When BrainStorm, Inc., took the stage at Mont Harmon Middle School, it quickly became obvious that this wasn’t a typical school assembly.
The presenters from the American Fork-based educational technology company unfurled a green screen, Star Wars costumes, and other gear as the students rotated among stations in the auditorium. At the video production station, students took turns working as director and even operating a boom mic before switching to stations focusing on HTML coding, graphic design, and virtual reality. For these seventh and eighth grade students in Price, this technology fair was a unique opportunity.
“These are careers that they’re not really exposed to in rural Utah,” says Mont Harmon Middle School teacher Renee Banasky. “We’re not like Silicon Slopes. We don’t have technology companies around us, but the way the world is becoming, kids can live in rural Utah and work for a tech company. So it’s exciting to see new opportunities that they weren’t aware of.”
Teaching Rural Utah How To Code
Mont Harmon Middle School has around 620 students and faces high rates of intergenerational poverty, Ms. Banasky says. Traditionally, Price had a coal-based economy, and many students would graduate high school and begin working in the coal industry or at a gas well. However, with the decline of those industries, students are seeking opportunities in other fields. The technology fair is just one way BrainStorm is helping these students learn about a variety of technology-based careers in hopes of sparking interest in these fields.
The idea of partnering with the school first came about in 2017 when Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox met with BrainStorm representatives. The company wanted his advice on how they could help students learn more about technology. Mr. Cox suggested they contact a rural Utah school and ask the very same question. The company soon reached out to Mont Harmon Middle School, meeting with teachers and administrators and forging a partnership.
At their first meeting, BrainStorm representatives asked the school how they could be of service. “We didn’t want to go in and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,'” says Ciera Walker, corporate giving committee lead at BrainStorm. “The first meeting was ‘What can we do? What do you think will be beneficial? How can we help?'”
The result was a technology fair for eighth graders, followed by one for seventh graders a few months later. These fairs covered topics like virtual reality, video production, graphic design, music production, and HTML coding. “The goal wasn’t to necessarily teach them a skill. It’s not a lot of time for them to necessarily learn a skill. The goal of that was to spark interest,” she says, noting students could learn things like how to turn their love of art into a graphic design career.
“[Students] really loved it,” says Ms. Banasky. “It was fun for them to talk to someone who actually has a job in that field and to talk about how they can actually get to that field and how those people achieved their dreams.”
Inspiring The Next Generation Of Techies
The technology fairs were a huge success, and BrainStorm is now looking to increase their involvement with the school. Next school year, Ms. Banasky’s PEAK class for gifted and talented students will work closely with BrainStorm mentors on topics such as animation and coding, with video conferencing and check-ins every week or two.
One of the biggest challenges the company faced was adapting to the school year calendar and the constraints that go along with it, which is slower than the pace of the normal business world, Mr. Adams says. “One of the things that is required in the process is patience,” he says. “Regularly, in the business world, we want to iterate and run super fast and you forget you have a calendar year and schools and you can’t just grab a whole bunch of students and throw them in a pilot program with three weeks’ notice. It doesn’t work that way.”
Mr. Adams also notes how important it was to be flexible and adaptable throughout the process. “You try little things, you test them and make sure that it’s going the right direction and it’s positive, and you accelerate a little bit more and shape it as it goes,” he says.
In order to assess student interest, BrainStorm conducted a student survey after the fair to see which topics they found most interesting. They learned students appreciated all of the stations. But they did adapt and add a new booth for the second fair in order to take a music producer up on an offer to host a music production booth. In the future, they may also incorporate more advanced opportunities in topics such as coding.
The potential payoff is huge. Ms. Banasky has already noticed changes in her students. She points to one student, who has a challenging family life and who never previously had any specific career aspirations. After the technology fair, the student excitedly told Ms. Banasky about a new ambition: to produce movies. “Whether [the student] becomes a movie producer or not… [the student] knows [they] need to graduate high school to do that, so [they have their] eye on a goal—and that just came from the tech fair,” Ms. Banasky says.
For BrainStorm, that’s just the result they’re looking for: to create a spark and help students pursue their dreams.