Closing the education gap in rural communities with Jussie Smollett and Microsoft

By Natalie Singer-Velush

By learning about local challenges in rural areas, such as the lack of transportation and broadband, we can then figure out how to bring students critical computer science and digital skills, helping them improve their economic reality and pursue new opportunities. A group of Microsoft employees tackled a project, spearheaded by Jane Mareth, to close this education gap. Here, Mareth talks with us about how the project came together, what it was like behind the scenes, and how others can pursue their own ideas.

What inspired you to pursue your idea?

I work on Microsoft’s TechSpark program as a technical program manager. Our goal is to foster economic opportunities in seven rural communities. We focus on five main pillars: digital transformation, digital skills and computer science education, career pathways, rural broadband, and support for nonprofits. Digital literacy is something dear to my heart, so I decided to take on a project that centered around digital skills and computer science education.

With that in mind, I worked with Lisa Karstetter, TechSpark Washington community manager, on the challenges her region was facing. We concluded that lack of access to broadband and transportation as well as socioeconomics prohibited some students from learning digital skills. Armed with this information, we decided to create a Hackathon project centered around alleviating the digital skills gap by creating a solution that could work with or without internet connection and was affordable.

What did you hope to achieve?

We wanted to show that if you solve for problems in rural communities, the solutions can scale to other places.

What kind of a team did it take to tackle this project?

I knew early on that I could not do this by myself. I partnered up with the HackforAfrica team as well as the Microsoft Education STEM team. We soon realized that rural Africa and the rural United States face similar challenges when it comes to internet connection, reliable transportation, and socioeconomics.

We decided as a collective that it would be redundant for us to go try and solve this problem on our own. We each wanted to do a similar project to provide computer science education and digital skills to students by removing issues of accessibility and socioeconomic barriers.

We were fortunate that we did not need to inspire other people to join our project. The cause itself carried us and a bunch of passionate people came together to think about how we can help solve for this issue. For the Hackathon itself, we got over 20 volunteers from all over Microsoft to contribute to this project, with corporate vice presidents and business leaders adding input. We even had actor/producer/activist Jussie Smollett stop by and hack with us.

Honestly, at one point I wondered if I would have enough work for everyone.

What advice do you have for others who have a cool idea or a passion for making change?

I am going to borrow Nike’s tagline, just do it. You will find that the causes that inspire you probably inspire a bunch of other people, and the universe has a funny way of connecting you to these people when you need them the most.

Explore more employee projects at The Garage Wall of Fame.