Kids from Jackson Middle School at SparkED, photo courtesy of Louis Pacilli

Forty kids arrived by bus Saturday morning to Geekdom in downtown San Antonio.
Few of them knew anything about robotics or building a business.
The kids started off kind of groggy said Simon Barnett, a 16-year-old mentor from Alamo Heights High School. He could tell some of them didn’t really want to be there.
But through the course of the day and hands on learning, the kids came to life, Barnett said. He mentored the robotics group in which the kids build a Lego Mindstorm Robot.
“By the end of the day, several of them told me they didn’t want to leave,” he said.
That transformation is exactly what SparkED seeks to do, said Louis Pacilli, education director at Geekdom and the program’s administrator.
SparkED officially kicked off two weekends ago. Almost every weekend through May, a group of 40 at risk Junior High School kids will participate in the weekend long program at Geekdom, on the 11th floor of the Weston Centre in downtown San Antonio. Then SparkED will host free weeklong summer camp programs for some of the returning students.
Graham Weston, chairman and founder of Rackspace, has put up the funds to pay for SparkED, which is free to the students and schools participating in it. Schools in the North East ISD, San Antonio ISD, Harlandale ISD and New Braunfels ISD will participate along with programs geared for home school kids.
This group of students came from Jackson Middle School, which has 842 students in the North East Independent School District. Almost 61 percent of its students qualify for either free or reduced lunch.
Teachers and administrators nominated the kids to participate in the program. The kids have been identified for being at risk of dropping out due to absences, failed classes or behavior problems. But none of that was evident Saturday. All the kids were well behaved and attentive.
In the beginning, the kids formed a corporation: Jackson Inc. Then they broke up into groups to become subject matter experts in gaming, entrepreneurship, programming and website design. Mentors from the community led the groups and assisted the kids. They watch, learn and practice their skills like an apprentice to a blacksmith, Pacilli said.
The idea is to spark a child’s interest in science, technology, engineering and math, he said. And in one weekend, they learn everything they need to know to launch a business.

Desmond Savage instructs the entrepreneurship group at SparkED

Diego Ballez, 13, eighth grader, gave up a weekend baseball tournament in Austin to participate in SparkED. Before the program, he wanted to be a professional baseball player but now he’s thinking about becoming an engineer.
“It was worth the sacrifice,” he said.
He spent Saturday learning about logos, webpage design and how a corporation operates.
Meghan Oswald, 27, volunteered to mentor the students in the entrepreneurship group. She’s an MBA student at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. She formerly worked as a fifth and sixth grade teacher.
“I think, as teachers, we’re feeling a great deal of pressure to teach to the test, to teach to scores and not all kids learn that way,” Oswald said. “Kids learn differently. Kids have different backgrounds. Kids have different parents and support systems. And so it’s really important to meet the kid where they are at right now. In this collaborative learning environment, breaking them up into expert groups, teaching them practical skills is important.”
Oswald impressed on the kids the importance of teamwork.
First off, the entrepreneurship group learned 20 vocabulary words that define entrepreneurship and how to apply them, she said. By the end of the program, the kids become experts in the terms, she said. The words include sales, marketing, strategy, persistence, customer appreciation, teamwork, sacrifice and Lean Canvas.
Ben White, 14, an eighth grader, explained what a Lean Canvas was.
“A Lean Canvas is basically all the things you need to have a successful company,” he said. It’s a business plan that spells out everything from production costs, including labor and materials, to marketing and advertising, he said.

Some of the mentors for SparkED at Geekdom, photo by Louis Pacilli

The kids making up Jackson Inc. decided to market a robot from the research and development department called a Zombie Catcha because Zombies will be invading San Antonio and people need to defend themselves. The $1,650 robot will be marketed to the military, families and businesses on the Internet and radio and through retail channels.
“I’ve learned how to market products,” White said. “Before I didn’t know what went on to get a product on the market. Now I know what skills you need to get there.”
Desmond Savage, 33, an MBA student at St. Mary’s University, volunteered to mentor the entrepreneurship group because he wanted to help the kids see new opportunities.
“I wanted to give them some insight into something that’s different than what they see everyday because a lot of times when you grow up in a certain environment the only thing that you see, that’s what you believe,” Savage said.
His hope was to inspire the kids and empower them to change the world and dream big.
“Don’t limit yourself,” Savage said. “I think a lot of times, especially kids that come from economically depressed neighborhoods, they dream small. I want them to dream big.”
Vilmar Morgan, designer and creative strategist and Geekdom member, also believes in the vision of SparkED and volunteered to mentor the website design group.
“I believe in shaking up the educational system to help kids,” Morgan said. “I believe that our teachers and our parents would benefit from another perspective and an educational process that incorporates a thematic system of learning. It engages students on another level. It engages students on topics that are important in the real world.”
Within the website design group, the kids divided into three subgroups: logo creation, website design and content creators.
They used an online site called as a template for the website design. But the students still chose the design elements such as the typeface, colors, layout and they created the content to go on the site.
“We help students unlock their minds and think creativity,” Morgan said.
The kids created a 3-D logo of a robot head with the slogan incorporated from the entrepreneurship group, said Natalie Ramirez, 12, seventh grader. She said they used the five principles of logo design and then she recited them from memory.
“Simple, memorable, versatile, timeless and appropriate – that all goes into your logo,” she said.
The logo was a team effort with each member drawing part of it, Ramirez said.
Saturday afternoon, Ramirez worked with her partners Mark Rojas, 12, and Alexandra Polanco, 12, both seventh graders, to take photos of the other groups and to do interviews to collect information for articles for the webpage. Each group has its own page on the Website’s homepage, Ramirez said.
“This is overwhelming, but it’s fun,” she said. “I hardly known anyone here, but I’m getting to know them. I know some of them but not all of them.”
Ramirez said she was proud of what she accomplished and the experience has prompted her to consider a career in technology.
“I know what I want to be, a vet,” she said. “But now I’m thinking I want to go into technology.”
Jimmy Valadez, 15, eighth grader, wants to be a video game programmer when he grows up. He worked in the programming group. He said doing programming is like learning another language.

Jason Seats, founder of Slicehost and managing director of the TechStars Cloud, helps students in the programming group at SparkED, photo by Louis Pacilli

Cameron Lindner, 12, seventh grader, received two concussions in basketball and football last year and can’t play sports for two years.
He said he saw SparkED and programming games as a way to occupy his time and keep his mind off sports.
They spent several hours Saturday programming a character using python code to make a game to market the robot.
“It’s like something I’ve never seen before,” Lindner said. “It’s a little difficult but I can deal with that.”
On Sunday, the kids will reconvene to finish their projects. At the end of the day, they present them to their parents and school administrators.

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