Q: Please tell us about yourself and the path that led you to Skillpoint Alliance.
Biggerstaff: After visiting classrooms in Japan, China, the United States and the Navajo Nation during my undergraduate career, I found the disparity in educational settings inexcusable. This passion led me to public service. After graduating from Indiana University, I dedicated 2 years to National Service. During my first AmeriCorps term of service, I implemented and developed hands-on STEM curriculum for at-risk elementary students. During my second term of service, I implemented college access curriculum for high school juniors from low-income backgrounds and advised them on the college application, standardized test preparation, and financial aid processes. I am passionate about closing the achievement gap that separates low-income, under-served students from their peers. My background in education and passion for closing the achievement gap drew me to Skillpoint Alliance. Currently, I lead the NEXT Intermediate Job Program, STEM Innovation Camps, JAMs and Hour of Code partnerships.
Q: Tell us about Skillpoint Alliance: What is Skillpoint Alliance? And who created it? What programs and services do you offer and who do you serve?
Biggerstaff: Skillpoint Alliance is a workforce development agency that strives to train and educate our adults and youth with the skills needed for the jobs that are available in Central Texas. From the beginning, Skillpoint's programs are driven by industry needs. In 1994, Austin was lacking the skilled workers needed to transform Bergstrom Air Force Base into the Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Skillpoint (then the Capital Area Training Foundation) began with chartered funds from the City of Austin to train the workers needed to complete the job. Skillpoint's first program, Gateway, was born. Our Gateway program provides valuable and rapid training and education, preparing participants for entry-level employment in as little as four to twelve weeks. Today, Gateway has evolved to offer six training disciplines, all while maintaining unmatched results within each industry.
Over the past 21 years, our program offerings have grown to fit the needs of Central Texas.
To tackle the digital divide we developed our Empower Computer Proficiency Program. The Empower Computer Proficiency Program offers a ten week computer training course for adults looking to update their skills to meet the demands of today’s job market. Courses begin by covering the basics, such as using the internet and creating an email or word document. Participants will learn to master both fundamental and advanced features of Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, Excel, and Office. After completing the course, participants will have increased their computer literacy and gained the confidence to compete in the modern job market.
To help entry-level employees move up in their careers we created the NEXT Intermediate Job Training Program. The NEXT Program provides customized intermediate job training and professional development to adults and youth. Led by experienced industry leaders, participants learn the most effective strategies and methods to succeed in the workplace and move into the intermediate level. Each training session facilitates evaluation, teaches new techniques and provides feedback. Like other Skillpoint Alliance STEM Workforce programs, participants receive a mix of hands-on, classroom and project-based instruction to accommodate all learning styles.
When a shortage of engineers surfaced in 2001, Skillpoint began developing STEM-focused youth programs to prepare our next generation for in-demand careers in the region. Our Velocity Program was developed to provide high school students with over 120 hours of relevant, hands-on work experience and exposure to STEM careers by forming a consulting company and working for an actual client on a real world problem. Students in Velocity Prep work full-time for one month in the summer for a cash stipend. Students in Velocity Capstone work part-time during the spring semester for academic credit.
Skillpoint also coordinates all of the Junior FIRST® LEGO® League and FIRST® LEGO®League Competitions in Central Texas. Through Junior FIRST® LEGO® League (Jr.FLL) and FIRST® LEGO® League (FLL) students engage with mentors to develop the teamwork; presentation; research; and electrical, mechanical, and software engineering skills needed to succeed in STEM fields.
STEM Innovation Camps were designed to spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. Hands-on problem-based learning excites students about STEM career paths that are fast growing and available in the region. STEM Camps also encourage students them to explore their own creativity and have fun!
JAMS are organized meet-ups of industry amateurs and students to create a game or mobile app in teams of four, to be completed in a short period of time. Participants develop an idea, and bring it to life through rapid prototyping. JAMS provide participants with the opportunity to cultivate new friendships, develop the digital media talent pool, and enhance high-tech entrepreneurialism.
The Hour of Code is a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics. Anybody can host an Hour of Code anytime, but the grassroots campaign goal is for tens of millions of students to try an Hour of Code in celebration of Computer Science Education Week. Skillpoint Alliance works with schools and community organizations to host Days of Code where we help nurture problem-solving skills, logic and creativity. By starting early, students will have a foundation for success in any 21st-century career path.
