Microsoft and Todd Beard, one of the company’s Innovative Educator Fellows, dropped by Flint’s Southwestern Classical Academy recently, bringing all the materials — and the inspiration — to build a sensor glove that can control a robotic hand. Middle-school students from Southwestern and the International Academy of Flint rose to the challenge, producing their own versions of the device and, along the way, learning about human anatomy, mechanical and software engineering, and data testing.
“It’s not often that our students have this kind of opportunity to work one-to-one with a visiting expert,” said Jennifer Burger, program manager for the Crim Fitness Foundation. “This is a real treat for them.”
With support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Crim serves as the lead agency that coordinates a community education initiative with the Flint Community Schools. Burger worked with the schools to help pull the event together.
Flint is one of many stops for Beard, who travels to schools across the country as part of Microsoft’s global YouthSpark initiative. Through a lively and light-hearted mix of one-on-one, video-guided, and peer experimentation and learning activities, the former Flint-area math teacher encourages students to form a hypothesis, test it and use the occasional mistake to build a better product.
“Where the kids go, I go,” he says of his teaching methods.
“Ultimately, the purpose of our visits is to help students realize they can be producers — not just consumers — of technology,” said Beard. “This activity — building a machine that mirrors the human hand — introduces them to the engineering process and all that goes with it.”
According to Microsoft, an estimated 1.4 million computer-science related jobs will be available in the U.S. by 2020, yet U.S. college graduates are expected to fill less than a third of those positions. That’s why it’s important to Beard that students have access to the kinds of creative, challenging activities that get them excited about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“We want to increase their interest in computer science as early as possible, “he said.
“Even if students ultimately choose another career path, STEM skills — problem solving, analytical thinking, and the ability to work independently and in group settings — are in high demand by employers across the country,” he added.
In Flint, afterschool hours offer an ideal time for hands-on STEM activities. Afterschool programs — a key element of Flint’s community education initiative — offer a more relaxed learning space, where students have the time to experiment and use “mistakes” to deepen what they learn, said Burger.
Beard has promised to return to Flint in the coming school year to offer a larger number of area students the opportunity to take on the roles of computer scientist and engineer.
“I’m from Flint, and that makes it important to me that kids and teachers in the area get to share some of the great activities and workshops that Microsoft has developed,” he said. “We’ll be back.”