SPARCS is about Sustaining Passion, Ambition and Resolve for Career Success. The year-round program for young women aims to build excitement and inspire students to embrace technology education at the high school level, through relevant and engaging information technology (I.T.) learning experiences. Ultimately, SPARCS experiences are designed to inspire and empower Minnesota’s young women to become technology literate, confident and competent.
In 2014, the SPARCS program was founded by the Minnesota Aspirations in Computing (MNAiC), which recognizes young women from Minnesota high schools for their technology aspirations, interests and accomplishments. Since its own inception in 2012, hundreds of students have applied for the state and national Aspirations in Computing award opportunities through the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT). The list of Minnesota students who have been selected as national and state honorees is long and impressive, and yet, an awards program falls far short of identifying and supporting a broader base of young women who could succeed as I.T. practitioners, if provided the opportunity and resources.
SPARCS operates from the premise that the likelihood of a young woman shifting from being technology ‘curious’ to technology ‘committed’, significantly increases when the following program elements occur:
- The learning experiences are interactive and ‘sisterhood’ oriented
- New technology tools are introduced allowing for I.T. skill development
- Career options are explored
- Small group interaction with women in the I.T. field occurs
- Numerous engagement opportunities and touch points are offered
- Business, schools, and community-based partners collaborate to maximize impact
General Mills, a loyal MNAiC partner, understands the value of reaching out to high schools to increase students’ knowledge about diverse I.T. roles and career paths — they do so as presenters in metro area middle and high school classrooms, impacting more than 4,000 students. And, over the past three years, General Mills has faithfully supported the SPARCS program. This past December, twenty-two high school girls from across the metro area, experienced Discovering IT Day. The semi-annual event takes place at the General Mills Headquarters in Golden Valley, MN. The experience allowed students the opportunity to explore what it means to have a career in I.T. at a Fortune 500 company, interact with I.T. professionals, tour the GMILL lab used with clients, and also build and program a LittleBits car.
Participants had to say about their experiences:
“I loved getting to tour the General Mills campus – it was so cool!! I also really liked hearing from professionals in the IT field. There wasn’t anything I didn’t like.”
“I liked interacting with adults whose professions were related to technology. It was really cool to see their amazing workspace. I felt like I was able to get a glimpse of what it would be like to work there.”
“I liked how they showed us how technology applies to anything and how there are thousands of jobs for us to use interesting tech, and the little bots were fun to mess with.”
When asked to describe how the event changed their perception of careers in IT, the following perspectives were shared:
“I realized how many jobs there are for women in tech like me and how no matter where I go there will be a need for me. I also liked how the panel described how collaboration is a key to becoming a good programmer because I get stuck on my own and I ask for help sometimes, and now I realize that’s not a flaw, it’s just how you grow.”
“I was amazed at how many different careers in technology. I felt like there was a wide variety of personalities and interests there. It made me realize that there truly is a place for everyone in the tech field.”
“It showed me how everything (even food companies) has a very active, growing, and important IT department.”
SPARCS events are typically free, or low cost. The program provides qualifying students with scholarships to participate in summer technology camps. Funding and program support for SPARCS is provided by Minnesota Aspirations in Computing Awards Program partners and sponsors. Additional support is needed to ensure the ambitious goals of the program continue to be met.