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SPARK App League gives young students chance to code, learn about college

September 14, 2018

For the sixth year in a row, middle-school and high-school students from across Arizona gathered at the Polytechnic campus for a two-day coding competition Sept. 12–13. 

The event, called the SPARK App League Game Jam, is a collaboration between Arizona State University’s Ira A Fulton Schools of Engineering, the town of Gilbert, Waymo self-driving cars and the Smithsonian, and aims to get kids involved in a college atmosphere early on — while developing helpful code and winning cash prizes

But for the students, the experience is much more rewarding than the prize money. 

Noah Terrill, 14, came to the event for the first time two years ago. 

“When I first got involved with this was two years ago; me and my friend, we just found out about this and we just wanted to give it a try … and we really liked it,” Terrill said. “I think it really develops your STEMSTEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. and your ability to work with people.”

Derek Konofalski, who runs the program and is a data and technology analyst for the town of Gilbert, said that the need to code was inevitable and that the students were getting in at the right time.

“For students especially, I personally believe that every single person is going to need to know how to code, whether they be young, old — whether they be experienced or inexperienced — everybody's coding for everything now,” Konofalski said. 

READ: More on the SPARK App League on engineering's Full Circle site

The organizer, director and emcee of the event shared his past in code and said that the future would be written in code — a theme that was echoed by every speaker and guest at the venue.

Dana Berchman, the chief digital officer for Gilbert who helped conceive of the idea, said the event not only helps the students but also helps the community.

“In governments, we don’t have big budgets to pay for things like mobile apps, so really the idea came from — I didn’t have $30,000 for a mobile app for the town, so I had to get creative to think of how we could get a mobile app for Gilbert,” Berchman said.

After the town approached ASU, the idea turned a gaming competition, where students could learn how to code — and also get early access to possible career paths in Gilbert.

“We turned it into a gaming competition where they are getting exposed to a college campus, and they get to see what major they might be pursuing and then thinking about that long-term workforce, that pipeline of people that will be our future workers in Gilbert,” Berchman said.

But in addition to the practical applications, the event gives many students their first look at a college campus, something that Berchman said many of them have never thought about.

“A lot of these kids will tell you — even though they're really smart — and their teachers will tell you they’ve never really thought about college,” she said. “And they kind of stand there and they look around. So, it’s that experience you know, and I think for Poly especially ... it's super cool to have an event like this to be focused on such a unique campus.”

Many of the students said that the event got them thinking about college, including Bagdad high school senior Kody Conner, who is looking at a number of schools — including ASU.

Conner said he wants to study video game design and came to get more experience with coding.

“I’ve had one year of coding, but it wasn’t like serious, and so this will be my first time actually coding,” Conner said. “I think it’s important to learn how to code because it is in everything now, everything is technology-based, so I think it’s a good thing to learn, it’s something that you do need in life.”

He also said he liked the format of the event and the inclusion of younger kids.

“I look around and I see a lot of little kids who, when I was their age I was like, 'Coding? I don’t know what that is,' so I think it’s a good way to learn something while having fun, instead of just learning it,” he said.

Other speakers included a systems engineer from Waymo and a representative from the Smithsonian Innovation Spark Lab, who provided the theme for the event: translating a physical prop into a video game.

The unique and focused nature of the Polytechnic campus was featured throughout the competition. In an introduction for the school, Assistant Vice President for Educational Outreach Jonathan Schmitt riled up the crowd by showcasing some of the high-profile projects ASU Polytechnic students have been involved in, including Elon Musk’s hyperloop competition, the ASU racing team and the robotics lab.

“This is a place where you are going to learn not just about jobs you have to fill but how to think, and how to process so that no matter what happens in the future you will be able to continue to stay in pace with things,” Schmitt said. “Here at Poly it's experiential learning; everything we do is hands-on.”

Top photo: Ninth-grade Mesa homeschoolers Sarah Towey (left), 13, Ben Zazick, 13, and Noah Terrill, 14, work together on their app as part of the two-day SPARK App League Game Jam at the Student Union on the Polytechnic campus Wednesday. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Isaac Windes

Reporter , Media Relations and Strategic Communications

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ASU creative writing center ramps up access to continued education

September 14, 2018

The excitement in Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos’ voice when he tells a crowd of people gathered at a recent Changing Hands Bookstore event in Phoenix that he will soon become a grandfather is palpable — just as it is when he announces the roller coaster of new classes, events and projects that ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing has just begun to ascend this fall semester. 

