Irissol Arce

Assistant Director, Technology Advancement and Outreach, STEM Strategy

Three Ways We're Revealing the Magic of Tech for Kids

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is equivalent to magic.” - Arthur C. Clarke 

Futurist and science fiction writer of the acclaimed film A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, once likened advanced technology to magic, whereby technology only seems supernatural until the trick is later revealed. Like adults, kids are attracted to things that cannot be logically explained. From a child playing peek-a-boo to a developer writing code, we are often mesmerized by things appearing and disappearing in front of us whether by the wave of a hand or the stroke of a key. 

I get to see these magical moments on a regular basis in my work with the Northwestern Mutual hi, Tech program, where we seek to energize young people around the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), with a focus on technology. 

We host a summer-long High School Tech Minicamp and Internship program. For twelve weeks during the summer, Milwaukee-area students come to Northwestern Mutual’s campus to work with our technology teams. They're each assigned to an actual project or product and work side-by-side with software engineers, project managers and other employees to learn everything from front-end development and design thinking to communication and diversity, equity, and inclusion skills. They then move into internships ranging from cybersecurity and software engineering to innovation and data science, where they often establish a pathway into future employment at Northwestern Mutual.

Inevitably, during every Minicamp, I meet a student who has that magical moment when something that once seemed supernatural becomes natural as soon as the laws of code are understood. This year, that moment came when high school student Abby Myers realized she could take coding languages learned over the summer to essentially, create something out of nothing. 

When recalling moments in her Minicamp experience, she said “If I thought there were magical moments in coding before, this Minicamp showed me that there is so much more. It still blows my mind that I could build a website from scratch by simply typing in words on a screen. The website seemed to come from nowhere.” These are the moments I live for, when the world seems wide open for our future technology leaders. 

The Tech Minicamp is just one of the many STEM outreach efforts I manage, where we seek to broaden the possibilities youth have by empowering them with in-demand skills that have the potential to lift communities out of poverty while at the same time, building the workforce our city needs to flourish. To me, that’s work worth doing, and Northwestern Mutual agrees. 

We also offer programs for younger students. What we also know to be true is that it's often too late to wait until high school to help get students engaged in STEM. Research shows that by high school, student’s interests are already somewhat formed. In middle school, they may be starting to think about careers, but a student's interests are actually being developed as early as elementary school – that’s why our formal tech outreach efforts span grades K-12. 

We try to focus on hands-on experiences. In elementary schools, we may bring in toys and gadgets to teach basic coding techniques. The kids program the toys and then get to see their work come to life. Part of our goal is to shift their mindsets – we don't want them to be only technology consumers, we want them to be technology creators. You like that game? Don't just play it; create it. Make it better! 

For some of the middle school students, we've done everything from web development to inspirational days for girls, where they're invited to build computers, program software and hear stories firsthand from college-aged engineering students and young professional women working in technology. 

It's exciting to think about what technology can do for our community, economy and country. And yet, there are many people who will be disproportionally affected if they don't have the technology skills needed for the future. That's why I feel so strongly about doing this purposeful work, and why it's so inspiring to see when something “clicks” for a student. It is then that I realize these students may have never realized their talent in this area if it weren't for the opportunities we help to provide – and, ultimately, the magic we seek to reveal.