BNSF’s Technology Awareness Day: An eye-opening experience for high school students
To rouse a couple hundred groggy teenagers on a Saturday morning, try cymbal clanging, snare drum tapping and bass drum pounding – from inside a conference room. Thanks to a Fort Worth, Texas, high school’s drumline percussions, energy was high at the kickoff for BNSF’s 24th Technology Awareness Day (TAD).
The stimulating music set the mood for TAD, which annually brings high schoolers together at BNSF’s corporate headquarters to create interest and awareness of career opportunities in technology, engineering and other areas.
“We have a goal to show how technological skills can help students in the future, but we also want to demonstrate that you don’t have to be a software engineer to get into technology – it’s for everyone,” Vivian Young, one of this year’s TAD co-chairs, said.
To continue the morning’s momentum, keynote speaker EJ Carrion, co-founder and CEO of Student Success Agency, shared how he had limited opportunities growing up, but turned those needs into strengths. Today, he inspires young people to be authentic and find ways to make a difference to make the world a better place.
“I believe someone in this room could be the first black Mark Zuckerberg, the first black Elon or Bezos, someone who creates value out of technology that reimagines the world,” Carrion told the room of captivated students.
About 280 students from area high schools registered for the in-person version of the event. These included schools with Upward Bound programs, which aligns with TAD’s mission: to close the digital divide by helping bridge the gap between minority communities and technology. About 70 more students from outside the area attended virtually.
TAD is always held in February as part of Black History Month and is tied to National Black Family Technology Awareness Week. The theme for 2023 was “Together with Technology,” a nod to being able to attend in person again after the pandemic’s virtual-only events.
From dial-up days to virtual world
Like technology, a lot has changed for TAD in the last 24 years.
“This program started with about 50 students who met in a warehouse to learn about coding. The focus was on technology and how to bridge the gap for disadvantaged students in high schools that didn’t have the technological tools or resources,” Angela Jones, senior project manager at BNSF and longtime TAD volunteer, recalled.
Those were the days of dial-up internet but even then, organizers recognized the need to motivate young minorities around tech careers. That’s when BNSF stepped up, offering its Technology Office Building on the Fort Worth corporate campus.
Since then, the event has grown and now includes a College/Tech Fair that introduces attendees to local universities and apprenticeship programs, the how-to’s of applying for financial aid and “life as a college student” sessions. Other practical life workshops included resumé and interviewing tips and a dollars and sense session.
BNSF hosts the event and multiple sponsors, including Apple, IBM and Microsoft, participate and help fund it.
“We share the event with these sponsors and vendors because it’s become a community-wide event. Not only is it a good way to give back, but others can showcase their capabilities,” Rusty DeWaters, TAD co-chair, said.
Keeping teenagers’ attention is challenging, so some of the newest and most advanced gadgetry is on display, and the students get to try some of it hands-on. A locomotive simulator was available to experience what it’s like to be behind a throttle. A virtual reality headset gave an immersive experience in locomotive maintenance.
“Getting this technology into their hands helps them imagine what might come after high school,” DeWaters said. “Many are learning about something they never knew existed.” Other exhibits featured artificial intelligence, machine visioning and a drone demonstration from BNSF’s unmanned aerial systems team.
“We don’t talk too much about BNSF, but they get to see that what we do is not just about running trains. We get to show just how much technology our company is involved in and why it’s so important,” Young added.
Solutions to real-life challenges
Graphic art, video, essay and mobile app/website design contests based on this year's theme, gave students a chance to showcase their skills and were rewarded with prizes, like iPads, laptops and gift cards provided by sponsors.
“These are really bright and motivated students, and it’s exciting for us to be able to show them how technology can be a part of their future,” Brian Faz, assistant vice president, Technology Services and one of the TAD leadership sponsors, said. “I’d like to thank the team of 100 volunteers and key BNSF partners who bring a lot of experience and enthusiasm to the day, which takes months to plan.”
Others who were thanked during the event were special guests Jim and Gloria Austin, founders of the first TAD.
“We are so excited to be here today for the 24th annual Technology Awareness Day,” Gloria Austin said. “It has been fantastic to see how BNSF has supported this program. I hope that you will take advantage of this opportunity.”
Jim Austin added: “You all got up this morning to be here with us and that means that you have set up your path to be successful. Continue to work hard and find your place in STEM.”
TAD co-chairs Young and DeWaters agreed that hearing the kids ask questions and the interest they showed in learning more about how they can use technology was the most rewarding part of the day. “They were so eager to learn and appreciative,” DeWaters added.
One attendee, Caleb Wright, a freshman at nearby Keller Independent School District summed up best what the experience meant: “I really enjoyed the speakers, and I am hoping I can find out what I want to do when I grow up.”