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SparkNC program brings high tech courses to high schoolers, and it’s looking to expand

SparkNC lab at Chatham County Schools
John Wood
Courtesy of Chatham County Schools
Eighth graders from George Moses Horton Middle School visit Chatham County Schools' SparkLab to interact with autonomous vehicles with Betabox Learning's mobile lab.

A state-funded pilot program is bringing high tech learning experiences to high school students in 17 school districts.

School districts participating in the SparkNC program have set up labs where students can choose from a menu of short courses in topics like robotics, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and software development.

Students can explore tech fields or pursue high school credit, working at their own pace during school hours or as an extracurricular activity. Industry partners help teach the content, while students are led by a coach at their school.

SparkNC’s Senior Director of Partnerships Lynn Moody said plans for the program coincidentally started the same day that Apple announced it would be building a headquarters in Raleigh.

“And immediately social media, as you might remember, posted rumors that none of those high paying jobs would be filled by people in North Carolina, that they would get these workers from California,” Moody recalled. “How in the world would we feel this talent pipeline? That same day, we began writing our proposal for SparkNC.”

Lawmakers provided $3 million dollars in the 2023 state budget to help with startup costs for the program in 17 school districts specified in the budget.

A list of schools in the NC state budget that would receive funds for SparkNC.
NCGA Session Law 2023-134, the 2023 state budget, p. 123
A list of schools in the NC state budget that would receive help with the startup costs to participate in the SparkNC program.

Representatives for the SparkNC program presented on its progress to the joint legislative education oversight committee Tuesday. The committee’s co-chair Senator Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) applauded the program.

“This is the future of education — and I'm not just talking about high school — the ability to work at your own pace, partner with industry, achieve a skill,” Lee said.

SparkNC representatives say they're pursuing more state, local and private funding to expand the model to more school districts, but program leaders did not make a specific request for more state funding at the committee meeting.

Moody said SparkNC has other districts that are on deck to pursue their own labs, and the program is working with public colleges and universities and private tech boot camps to help connect students in the program with opportunities to further their education.

Dan Gonzalez of District C, an internship program, is one of the SparkNC's partners. He said real-world internships in tech are often not available to many students.

“We know that rural students too often get left out. Students who lack family connections too often get left out,” Gonzalez said. “Spark teamship levels the playing field by bringing the entire experience, the teammates, the business partner and the coach directly to the students.”

The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at N.C. State University has been charged with evaluating the SparkNC program, and will provide annual reports to the General Assembly and a full program evaluation in 2025. Callie Womble Edwards of the Friday Institute told lawmakers that evaluation will eventually include an analysis of whether students who have gone through the program ultimately pursue higher education credentials or careers in related fields.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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