Ríos, a University Professor of English and director of the center, has been with Arizona State University for going on 37 years. So naturally, he was there when accomplished author and Professor Jewell Parker Rhodes (whom he enticed to ASU back in the 1980s) founded the Piper Center back in 2003, as a way of bridging the resources of the university to the non-academic literary community at large and engaging them in continued education.

As he wraps up his address to the faculty, staff, students and local writers assembled at the bookstore for the center’s Summer Social fundraising event with a reading of his poem, “When Giving Is All We Have,” it’s clear he believes what he’s saying: that literature matters because it has the power to move us; that it can bring people together for a common good; and that it is the responsibility of the center to facilitate that service in the community.

“I hope that is the mission of Piper Center in its entirety: that we create something greater from the difference,” Ríos said, borrowing a line from his poem. “Everything we are doing and everything that we will do will be with a bias toward meaning. It should matter.”

Rhodes recalls when she was asked to begin building the center nearly 20 years ago.

“I think of that as one of the most exhilarating times of my life because there was no blueprint,” she said. “The mandate was to create a center that would engage internationally but also act as a hub for the Southwest literary community. And I don’t know of any other center founded in that particular way.”

Neither does Felicia Zamora, education programs coordinator for Piper Center, who came on board just last August. She has been working in higher education for 16 years and has yet to come across anything quite like it.

“It’s extraordinary to me because at Colorado State (where she used to work), a place like Piper didn’t exist. At most other universities in the country a place like Piper doesn’t exist,” she said.

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Arizona Poet Laureate, ASU University Professor and Piper Center Director Alberto Ríos addresses a crowd of faculty, staff, students and local writers at the center's Summer Social fundraising event at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix in August. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

In less than a year, Zamora has taken the center’s already robust community offerings and tailored them with an eye toward increasing access.

“A lot of people find their way to ASU through Piper,” she said. “ASU is leading the nation in continuing education, and that’s very much engrained in Piper, too. I think these centers of noncredit development that give the opportunity for people to build skill sets is extremely important because just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you stop learning in areas that are important to you.”

A new “pay-as-you-can” model allows course participants to do just that, because the bottom line is far from Piper’s main concern.

“The Piper Studio is just a small revenue-generating arm so we can build classes that are free for more populations,” Zamora said. “We don’t want someone to not be able to attend a class because of socioeconomic barriers.”

The Piper Center is in the midst of piloting a visiting faculty program that brings in authors from across the country to teach some of the 16 courses available this fall in a range of genres, from poetry to flash fiction to screenwriting to memoir. Two of the courses will be offered online — a first for the center — and earlier in the spring, Piper held its premiere bilingual creative writing course. In addition, plans are underway to create summer courses in 2019 to better engage youth and teens.

Increasing the variety and accessibility of courses is something Zamora said came out of listening to the community.

“To me, that’s what we should be doing as a center: adapting what we do to who we’re serving,” she said.

All students of the center are invited to share their work at this year’s second annual Piper Writers Showcase in December. And as always, everyone is invited to participate in the center’s signature conference, Desert Night, Rising Stars, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2019. New to the conference is an exhibitor fair that will be open to the public, a free Saturday night reading and more.

The slew of upcoming conferences, events and readings will kick off this Thursday, Sept. 20, with Motionpoems, a collection of short films based on poems. Two of ASU English professor Natalie Diaz's poems will be featured at the event: "American Arithmetic" and "Cranes, Mafiosos, and a Polaroid Camera."

Diaz said she was drawn to the project because she loves film and thinks in images.

"The word imagination is made up of image," she said. "There can be no future without images, without the images of our past that we dream or Rubik's cube into a new configuration of what is possible."

Both poems will be part of her second book, "Post Colonial Love Poem," which will be available in 2020, and have influenced her Ford Justice Grant work.

For more info about all the goings-on, check out the Piper Center events page. Also find a full list of classes; use the code "CareerMove" for 25 percent off new online classes in revising the novel and publishing opportunities.

Top photo: Piper Center education programs coordinator Felicia Zamora (second from left) chats with communtiy members at the center's Summer Social fundraising event in August. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657