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Computer science education opens possibilities for youth around the globe

In Ecuador, 12-year-old Genesis declares without equivocation, “I am a programmer.” The first time she used a computer, she says, “I loved technology.”

Then, budget cuts at her school in Guayaquil did away with computer courses. Her mother, Marisela, was determined to find a way to help her daughter, even though “opportunity is scarce here,” she says.

She found that opportunity at a local community learning center that works with Microsoft YouthSpark to provide free computer science education classes. It is one of many organizations around the world that YouthSpark coordinates with to teach young people computer science

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently announced an expansion of YouthSpark with a $75 million commitment in community investments over the next three years. On Monday, Microsoft reported at the Clinton Global Initiative Conference that is has exceeded the YouthSpark commitment made at the forum three years ago, to create opportunities for 300 million youth, and highlighted the new focus of the initiative on creating access to computer science education for all youth worldwide.

“As technology has become an integral part of people’s daily lives around the world, we’re seeing a growing demand to teach youth not only how to use technology, but also how to create technology to help them become the innovators and drivers of growth and opportunity in their communities,” says Lori Forte Harnick, Microsoft’s general manager for Citizenship and Public Affairs, which includes YouthSpark.

“Through partnerships with governments, nonprofit organizations and businesses, Microsoft YouthSpark seeks to provide computer science education to diverse populations of young people in their communities and prepare them with the computational-thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for success in an increasingly digital world,” Forte Harnick says.

YouthSpark’s bright stars include Genesis, who lives in a remote neighborhood of Guayaquil, in an area that makes it challenging for her to physically get to school. She walks through a warren of dirt streets, many hilly, muddy and filled with potholes, to get to class.

None of that deters Genesis, who says, “I’ve always worked to be the best student.”

She dreams of being a computer science professor, and thanks to the classes she is taking at the Centro Tecnológico Popular, she’s off to a strong start. There, she has used Microsoft’s free software – Kodu, Project Spark and Touch Develop – to learn about programming.

Kodu was the first program Genesis learned. “It showed me how to program a video game,” she says, adding with a smile: “I will always consider it as my first love.”

“Knowing how to program will make her life better,” says her mother. “She will have a bright future with this. I am so thankful. None of this would have happened without Microsoft.”

 

In Uganda, college students Aaron Tushabe and Josh Okello, interested in both medicine and in technology, saw how difficult it was for expectant mothers in their country to get the prenatal care they need.

Uganda has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates, in part because of the long distances to hospitals from rural areas where much of the population lives.

“Most clinics in rural areas don’t have ultrasound machines, and women can’t afford to travel” to urban clinics for care, says Tushabe.

Along with a team, they developed WinSenga, a fetal heart monitor that works on a mobile device, sending information to the cloud so that a doctor can access the information no matter where he or she is based.

 

Team Cipher256 (the number is Uganda’s country code) entered WinSenga in the Imagine Cup global student technology competition, part of YouthSpark. The team made it to the World Finals. They didn’t win the Imagine Cup, but they did garner an Imagine Cup grant of $50,000.

With that money, Cipher256 was created, and it now employs several people as the team works on development of WinSenga and prepares for a nationwide clinical trial.

Microsoft, Tushabe says, has been “instrumental in giving us access to technical skills and expertise that have helped us build this product.”

His advice for other young people: “They need to believe in their dreams. They need to be able to take the risk and put the idea out there, and share that idea with others. And with the right team, I believe the possibilities are really limitless.”

In Montreal, Canada, YouthSpark advisor and McGill University student Genevieve L’Esperance has been teaching computer programming since she was 17. She, too, believes possibilities are limitless.

An example of her work was made possible with the help of Microsoft Canada and McGill University, where L’Esperance led a one-day workshop on programming for more than 200 girls, including some who were just a few years younger than she is.

L’Esperance, who has a double major of computer science and molecular biology, says she wanted to show the girls that it is “possible to do this career that they didn’t initially think was available to them, or that they thought was a guys-only domain.”

And at the end of the day, she says, “They didn’t want to leave my programming class. And it was so inspiring to see that they were just really excited to make something in a world where we’re just always consuming.”

 

She is driven, she says, because, “I want to pass on to them the skills they need to be more technically advanced and employable … I want to give girls these skills so they can be the breadwinners.”

YouthSpark, she says, “helped me recognize my passion for computer science, and now I’m using my skills to help other girls discover theirs. We are half the world’s population and need to be successful, and then use that success to do good in the world.”


In Ecuador, YouthSpark student Genesis, right, and her mother, Marisela. For Genesis, “Knowing how to program will make her life better,” says her mother. “She will have a bright future with this.”