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Microsoft launches new initiative in ND to boost computer education, economic possibilities

Microsoft President Brad Smith speaks with Taya Spelhaug, N.D. TechSpark manager, and N.D. Gov. Doug Burgum at the announcement of the Microsoft TechSpark Initiative during an event Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, at the Sanctuary Events Center, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 2
Kirsten Baesler, N.D. superintendent of schools, Microsoft President Brad Smith and N.D. Gov. Doug Burgum take questions at the announcement of the Microsoft TechSpark Initiative during an event Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, at the Sanctuary Events Center, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

FARGO—A Microsoft leader said Thursday, Oct. 5, that the choice of where to announce an ambitious new company initiative was easy: Fargo.

"This is, I think, another important moment in a history of many important moments for Microsoft here in North Dakota," President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith told a crowd of about 75 who gathered at Fargo's Sanctuary Events Center.

Fargo is uniquely poised for success in the new Microsoft TechSpark program, Smith said, because the company has had a presence here for 16 years and is already involved in various aspects of the community and region.

Thursday's announcement, which coincided with a similar announcement of a TechSpark launch in Wisconsin, puts North Dakota in the elite company of six states including Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming where the company will invest millions of dollars and commit to at least five years of work.

Smith said the goals of the program are lofty, touching on everything from better equipping the future workforce with high-tech skills to contributing to and growing local economies.

Even a company as large as Microsoft can't do this everywhere all at once, he said, which is why the program selected more rural states and named a hub community in each—including Fargo in North Dakota—as a way to experiment with different options and methods to achieve the goals.

The hope, he said, is Microsoft and participating communities can learn effective new ways to tackle these issues and then share those ideas with the country and, ultimately, the world.

Measuring success

Microsoft TechSpark focuses on five key areas of work that are more of a framework than a specific action plan. The project will include digital transformation initiatives, or things done in partnership with organizations, to help businesses advance with technology and grow their companies.

A big piece of the puzzle is boosting computer science education. Smith said only three of North Dakota's 165 high schools offered Advanced Placement computer science courses two school years ago, while just 12 percent of the nation's 37,000 high schools offered the course last year.

Microsoft started working on that gap about five years ago with its Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program that pairs a Microsoft employee with a math or science teacher to instruct students.

North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said it's a vital goal because studies show boys who take a computer science class in high school are six times more likely to major in computer science, while girls are 10 times more likely.

"Right now we have over 650 job openings in the state of North Dakota that involve computer science that pay very, very well," she said.

TechSpark also aims to expand rural access to broadband internet, something Smith called "a necessity of life" in modern times, through its Airband team that will partner with telecommunications providers.

The program also involves working with and supporting community nonprofits. Smith said Microsoft has teamed with 4-H nationally to teach rural children and teens digital skills that they can share with family and friends.

Gov. Doug Burgum said technology is changing every job, industry and organization right now, and this new initiative could help the state tackle its workforce shortage.

"What I really see in this MIcrosoft TechSpark is really a blueprint for private-public partnerships, and we're super excited that they're here," he said.

Smith also announced Taya Spelhaug will serve as the North Dakota TechSpark Manager.

"I talk about this being a marathon," she said. "I feel like I'm just stretching; I'm not even at the starting gate. We have a long ways to go, but it's cool because we've actually been able to do a few things in the last seven weeks."

One of those was a three-year, $30,000 commitment to North Dakota State University's College of Engineering STEM Alliance to support training and education programs for K-12 kids.

She said the Airband team has also started talks with telecommunications companies, and the group will make an announcement within six months about new partnerships that could bring broadband to more North Dakotans.

Smith said Microsoft and other partners will, at first, measure the success of TechSpark here by counting activities—things like how many schools and students are reached by the TEALS program, for example. They'll eventually "pivot" and instead look at outcomes of this work, he said.

"I think the ultimate litmus test for all of us five years from now is we'll look back at today and we should ask ourselves, is this a day where we launched something that made a difference in some lives of real people?" he said. "That's the goal, and that's ultimately what we need to measure."

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is the Features Editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He previously wrote for The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald.

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