"It sparked a fire inside of me."

Verizon employees show middle school boys the path to a brighter future.

 

The students know about the technology, but they don’t know how to get into it.”

“Do you guys recognize what these are?” asked Kevin Johnson, an assistant performance engineer at Verizon, pointing to a line of spire-shaped antennas on a computer screen.

“Cell phone towers,” answered one of the boys standing in front of his demo table. “They provide internet.”

Then came the bigger challenge: Could anyone explain how cell phone signals work? Hands shot up. Johnson was prodding the students to see if they understood how Pythagoras' theorem translates to the real world and also how their STEM learnings can transfer to a great career.

On a sunny Saturday morning, more than 60 middle school students packed into a conference room at Baltimore’s Morgan State University. They were there for the Verizon Innovative Learning Career Day, where Verizon employees shared their experience about what’s needed to start a technology career.

Since 2012, Verizon Innovative Learning has provided free technology, free internet access, and hands-on learning experiences to help give over a million students the education they deserve. 

For the boys at Morgan State University, this day was part of a two-year curriculum that teaches students coding, robotics, 3D design and other STEM skills to help prepare them for college and a career.

The program curriculum impacts the boys in numerous ways: improving their schoolwork, upping their grades, and focusing their future career goals. In a recent survey, 90 percent of the students in the program reported an increase in their math and science skills.

Kevin Johnson’s cell tower presentation was just one of several hands-on demonstrations Verizon employees created for the students. In it, he handed the boys smartphones loaded with an augmented reality app to demonstrate how the technology may be used in the future to assist repair engineers working in the field on cell phone towers or relay systems.

“The knowledge has to be put out there,” said Verizon Security Network Engineer Tracy Barwick, who also presented at the event. “The students know about the technology, but they don’t know how to get into it. When we do these innovative learning events, it shows some of the opportunities out there and how we open the doors for them.”

Here’s a look at some of the students and employees who came together and inspired each other on Career Day. ♦

 

“I want to design my own planes and test them out. This program helped me believe I can do it.”

Keon Jones had never seen an AR application like the one Johnson shared at the presentation and he marveled over the realistic 3D rendering. His mentors say his attitude has changed a lot between the time he started Verizon Innovative Learning two years ago and now. Early on, the classes made him nervous.

“It was confusing and out of my comfort zone,” he admitted. With the help of the mentors and teachers he’s grown accustomed to the program and realizes it has helped him in school.

“At first, whenever we had computer classes in school I wasn’t the greatest at them. Once I started coming here, I learned about designing apps. I went back to school and they were soon doing the same thing. It was way easier and I didn’t have to constantly raise my hand for help.”

Keon recently flew for the first time and the trip left him fascinated with planes. His eyes and voice filled with wonder as he described visiting the cockpit and seeing all the gauges and meters that tracked the flight path. Keon now hopes to become an aeronautical engineer or marine biologist. “I want to design my own planes and test them out. This program helped me believe I can do it.” ♦

 

 

“It shows our future potential leaders the importance of technology and how it plays a part in their development.”

Students crowded around Kareem Jackson’s Career Day station to take turns using the Oculus virtual reality headset. A Verizon Retail Solutions Manager, Jackson had brought the gadget knowing it would get students revved up to talk tech. A young teen with dreadlocks watched a 360-degree movie of a roller coaster ride yelling, “Oh my god!” and “Why does it look so real?”

Jackson asked the young STEM scholars about what they wanted to do for a living.

“I want to be a pro point guard,” said one.

 

Jackson told him to continue playing while also encouraging him to “make sure you’re on point with your mathematics as well.”

As the father of a teen boy, it’s a conversation Jackson has had many times. His son played sports growing up and occasionally the two spoke about the long odds of being a professional athlete and the longer odds of a sustained career in the NBA or NFL. His advice about studying technology sunk in. The younger Jackson is now 18 and a cybersecurity major in college.

