Tiger Tech: Where are they now?

By: Taiia Smart Young

Verizon Innovative Learning inspires former Neil Armstrong Middle School students to pursue STEM studies in college.

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Marcelino Collo as an eighth-grader and now, as a freshman in college. (photo credit: Dawn Martesi, Marcelino Collo)

When Verizon Innovative Learning coach Dawn Martesi launched Tiger Team, the student-run IT department, at Neil Armstrong Middle School in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, she didn’t expect much. She simply asked students to help unpack devices for roll-out—the day when all Armstrong students received their devices and data access as part of Verizon Innovative Learning. The initiative provides free technology, access and tech-infused curriculum to middle schoolers in under-resourced communities.

But she got much more, as students joined and quickly discovered their love for technology. We visited the school in 2017 to see how the program was progressing. Now, as students nationwide are studying from home during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve checked in with four of the students from the inaugural 2014 Tiger Tech team on how their participation in Verizon Innovative Learning influenced their academic and career paths.

Using tech to solve problems


Brandon Wolf on an eighth-grade camping trip, now as a freshman at Cornell University. (photo credit: Dawn Martesi, Brandon Wolf)

In the eighth grade, Brandon Wolf had a head for math and science, but as a “traditionalist,” he was convinced that equations were best solved when pencil hit paper. As a college freshman at Cornell University in New York, Brandon understands that technology enhances his studies. “I use a device in every class and I take notes with a stylus, even in math,” he says. With technology on his side, Brandon earned a 3.85 GPA his first semester.

Brandon was one of 24 students who served with Tiger Tech at Armstrong, training students and teachers to use the smart devices and apps they received as part of Verizon Innovative Learning. He credits Tiger Tech with influencing him to pursue STEM studies. His favorite task back then was troubleshooting, and it still is. “I love problem-solving and there is a lot of that in math,” says the math and economics major. “It’s a lot to handle, especially because I work too, but I love school so far,” Brandon says, heading off to fulfill his painting duties.

Building confidence

Jaycee Jones in the eighth grade; Jaycee as a thriving freshman. (photo credit: Jaycee Jones)

Fellow Tiger Tech alum Jaycee Jones was always interested in the medical field because her mom is a nurse. Still, she credits Tiger Tech with building her confidence and reinforcing her decision to study health sciences. Jaycee went from being a shy, quiet student to leading tech lessons in front of teachers and 30 of her peers.

Having a Verizon Innovative Learning device also helped Jaycee prepare for college at Stockton University in New Jersey. “I learned new apps and how to do research on the internet,” says Jaycee. That’s a good thing, because she spends plenty of time researching and studying microbiology and chemistry (her favorite) as a health science major. Jaycee is already thinking about what’s next; after she earns her undergraduate degree, she plans to enter a physician’s assistant program and work in a private family doctor’s office.

Teamwork makes the dream work


Bryan Girton in the eighth grade, Bryan as a first-year student at Drexel University. (photo credit: Dawn Martesi, Bryan Girton)

Participating in Tiger Tech was a game-changer for Bryan Girton, a freshman at Drexel University. “I didn’t have anything in middle school that I was interested in other than sports. Before Tiger Tech, I never had anything academically to set my mind to,” Bryan admits.

Tiger Tech duties sparked Bryan’s interest in engineering, which led him to take related courses in high school. The former baseball and wrestling athlete also learned the power of collaboration, which is crucial for this mechanical engineering coursework. “I haven’t done an engineering project where I wasn’t in a group of four to five people. Engineering students are known for their strong passion for ideas—and their ideas only,” Bryan says, explaining the challenges of group work. “Being able to create something with everybody’s conflicting ideas is a big part of STEM. Learning this skill early on has been a big help.”

One major, many opportunities


Marcelino Collo as an eighth-grader and now, as a freshman in college. (photo credit: Dawn Martesi, Marcelino Collo)

Marcelino Collo considered ditching Pennsylvania for college, but he’s happy that he ended studying physics at Drexel with his middle school buddy Bryan.

“It felt like fate,” says Marcelino about linking up with Tiger Tech. He started out putting cases on the devices, but he quickly took on additional responsibilities, including participating in a conference and showing teachers how to integrate apps into their digital classrooms.

“Tiger Tech changed me,” says the freshman who’s currently learning how to strike the right balance between working hard and relaxing. “It took up a lot of eighth grade and it defined me that year. I’m glad that it did because it sent me on a path that I’m very happy to be on.”

Marcelino is considering his career options, which include research cosmologist, college professor and science teacher. “I could teach what I love and help students find their passion,” Marcelino says. “I feel like that would be really cool”

Making their coach proud

Martesi is excited that Jaycee, Bryan, Marcelino, Brandon and so many others rose to the challenge she issued back when they were curious eighth graders. “It’s amazing to see where they take things when you let them lead their learning, when you pull away traditional hurdles and lift the gates to say, ‘Let’s see what you can do,’” says Martesi. Not coincidentally, she was the first educator to win the Verizon Innovative Learning Award, which celebrates the use of technology in school.

She’s also pleased that Verizon Innovative Learning and Tiger Tech helped put so many of her students on the STEM track. “I don’t know if I’m surprised, but I am proud,” she says of her students’ success. “I knew they would be awesome.”

About the author:

Taiia Smart Young is a content producer and editor for Gyrate Media.

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