idea of what the future would hold for me.  It was a firsthand example of how things in the IT field that were essential a week ago are obsolete a month later.  The actual preparation for the tours helped me strengthen my soft skills, such as public speaking which will give me an edge over my peers. Valerie, Todd, and PJ made this both an informative and fun experience we couldn't have gotten anywhere else.“   

Microsoft has made incredible investments focused on social responsibility and is working hard to make sure the technology world is a more inclusive space.  Supporting programs like SPARCS helps ensure that they are helping to motivate today’s youth, regardless of background to see and experience the possibilities. 

To learn more about SPARCS, and or to become a program sponsor, email Russell Fraenkel, Director of IT Career Pathways and Partnerships, at russell.fraenkel@metrostate.edu or call (651) 253-9438.


 ABOUT MICROSOFT

Guided by a commitment to building diverse communities, Microsoft is intentional in who they reach out to, and how they connect with them.  Their DigiGirlz program gives high school girls the chance to participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops, learn about careers in technology, and connect with Microsoft employees.  Microsoft also helps girls grow their skills and love for technology through their support of Technolochicas, Black Girls Code, and Girls Who Code. 

ABOUT MINNESOTA ASPIRATIONS IN COMPUTING

The Minnesota Aspirations in Computing Award Program seeks to inspire, engage, and empower young women in grades 9-12 to pursue technology education and career paths.  Each year, more than 100 young women are recognized statewide and/or nationally for their computing and technology accomplishments.  Participants also gain in-demand technology skills through SPARCS (Sustaining Passion, Ambition, and Resolve for Career Success) events and engage with Minnesota companies through job shadow experiences and summer paid internships.