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A Spark Of Potential: TechSpark Looking To Bring Tech To Rural North Dakota

Microsoft-techspark

By Ethan Mickelson
Photography by Hillary Ehlen and courtesy of Dennis Krull

As the saying goes: It only takes a spark. When it comes to Fargo, though, technology maybe the key to creating an explosion of efficiency and development across a broad spectrum of local industries.

Meet Taya Spelhaug

Taya-Spelhaug
Manager of Microsoft’s TechSpark, North Dakota

Education

  • M.Ed in Counseling
  • B.S. in Psychology from NDSU

Previous Experience

  • Resource Development Manager for United Way of Cass-Clay
  • Training Accounts Executive for trainND
  • Director of Student Success and Career Services for NDSCS
  • Retention Coordinator for NDSCS

“I’m a North Dakota farm girl, grew up in Kindred and went to NDSU, did my undergrad in psychology and my Master’s is in mental health counseling so I’m not a techie by any means. After that, I was in higher education for about 10 years, most recently with North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS) working with retention and students as well as career services and workforce development.

“That gave me a lot of insight into North Dakota in general and the workforce temperature, and then I also worked with businesses on their training needs, figuring out what’s going to take their employees to the next level. After that, I worked for United Way, so that gave me an understanding of the nonprofit side.”

Looking at Fargo’s Future

With one of the largest Microsoft campuses in the country and a burgeoning startup community, the Fargo area was named as the first of six regions where the program is set to take root. TechSpark’s official launch took place in October at Downtown Fargo’s Sanctuary Events Center, with future regions to include Northeast Wisconsin, Virginia, Texas, Wyoming and Washington State.

Microsoft-techspark
Taya Spelhaug works with one of more than 400 Kindred Elementary students during their “Hour of Code” event put on by Microsoft’s TechSpark.

Lending a bionic hand in the form of resources and technological prowess, TechSpark will be headed up by a manager in each region. Homegrown North Dakotan Taya Spelhaug was named manager of the North Dakota region based in Fargo.

“Having North Dakota as one of the six regions is really fantastic. It is a huge opportunity for our state,” Spelhaug says. “They could have chosen any state, but they really like North Dakota — Fargo in particular — and we’re the only one out of the six that have an official site so far.”

Working with a recently assembled team in Fargo, Spelhaug coordinates initiatives in the area and brings them back to the Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, to determine where technology might benefit a business or industry.

Proactive Progress

TechSpark includes five program areas where Microsoft intends to utilize technology to solve problems. Some of the intended outcomes of the program include: increased computer-science education opportunities in schools, career pathways, support for nonprofits, and providing broadband connections to rural communities.

“What kinds of digital transformation can we spark?”

“It’s this weird model because usually if you have a pain-point in your business, you figure out what that point is, and then go out and find resources or people to fix it,” Spelhaug says. “Whereas, we’re coming to you and asking, ‘What is your pain-point and how can we fix it?’ So they’re having to sit down and think big about what is really going to drive change. And it could be systematic change, too. It doesn’t have to be a single business.”

Microsoft-techspark

Connecting Microsoft to Fargo and rural North Dakota, the program looks at how local companies can drive digital transformation across the economy. One such sector that has experienced this transformation is agriculture. While the details of TechSpark’s first digital transformation investment are yet to be determined, the foundation of the program is built upon innovations already established by Microsoft in the marketplace.

“Microsoft is doing big things with digital transformation,” Spelhaug says. “You look at either coast, and that’s where digital transformation is happening. You look at rural America, and it’s not as quick. We’re early-adopters here, but we still kind of have this lag time. So this is Microsoft saying, ‘Let’s get rural America up-to-speed, and what types of digital transformation can we spark?’”

Efficiency In Action

One such transformation that TechSpark will use as a model for future initiatives is the case of Land O’Lakes, which implemented software to track their product directly from the source and improved efficiency thanks to Microsoft technology. While many revolutions of industry in the past have left people jobless and techniques obsolete — such as the transition from horse-drawn transportation to automobiles — TechSpark attempts to facilitate that change not only by implementing technology but also by preparing people for the jobs of the future.

“That’s the best part of this position,” Spelhaug says. “It’s not Microsoft coming in and saying, ‘What is going to benefit us?’ It’s: what is going to benefit this area? It might have residual benefits for Microsoft down the road, but how does it help economic development right now?”

One way TechSpark plans to brace for a technologic shift in the economy is by educating the workforce of the future and closing the computer science education gap in rural states like North Dakota. However, finding teachers to instruct these classes is no simple task. Programs such as Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) attempts to circumvent that problem.

Microsoft-techspark
TechSpark’s digital skills and computer science education initiative is partnering with 4-H to reach students around the state. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks with the Kindred chapter members during Hour of Code.

“There’s a huge lack of people who can teach these courses,” Spelhaug says. “So what TEALS does is helps supplement that lack of educators by pairing a technology person who understands the courses with a teacher at a school, whether it’s a math, history, even an English teacher, someone who volunteers and says they want to teach these classes. They already understand how to teach; they’re just getting that technology piece.”

Founded in 2009, TEALS is in nearly 350 schools around the country, with nearly 1,100 volunteers from 500 companies teaching more than 12,000 students. Microsoft is also attempting to engage students with technology in local organizations such as 4-H, America’s largest youth development organization, and global movements such as Hour of Code.

Packed into the Kindred Elementary gymnasium, over 450 kids from K-12 and their corresponding computers made a mark nationally during their Hour of Code event. Led by Spelhaug and a handful of Microsoft volunteers, each student experimented with coding through a tutorial for designing Minecraft. The Kindred school was the largest of all the Hour of Code events happening at that time in the country.

To solidify the priority put on student experiences like this one, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum took the stage to give a little insight into the possibility of careers in technology. A program 10 months in the making, TechSpark is just beginning to pick up speed. With a focus on technology, the comprehensive program has potential to impact how people access, learn about, engage with and attain jobs in the burgeoning field.

Microsoft TechSpark

News.Microsoft.com/TechSpark

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