Like his conversations with his son, being a part of Career Day was important to Jackson because it shows “our future potential leaders the importance of technology and how it plays a part in their development.” ♦

 

“It sparked a fire inside of me.” 

Ryan Butler has long been a big fan of technology like race cars and video games, but he wasn’t sure if Verizon Innovative Learning was right for him. When he started the program two years ago, his instructors remember he groaned about almost everything, regularly saying things like, “I don’t feel like being here right now.”

Then the 3D printing class happened. “It sparked a fire inside of me,” he enthused. “I just like that you can create anything.” 

The possibilities get him fired up. Ryan now spends part of his spare time designing a 3D-printed pirate ship, a project that was inspired by his work with Verizon Innovative Learning.

The program also helped change his career vision. “Going here influenced me to become an electrical engineer,” he explained. He was interested to hear on Career Day that Verizon hires pilots. “Now I know about this big huge world of technology and I want to learn more about it.” ♦

 

“I’m more positive. I want to learn these kinds of things."

Aram Hayrapetyan foresees math and technology being a part of any career he chooses. He loves working with technology so much that when a Verizon Innovative Learning program leader asked the students to program an app, he coded five. After the program taught him about drones, his passion for them skyrocketed. He now owns four.

Aram and fellow student Elijah Skinner developed an application that will help first responders track someone during a disaster as long as the imperiled person has his or her cell phone on. “Once you open the application, it sends your location to your phone service so a first responder can find you,” explained Verizon Innovative Learning instructor Kelechi Nwachukwu. “The idea has stuck with me. I hope to work with them again and bring it to market.”

Kevin Johnson’s presentation about cell phone towers made Aram interested to learn more about how they work.

He hopes to become a pilot or businessman one day, so he was excited to hear at Career Day that Verizon has an aeronautical branch.

Since starting the program in 2016, the Verizon Innovative Learning projects have “definitely” influenced Aram’s schoolwork, particularly with computers.

“I’m more positive. I want to learn these kinds of things. In school I’m paying more attention to see if I can connect what I learned here to what I can learn there. When I find those connections, I tell my teachers and they’re impressed.” ♦

 

“As technology changes, I want to be a part of the change.”

Kevin Johnson first became interested in technology — ham radios — when he was young, and his enthusiasm for computers and new gadgets still shows. He smiles like a proud professor recalling how the students interacted with the augmented reality app that was part of his presentation — and he learned something new from their investigation of it.

Created by the Harvard Business Review for the article “Why Every Organization Needs an Augmented Reality Strategy” the app deploys digital pop-ups to explain how connected machinery functions.

“I didn’t realize that if you hold the phone close to the page, the app helps you look inside of the modules on the page,” said Johnson. The students uncovered the functionality while exploring the app’s close-up view. “It was quite eye-opening.”

Part of the reason Jackson wanted to use an augmented reality app in his presentation was to demonstrate how the technology may be used by engineers in the future. For example, a technician working in the field may wear smart glasses that are able to instruct the wearer how to fix a broken module. He also wanted to share his zeal for robotics and computers with the students.

“As technology changes,” he said, “I want to be a part of the change.” ♦

 

“Career Day has a longstanding impact.”

“Maryland’s cutbacks in education mean there are few enhancement programs like Verizon Innovative Learning, particularly for an under-resourced minority community. But programs like this are important and help shepherd a new generation of students toward STEM careers,” said LaDawn Partlow, Program Director for Verizon Innovative Learning at Morgan State University. Since launching the program a few years ago, several of the boys have gone on to high schools with rigorous engineering programs.

“The boys can actually see themselves in the individuals who participate,” she explained about Career Day.

“They may have it in their minds what they want to do, but because they don’t see people like themselves in those positions, they don’t think it’s something they can reach. When they have this opportunity to see people who look like them in positions that they’ve dreamed about being in, then it clicks for them.” ♦