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In Houston, educators like Juan Marquez (left portrait) are using Apple tools and resources to empower the next generation of Hispanic learners.
education October 4, 2023
The kids are excited — you can hear them before you see them. Groups of giddy 6-year-olds, boisterous preteens, and every age in between flood into the gym. They’re each handed an iPad for the day, and directed to one of TechConnect’s five program activity stations.
Noe Moreno and Giovanni Victorio, both 18, are ready for them. The TechConnect interns have spent the morning creating a racetrack for programmable Sphero robots that help teach the basics of coding, and now they’re going to show the kids how to control them using iPad. It’s the last TechConnect event of the summer, and the two young men are independently running their station for the day. Their trainer and mentor, Juan Marquez, stands back, watching proudly.
TechConnect was created in 2016 by Houston City Council Member Karla Cisneros to introduce advanced technology skills like coding to kids that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity. In 2022, it became one of the hundreds of programs supported by Apple’s Community Education Initiative (CEI), which was designed to bring coding, creativity, and career opportunities to learners of all ages, and to communities that are traditionally underrepresented in technology.
Since its inception in 2019, CEI has reached tens of thousands of students in 99 countries and regions, and in all 50 United States, through its collaboration with more than 150 educational partners. Apple provides hardware, financial support, scholarships, educator resources, and access to Apple experts who work side by side with organizations to enhance learning experiences through technology.
Juan Marquez has been involved with TechConnect for the past year — and has been part of Apple’s CEI programming in Houston from its inception, mentoring thousands of students and interns with Apple educational resources like Everyone Can Create and Everyone Can Code. He also teaches high school computer science, and has used Apple technology to enhance subjects as varied as reading, social studies, and science since he moved from his native Mexico to teach in the U.S. in 2015.
TechConnect introduces students as young as 6 to advanced technology skills like coding with support from Apple’s Community Education Initiative.
“If you follow Apple’s learning materials, they are very user-friendly for teaching young people critical learning skills that can help in every area,” says Marquez. “There are always examples of things you can try that, right away, you see results. And I think that’s important because once students hit a roadblock — and this is especially important in programming or coding — they can get frustrated. And with the iPad, you don’t have that.”
One of the resources Marquez has used is Apple’s Challenge for Change Learning Series, which encourages students to solve real challenges in their communities using technology as a tool. Today, Apple released a new installment in which Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai encourages learners to use storytelling to create positive change. Marquez is excited to introduce this new material to learners in Mexico and in his community in Texas.
The father of two has seen the positive impact of TechConnect from day one, especially on students from Houston’s Hispanic and Latinx communities. It’s what spurred him to bring the program across the border and introduce it to students in Puebla, Mexico.
“This program is mind-blowing,” says Marquez. “Especially coming from Mexico where it’s difficult to find resources, it became so important for me to bring this level of opportunity and learning to kids who have almost no access to technology. I believe that all students can do anything, you just need the right tools, the right coach, and the right connection.”
Back in the gym, youthful chaos has been replaced by intense concentration. At the Sphero station, a new group of mostly 12-year-old boys has joined. Moreno notices that one of them has finished the first task — using his iPad to send the Sphero to the end of the course — before any of the others. Now his focus is shifting.
Moreno immediately leans in and asks if the student can take his Sphero through the middle of the course while avoiding all of the foam barriers. “I want to challenge your thinking,” he yells. “Use that big brain!”
Minutes later, task completed, the student lets out a whoop and raises his fist in triumph.
Moreno and Victorio have been TechConnect paid summer interns for the last two years and have been rehired to run TechConnect fairs this fall. They see the program not just as an opportunity to share their knowledge of technology, but also a way to give back to their community.
“I really do see it as an important obligation,” says Victorio, who is currently in his freshman year studying mechanical engineering at the University of Houston. “I feel like there’s a sort of moral compass inside that steers you to redirect what you’ve been given and help guide others. And having a positive impact, especially on kids who were basically me a few years ago, is really amazing.”
Giovanni Victorio (left) and Noe Moreno (right) are proud to give back to their community and help future generations gain advanced technology skills through TechConnect.
TechConnect is just one of the programs supported through CEI in the Houston area that is helping young people harness the power of technology. At Houston Community College (HCC), faculty members run an annual information technology summer camp that has introduced more than 2,500 middle and high school students to a variety of subjects that incorporate coding using Apple technology.
The camp is the brainchild of Dr. Madeline Burillo-Hopkins, president of Houston Community College’s Southwest College, who has made it her mission to bring cutting-edge technology and advanced career opportunities to her student body. HCC was one of the first community colleges in the country to offer Apple’s App Development with Swift program in 2017.
“When I started at HCC, I looked at the data and saw that the numbers of women in our technology programs were low, and I knew I had to work to change that,” says Dr. Burillo-Hopkins, who grew up in Puerto Rico and was the first in her family to go to college. “This camp is helping young women get into that pipeline early, and we know that’s a critical step. Apple’s support is a huge part of that, and shows young Hispanic girls and young Black girls what’s possible in terms of being the next creators, developers, and innovators.”
Sisters Soleil and Lluvia San Miguel, 10 and 11, respectively, attended the camp for the first time this summer. When they get older, Lluvia wants to be an astronaut, and Soleil wants to be a teacher and use coding in her classroom. Their mother, Blanca San Miguel, credits experiences like the HCC camp with nurturing their interest in science and technology.
“I wanted to expose them to more opportunities than what I had when I was young,” says San Miguel. “For Hispanic girls especially, it’s important for them to know that STEM is going to show you endless possibilities for the future — and it’s definitely not just for boys!”
To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, HCC is hosting dozens of events throughout its campuses. The college is a recognized Hispanic-Serving Institution, meaning that at least 25 percent of its student body is Hispanic.
“Educating and integrating technology and digital skills among the next generation of Hispanic learners is critically important,” says Dr. Burillo-Hopkins. “Especially as the demographics of this country change, and Hispanic and Latino communities grow and become a larger percentage of the workforce, education is integral to a healthy U.S. economy.”
The day is coming to an end at TechConnect, and the last group of students is quietly and intensely directing their Sphero robots through the course. Moments later time is up, the devices are handed back, and the gym is again filled with noisy pandemonium as the students file out.
The interns start to pack up their station and Marquez comes by for a final goodbye, exchanging contact information so they can stay in touch. The gesture means a lot to both young men.
“Juan is such an awesome teacher,” says Moreno, who is planning on studying psychology at the University of Houston next year. “I’ve had long conversations with him about the work he’s doing here and in Mexico and you can see how much he loves it and what it means to him. It’s a powerful journey that he’s on and he’s really helping a lot of people.”
For Marquez, there is nothing more important than seeing students he’s mentored like Moreno and Victorio thriving.
“I believe that in order for learning to happen, there has to be a connection between the learner and the teacher,” says Marquez. “Apple tools are a big part of that — they make learning fun and engaging while helping students find their own way. And being able to see how somebody I helped is succeeding without my help — that’s really a big reward for me. It makes me feel proud. I feel like my job is done.”
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