How Microsoft TechSpark is infusing technology training into northeastern Wisconsin's schools and economy

·12 min read

SUAMICO - Welcome to Weirdshapeville, a triangle-shaped community that features its own library, "Little Ben" clock tower and Dash, a robotic tour guide who calls out the sights as it rolls past them.

Bethany Dunning and Graham Gerondale, third-graders at Forest Glen Elementary School in the Howard-Suamico School District, planned out Weirdshapeville on paper, drew their map, colored it in and programmed Dash to call out cardinal directions and landmarks as it moves through town.

Weirdshapeville welcomed its first dignitary to the two-dimensional town in December when Bethany and Graham took Gov. Tony Evers on a tour.

The project that produced Weirdshapeville was part of a lesson in mapping. The two third-graders had to show they understand how to make and read maps, cardinal and intermediate directions and how grid coordinates work.

They also showed Evers how students are being exposed to computer science and technology education earlier and more often.

The program is part of a comprehensive effort, launched by Microsoft and called TechSpark, to expand technology education and business development in regions like northeastern Wisconsin that are short on such opportunities.

The program Forest View Elementary students demonstrated for Evers is just one example of how Microsoft collaborated with the region's school districts, colleges, universities, businesses, industry groups and startup hubs to expand opportunities to study computer science and learn the skills high-tech, high-paying jobs require.

The students' work was the result of a county-wide pilot program developed by Cooperative Education Service Agency 7, a regional group that offers teacher training, equipment and programming to school districts, with the assistance of TechSpark. The aim of the pilot program is to develop curriculum that can be distributed statewide.

Evers was in Suamico to award a $150,000 grant to the program.

"The goal is to take the successful pieces of this pilot (in Brown County school districts) and get computer science into every Wisconsin school starting in kindergarten," Evers said.

Microsoft TechSpark Wisconsin manager Michelle Schuler speaks with reporters in December at the Howard-Suamico School District offices in Suamico.
Microsoft TechSpark Wisconsin manager Michelle Schuler speaks with reporters in December at the Howard-Suamico School District offices in Suamico.

TechSpark was established in Appleton in October 2017 when Microsoft chose northeastern Wisconsin to be one of six regions of the U.S. where it would invest staff, money and resources to help train today's workers and prepare tomorrow's.

The ultimate goal is not to turn the Fox Valley into Silicon Valley, rather to make sure that the region meets its long-term need for a technologically skilled workforce, said Michelle Schuler, the region's TechSpark director.

TechSpark does this by developing programs for residents at every stage of their education and career. Younger generations might start learning how to program grid coordinates into a robot in elementary school, take a computer science course in high school and then complete certificate programs at a local college or university. A person who is already working might find there is free training available that will help them get a better-paying job.

"This is about changing our education at the K-12 level, evolving our higher education institutions and looking at the future of work, what that workforce looks like and what our companies will need," Schuler said. "TechSpark is a journey that never ends."

Schuler, a southeast Wisconsin native, is no stranger to supporting Wisconsin's technology industry. She co-founded Women in Technology Wisconsin Inc. to support women of all ages interested in or working technology jobs and provide them with training and support.

"It really hit home with my passion," Schuler said. "I'm the face, but the power lies in the community."

Schuler's work with businesses and communities, her understanding of technology careers and her collaborative spirit made her the perfect fit to run TechSpark in northeastern Wisconsin, said Mike Egan, a Marshfield native who is Microsoft's national TechSpark director.

"She speaks to the idea that you have to be a convener, you have to meet the community where they are," Egan said.

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The region's early results, from worker training programs to developing school lessons, have been incorporated as Microsoft expanded TechSpark programs to other locations like Fargo, North Dakota., southern Virginia, and El Paso-Ciudad Juárez.

"Wisconsin really is the pilot for much of our other TechSpark work," Egan said. "We are driving it out to other regions in the TechSpark map."

TechSpark partners say its presence and support helped pack a lot of progress into four years.

