Sweetwater County students help solve Wyoming problems

SWEETWATER COUNTY, Wyo. — Last week, over 900 students from Sweetwater School District #1 participated in a competitive design thinking program called “goIT.” They had one task: make Wyoming better.

“Everybody knows, Wyoming’s number one export is its children,” said Rock Springs Mayor Tim Kaumo.

And with Wyoming’s population in decline, it’s even more important to engage Wyoming kids in creative solutions.

Created by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), goIT is a free, hands-on design-thinking program that teaches students a variety of skills that will be essential for success in the digital economy of the 21st century.

The program has been running for over 10 and has impacted over 25,000 students directly across North America. The event in Rock Springs marked aa new milestone for goIT. It was the largest event in the program’s history, with more than 900 student participants.

In addition to students from Sweetwater County, goIt is also being offered to middle schools from Uinta county and four other school districts across Wyoming. This is in partnership with the Wyoming Department of Education, who has invited volunteers from TCS travel to participating schools, or mentor remotely, and help teachers coach students though the conception and design of a mobile app intended to directly address the problems facing their community.

To engage students, the program has a competitive element. Each participating school district will choose two champions two will go on to compete at a state-level competition in Casper later this year.

“A program like goIT is great here in Rock Springs,” Mayor Kaumo said. “It supports our number one goal, which is keeping our people at home… We want them to stay here – to raise their families here, to attend the schools here, and partake in all the opportunities Wyoming has to offer them: Low tax, high wages, and plenty of open spaces.”

Photo courtesy Tata Consultancy Services.

Local students were tasked with building designing an app that helped solve a local issue. In Rock Springs, students quickly identified a lack of jobs as a major issue. They also highlighted loneliness, isolation, and mental health as struggles unique to Wyoming.  on the third day, students presented their app ideas to judges in a “Dragon’s Den” style three-minute pitch.

Students first competed against their classmates and then in a semi-final, before the whole program gathered in the auditorium and gym to select the final winners of the competition.

Two of the top-voted app concepts were Wonders of Wyoming and WYO-GO, which both offered an easy way to discover all the incredible things to do in the state. Wyo-Jobs was designed to address the shortage of job opportunities in Wyoming and to help residents of the state find jobs they might not have known about otherwise.

The two other showcased applications addressed loneliness and mental health in Wyoming. Help First and Guardian Supporters proposed using digital technology to put struggling people in touch with others in the state who can support and encourage them.

Rock Springs Junior High students Samantha Bernard, Sabrena Henley, Cheylynn Ross, and Kayla Weber were the creators of Guardian Supporters and will go on to pitch their application in the state-wide competition later this year.

“Wyoming is number three for suicides across America,” Weber said. “Out of 100,000 people, an average of 19.3 people commit suicide before the age of 21.”

Seeing that other app concepts were focusing on job opportunities or tourism, Weber and her team decided to address what they thought was the biggest problem facing people their age.

“We decided we needed to build an app to help teenagers and people our age,” Weber said. “If you want to keep people in Wyoming, you need to focus on the problem that’s the worst here.”

Cyberbullying and the pressure LGBTQ teens face growing up in America’s most conservative state are two of the biggest problems that Weber and her team identified. Their app concept would enable teenagers facing similar issues to support each other while protecting them with as much anonymity as they feel they need to be comfortable.

“We figured it was better to state the issues here in Wyoming, and then tell people about the good things about the state, so they don’t move here and start facing problems they hadn’t been warned about,” Ross said. “Otherwise, they’ll want to leave again.”

“You want people to move to Wyoming? How about you fix something in Wyoming first,” Bernard said.

Rock Springs Junior High principal Kris Cundall said he was proud of the ideas her students came up with and was excited to follow the winning teams to the state-wide competition in Casper.

“This goIt competition has been a great opportunity for our students to think about opportunities and careers they might not have otherwise known about – especially right here in this community,” she said. “One of the biggest problems students of Rock Springs face is the limit to how much they can be exposed to in terms of opportunity – if their parents work in the mines, for example, they might not even think about any careers beyond that.”

Wanda Maloney, Chief Academic Officer in Sweetwater School District #1, oversaw the full three-day goIT competition and was excited about the impact it could have in the community.

“What we’ve seen over these three days is the type of learning we’ve been trying to capture in this school district for quite some time. It’s an experience that’s been a real opportunity for our kids,” she said.

“In the spring of last year, we started to look at how to bring in computer science standards to the schools in this district. How do we bring in STEM training? How do we start embedding it in our curriculum, and explain to teachers what this is all about?”

They found goIT and brought it to the school. Maloney said right away she noticed how engaged and proud the students were of their owrk.

“The Wyoming Department of Education made us aware of goIT, and told us: ‘We’d love your school to bring this on, and offer this challenge to your students.’”

“I’ve seen students looking for ways to solve problems, and I’ve seen them take the onus of solving these problems onto themselves.”

At the end of each day, the participating teachers gathered to exchange thoughts

“Many of the teachers were inspired by seventh and eighth graders – their willingness to want to solve problems and make a difference in their own small world. It’s breathtaking,” Maloney said.

Photo courtesy Tata Consultancy Services

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