YouthSpark Challenge for Change winners promote STEM and Storytelling
By Aimee Riordan | May 01, 2014

On Thursday Microsoft announced the 2014 YouthSpark Challenge for Change winners, a distinctive group with members who hail from around the globe and who share two things in common: they are already affecting change in their communities, and they have supersized ambitions to do more.

Microsoft’s YouthSpark Challenge for Change is part of the company’s YouthSpark initiative, a global effort to create opportunities for 300 million youth by 2015. We asked students ages 18-25 for their ideas to spark change and ignite social good in their communities or around the world, and received inspirational entries from participants in more than 50 countries.

The winners were chosen by public vote and will receive a volunteer travel experience in the Amazon to learn about social change, $2,500 cash to kick-start their projects and a Microsoft technology bundle including Windows Phone 8, Xbox One and Surface 2 with Office 365 University.

Meet winners Dominic Co, Juan Carlos Murillo, Laura Fulton, Sarah Stifler and Sathya Narayanan Subramanian, and learn how they plan to expand science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to underrepresented groups, create empathy and understanding through the power of storytelling, and grow the horizons of others with e-learning.

Sara Stifler says she’d be lying if she didn’t admit to “squealing” when she found out she’d won: “I was really excited and I felt really blessed.”

Stifler, 20, a senior at the University of Maryland in College Park, founded Journey in Their Shoes with her best friend and business partner, Connie Gago, earlier this year. It’s a website that collects stories from people they meet, with the hopes that sharing them will promote respect, love and understanding.

Stories help humanize people.
Sara Stifler

“We’re doing this for people who don’t have a voice,” Stifler says. “We want to expand to other parts of the world. The publicity, the money and the technology that will come from winning Challenge for Change will be so crucial to expanding our mission to reach more people, and tell more stories.”

Stifler hatched the idea for Journey in Their Shoes while working at a sandwich shop in her native Baltimore, Md. She realized in talking to her customers that “everyone was different, but yet the same in so many ways.” It occurred to her how easy it is to simply walk through life not seeing others.

“Stories help humanize people,” she adds. And once you know someone’s story, you’re more apt to empathize with them. Stifler and Gago hope to evolve their storytelling effort into a hands-on approach to help people in need, while at the same time create a merchandise chain that will sell the work of the some of the artisans on their website.

Stifler’s looking forward to traveling to the Amazon to collect stories from the people in that part of the world and is particularly excited about the Windows Phone 8 she’ll receive as part of the prize package. “The cell phone will be incredible. It will be amazing to have a great, quality camera, and access to my calendar. The old phone I have right now, it doesn’t do that!”

Prior to winning Challenge for Change, Juan Carlos Murillo was already electrifying education with his project, Sin Miedo a la Corriente, which translated means: “No fear of current.”

This is an opportunity to make a huge impact in my country.
Juan Carlos Murillo

The name has its origin in the fact that many adolescents prefer not to learn computing or electronics “because they find it difficult and are afraid of it,” he says. “My project works to remove this fear.”

Murillo, 22, believes the secret to attracting more students to electronics and computer science is to introduce them to the disciplines well before they enter high school. His project relies on undergraduate engineering students who volunteer to teach underprivileged teenagers in his native Mexico.

They engage in hands-on activities such as creating electric motors, batteries, electromagnets and generators, and encourage a DIY culture to foster the students’ critical thinking as well as their interest in how things work.

Winning Challenge for Change means Murillo will have the chance to take his effort to the next level.

“This is an opportunity to make a huge impact in my country, and that makes me really excited,” he says. “Mexico has the potential to prepare engineers that can satisfy Mexico’s demands, and, better still, satisfy other countries’ demands for engineers.”

Murillo plans to use the cash prize to create new content for educating his students. He also plans to teach his students to use Office 365 and to “leverage new technologies like cloud computing, to be versatile and more prepared for working in the digital world.”

Sathya Narayanan Subramanian’s passion is teaching people how to use computers and the Internet. He envisions a world where “digital learning” will evolve to “digital literacy.”

If you can get access to a computer and use the computer to get information, you can do whatever you want.
Sathya Narayanan Subramanian

Founded two years ago, his Digital Literacy Program educates people across India, but thus far, the initiative has been decidedly analog. Subramanian, 23, and his volunteer counterparts travel to remote regions to manually teach students how to use computers.

Now, with the help of Challenge for Change, he’ll be able to take his initiative online using Microsoft technology.

Subramanian says the benefit of digital literacy can’t be overstated.

“The main difference between me and the other people in my class is that I was good at computers and other people weren’t,” he explains. “If you can get access to a computer and use the computer to get information, you can do whatever you want.”

Subramanian says he’s “totally awestruck” that so many people voted for him. He’s looking forward to gaining more of a global perspective from his trip to the Amazon.

“Right now my view on digital literacy has been limited to India. Getting an international vision of how people are struggling in different parts of the world will give me a lot of insight,” Naranyan says. “If everything goes well, I can launch my effort in a global capacity. This trip will be something amazing for me.”

Dominic Co’s dream is to help fellow Filipino youth develop a sense of national identity and gain an appreciation for literature by exposing them to great works — namely two books by Jose Rizal that sparked the rebellion that ultimately led to Philippine independence after 333 years of Spanish colonial rule.

The technology available today and the existence of the Internet create endless possibilities in communicating ideas and moving people.
Dominic Co

Filipino high school students are already required to read “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.” However, Co, 19, says that over time these books have lost some their relevance. His vision is to use the Internet to bring these stories to life and give them meaning to a generation born more than 100 years after they were written.

“The technology available today and the existence of the Internet create endless possibilities in communicating ideas and moving people, which was limited in the past,” Co says. “In a country like the Philippines, where approximately 37 million Filipinos use online social media every day, technology and the Internet would serve as a powerful devices to reach millions of people and have Rizal’s stories heard and understood.”

He envisions a website where the full text of the two books can be accessed, including translations into English and other languages, historical information and articles by preeminent Rizal scholars, and a place where students can discuss the books with each other.

Winning Challenge for Change, he says, means both financial resources and added prestige that will help his project succeed. “It’s amazing how an accidental spark of an idea, with the help of technology and the Internet today, could potentially change whole communities!”

As Laura Fulton progressed through junior high into high school in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., she saw her female peers disappear from science fairs and advanced classes. She launched Science for Success as a Girl Scout in 2010 hoping to inspire more girls to stay involved in STEM.

Microsoft makes this possible, and makes this awesome!
Laura Fulton

“As girls get older, they might be intimidated by the math that’s involved in science-related courses,” she explains. “They might feel intimidated by the cultural and gender pressures.” In reality, Fulton, 18, says science is collaborative and fun.

Through Science for Success she tries to show girls that they can “build each other up.” She also visits professional organizations and encourages them reach out to young women in their community. Fulton says mentors are critical to inspiring young scientists — and provide examples to girls that they too can succeed in a STEM field.

Thanks to Challenge for Change, Fulton plans to take Science for Success to her college campus and fellow students and professors next fall.

“Microsoft makes this possible,” Fulton says, “and makes this awesome!”

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