"Really, I think one of the top three most important things that ever happened to me was picking up the phone when Michelle called," said NEW Manufacturing Alliance Executive Director Ann Franz. The technology-focused training the alliance now offers to members is a "cornerstone" of what NEWMA does, Franz said.

The increase in computer science education and efforts to develop technology-based businesses in the area means the kindergartners of today should, by the time they enter the workforce, have the education and training opportunities to qualify them for family-supporting, high-skill jobs right here in northeastern Wisconsin, said Missy Hughes, secretary of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

Wisconsin already has more than 200,000 people working in technology jobs that pay an average of $71,000. A program like TechSpark has the potential to "transform Wisconsin as we look to innovate and grow our economy," Hughes said.

The need for a technologically skilled workforce extends beyond the typical jobs you'd associate with technology: programmers, coders, app developers and engineers. Northeastern Wisconsin's major industries — manufacturing, health care, finance and insurance, agriculture and food production, transportation and logistics — employ tens of thousands of people and have a need for many of the same skills.

Forest Glen Elementary School third graders, Bethany Dunning, left, and Graham Gerondale show their computer-science project, Weirdshapeville, to Gov. Tony Evers at the Howard-Suamico School District officea in Suamico.
Forest Glen Elementary School third graders, Bethany Dunning, left, and Graham Gerondale show their computer-science project, Weirdshapeville, to Gov. Tony Evers at the Howard-Suamico School District officea in Suamico.

Expanding computer science in K-12 schools

Chad Behnke can remember when computer science class resources amounted to a textbook — probably one written for college students — and software to install on the student work stations.

“Even 10 years ago, there weren’t nearly as many resources available to a classroom teacher,” said Behnke, who teaches computer science at Bay Port High School, northwest of Green Bay.

Today is different. There are plenty of resources a computer science teacher such as Behnke can use in the classes he teaches. TechSpark connected Bay Port with a program that asks tech workers to volunteer in Behnke's computer science classes.

“Every one of them is a district resident,” Behnke said of the volunteers. The message, he said, comes through loud and clear to students: “Opportunities are available" here in northeastern Wisconsin.

School districts such as Howard-Suamico are adding activities and courses: Students now have technology-based activities in kindergarten through fourth grade, there’s a computer science focus to a fifth-grade class, and seventh-graders take a computer science-focused class, too.

Not every district prioritizes computer science like Howard-Suamico has, though.

Only 52% of Wisconsin schools taught computer science in the 2019-20 school year, CESA 7 found.

Jeff Dickert wants to help change that.

Dickert is the CESA 7 administrator whose staff provides training, lessons, and programming to 38 school districts, including the Oneida Nation. When Schuler and TechSpark convened a group of business and educational leaders to talk about how the region could develop its own computer science career pathway, Dickert saw a role uniquely fit for CESA 7.

“With the youth tie-in, professional development, our curriculum work in districts … it’s what we do. It looked like we’d be the perfect partner for Microsoft,” Dickert said.

The grant Evers presented Dec. 6 was not the teacher training program's first. CESA 7 has secured more than $500,000 in other grants to support the program from Wisconsin businesses, Microsoft and community foundations.

CESA 7 also developed a program that school districts can use to examine what technology courses they currently offer, what they'd like to offer and a plan for how to get there. The programs debuted in Brown County school districts this year with seven of nine districts completing the district-wide assessment so far.

The program will be available to all 38 districts CESA 7 serves this school year, and teachers will be offered professional development courses this summer. Ultimately, he’d like to work with the state's 11 other CESAs to create training programs that are individually tailored to their region’s needs.

“We’re trying to break down all the barriers to why you couldn’t offer those classes before,” Dickert said.

Ideally, he said, districts will take advantage of the program to bring tech workers into high school classrooms to complement teachers' lessons. He said early engagement across more districts should increase the number of students looking for certificates, associate degrees, bachelor's degrees and master's degrees.

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More programs at tech colleges and universities

Northeastern Wisconsin technical colleges and universities also have adapted their course offerings and certifications in collaboration with TechSpark.