Q: Can you please elaborate on Skillpoint Alliance' STEM Innovation Camps? Can you also please share a few words about your JAMS program and your involvement with The Hour of Code?
STEM INNOVATION CAMPS
We started our STEM Innovation Camps 5 years ago to spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. Campers work in teams to search for solutions, tackle challenging STEM content, design their own creations, and showcase their finished product.
Innovation Camps encourage parent and student interest in innovative, career-based STEM programs being offered in their communities; prepare teachers to implement rigorous, project-based learning techniques in a low-stakes environment; and provide summer mentoring and job opportunities for low-income high school students.
By hosting low-cost summer camps at high-tech companies or students’ neighborhood high schools, Innovation Camps remove barriers to participation in STEM activities for economically disadvantaged and at-risk students while actively addressing summer learning loss. By incorporating innovative, real-world design challenges and using industry-standard software tools, Innovation Camps pave the way for collaboration with local STEM industry partners and focus student career trajectories on the high tech jobs available in the region.
Skillpoint Alliance works directly with teachers, principals and district administrators to design, implement and evaluate these programs. This flexible model allows educators to build the program that best fits their needs. Training and materials provided leave the teacher equipped with activities, supplies and experience after participating.
This summer we served over 400 students in the Central TX area. We developed awesome new curriculum such as Forensics, Learn to Mod Minecraft, Video Game Design, STEAM Labs, SciGirls, Robotics, Maker Jr., Maker Sr., Aquaponics, Solar Racers & Wearable Tech. We piloted our MultiGenerational Summer Series (3 weeks) and served 30 students and 12 parents. We developed a new partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin serving approximately 120 students from diverse backgrounds at 6 different Housing Authority sites. We also piloted our first Spanish/Dual Language STEM Innovation Camps at Becker Elementary for 2 weeks serving 74 students.
Our JAMs program began four years ago. We partner with colleges and universities to provide these organized meet-ups of industry amateurs and students. This allows students and/or young professionals the opportunity to build their network and possibly bring their project to market. This year we partnered with SXSW, the US Department of Education, Globaloria to produce the Austin Education Game Jam. The Austin Education Game Jam was held March 7th-14th 2015. It was a follow up event to the White House Game Jam in support the President’s vision that education should be fun, interactive and serve student’s needs. Skillpoint Alliance and Globaloria brought together professional game developers, teachers and students to create learning games that appeal to the mass market. There were 7 games completed and showcased at the SXSWedu Playground and at the SXSW Gaming Expo. Skillpoint’s hope for a successful Game Jam is that aspiring game developers will share experiences and explore artistic expression through designing video games, resulting in game designs going to market. Casey Donnellan did just that, by designing Blue Marble, which was released on October 14th and is now available on Apple and Android smartphones.
Read more: http://skillpointalliance.org/game-jam-from-idea-to-reality/
HOUR OF CODE
In partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, Becker Elementary and Code.org, Skillpoint Alliance will be providing computer programming instruction for over 400 students grades PreK – 12 from November 2015 – February 2016.
Q: In your opinion, what are the 3 main challenges students in Texas face in terms of pursuing their STEM Education?
The STEM Education Law that was just signed last month finally incorporates computer science into the definition of STEM education for federal purposes. The first challenge we face is that despite its critical and growing importance, computer science is taught in only a small minority of U.S. schools.
According to the 2013 Central Texas Student Futures survey, over 18% of the jobs found in our region are Computer Science Information Technology related and less than 4% of high school seniors want to study those fields in college. The second challenge is addressing this huge gap.
According to the 2013 Central Texas Student Futures Survey, >1% of females are interested in Computer Science Information Technology. Our third challenge is engaging girls in Computer Science.
Q: In your estimation, how can we improve the STEM participation of all students in Texas, particularly those belonging to historically STEM underrepresented groups?
I believe we can improve the STEM participation of all students in Texas by blurring the lines between industry, education and the community. We can do this by making sure that every Texan is given an opportunity for growth and advancement by ensuring education and training is accessible, setting them on a path of excellence in life. Additionally, we at Skillpoint believe that STEM is an avenue for change. By participating in STEM activities, students can better understand how the world works around us, and can therefore use those skills to change the world for the better. I think once more people and programs start using that message - STEM not for STEM, but to better the world - more students will participate.