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College now offers a data analytics associate degree in addition to degrees for IT system administration, software development, web development and technology support specialist. During an October cybersecurity forum, Jeff Rafn, NWTC president, said the data analytics degree was a direct result of collaboration with Franz and New North Inc. leaders.

NWTC is also looking beyond those pursuing computer science or information technology degrees. About 1,800 NWTC courses incorporate LinkedIn Learning training now. NWTC, Fox Valley Technical College and Lakeshore Technical College have jointly developed cybersecurity coursework.

If an associate degree is not enough, Franz said, St. Norbert College now offers a bachelor’s degree in data analytics, in addition to computer science degrees with one of three concentrations.

At the same cybersecurity forum, UW-Green Bay Chancellor Michael Alexander said the university is trying to infuse digital literacy and cybersecurity modules into a broader spectrum of the degrees the university offers while also introducing new majors and certificates, like its new cybersecurity master's degree.

"These conversations all started with Michelle (Schuler)," Alexander said.

High school students don’t have to wait until graduation to start working on their degree, though.

High school juniors and seniors will be able to go to UW-Green Bay to start taking computer science courses next school year, without leaving their school, Dickert said.

Students could feasibly take enough courses to be well on their way to an associate's degree by the time they graduate high school. The opportunity can reduce student loan debt and qualify students for family-supporting jobs quicker, Dickert said.

“This is all TechSpark started and then finding more partners all the time,” he said. "That’s what Michelle does."

Industry meets technology

TechSpark's efforts do not stop at graduation. The initiative also works with the existing workforce and manufacturers to address more immediate needs.

Manufacturing remains the dominant industry in northeastern Wisconsin, employing more than 139,000 people and contributing $17.9 billion to the regional economy, according to The New North. The region accounts for more than 28% of all manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin and 20% of manufacturing businesses in the state.

Northeast Wisconsin’s manufacturing bona fides have long been a point of pride for Franz, director of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance since it was founded in 2006.

When she first read five years ago about the transformation of manufacturing through technologies like automation, artificial intelligence, data analytics and robotics, known as Industry 4.0, Franz wanted to know if the hundreds of alliance member companies were ready.

They were not.

A March 2019 survey found 33% had no plan; 7% had developed a complete plan. Respondents said data analytics and process engineering were immediate needs.

“It was a stunning result, really a ‘Wow’ moment,” Franz said.

Schuler directed Franz to LinkedIn Learning, an online training hub with more than 16,000 courses, which offered a course in data analytics. The Alliance offered it beginning in fall 2020 to employees of member companies, with 18 people enrolling. Feedback was all positive, so the alliance offered it again; 60 people signed up. The third class had 70 people and the fourth group numbers around 80.

“I would never have known data analytics was such a hot topic without the survey. Then to work in partnership with Microsoft TechSpark to find this training has been huge,” Franz said. “We had the data the community needed to understand how to not be reactive, but to be strategic and proactive on what industry needs.”

Now, the alliance’s Industry 4.0 task force has about 80 people meeting regularly, learning from each other and looking for ways to collaborate to meet their mutual needs for talent and technology. KI, Alliance Laundry and Ariens, for example, together studied how climate impacts the quality of paint processes. Another group of businesses are studying how to deploy virtual service technicians.

The Alliance’s core mission, from its founding 15 years ago, has been to ensure the region produces the skilled workforce manufacturers need to thrive, but Franz said the work with TechSpark will always stand out.

JEFF BOLLIER is a St. Louis native whose 19 years in Wisconsin almost qualify him for resident status. He arrived in the Badger State via Beloit College and began his journalism career with the Beloit Daily News. He joined the Oshkosh Northwestern in 2003 and introduced his business column, Streetwise, in 2005. From new stores opening to corporate bankruptcies that impact whole communities, Jeff has done it. His work on restaurant health inspections, an air guitar-playing state assemblyman and an aging hotel have earned plaudits from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

Contact him at 920-431-8387 or jbollier@greenbaypressgazette.com; follow him on Twitter at @GBstreetwise.

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Microsoft TechSpark leads regions transformation of tech education, training

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