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By Kate Hayden

Originally published by Innovation Iowa a Business Record publication on March 26, 2020

Last week, Nancy Mwirotsi had 30 laptops to give away immediately — and every one was claimed by Friday.

Mwirotsi, founder and director of the tech education nonprofit Pursuit of Innovation (Pi515), began working in overdrive to ensure her middle school and high school students would have access to STEM education resources after the Des Moines Public School District announced it would temporarily close during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

Most of Pi515’s students are in the DMPS district — a district that doesn’t offer 1:1 laptops to high school students. Pi515 also serves immigrant, refugee or otherwise underserved youths without the same access to technology or broadband in their homes.

Mwirotsi is seeking as many refurbished laptops as companies can donate to give to DMPS students without devices at home.

“So many kids are way, way behind in school already. This just pushes them way back,” Mwirotsi said. “There’s no access to after-school programs, there’s no library, you don’t have Wi-Fi, nothing.”

Mwirotsi is quickly making connections. Within three days Pi515 was connected with a representative at Mediacom, which is offering Connect-2-Compete home internet service for free to eligible households for 60 days (those homes that subscribe before May 15 will subsequently pay $9.95 a month).

It will likely take a week for Mediacom to reach the Pi515 families that need the Connect-2-Compete program, Mwirotsi estimated. What students need now is more devices — parents who don’t have students in Pi515’s program have called her asking for help to get their student something to do homework on.

“I had other parents just call me out of the blue to say, ‘My daughter is a senior in high school and … unfortunately the school did not give her a laptop to take home,'” Mwirotsi said. “My heart’s breaking, because we can only do so much.”

Whether or not Mwirotsi’s students have access to an internet connection isn’t just about her nonprofit — in the midst of a global pandemic, the internet is the only access students have to a new normal in school, socializing and professional skills development. That includes the Robotic Process Automation course, in which Mwirotsi’s students had met just three times before in-person classes were suspended.

Part-time jobs are lost; care responsibilities for siblings may have increased, and a general sense of unease has taken the place of most students’ routines. Pi515 supporters raised more than $2,315 to assist food-insecure DMPS families that relied on the schools to provide meals five days a week to their kids.

She’s about to begin teaching online as well; the Robotic Process Automation course itself, which teaches the concepts of artificial intelligence development, is hosted online, meaning students with a device and broadband access will still receive the same instruction. Pi515 postponed its Future of Work Summit scheduled for this spring until the fall, leaving this semester’s Robotic Process Automation students without a chance to showcase the automated platforms they are building to their classmates and families. But it also launched a new lesson — learning to work remotely, a lesson many professionals are learning on the fly as well.

Mwirotsi won’t be there in person to notice when a student is struggling to catch on with a new concept, and is encouraging her kids to be vocal when they need help — just as Mwirotsi is asking the business community for help.

“That is going to be new for [students] … and I think that’s a plus. It’s getting them ready for that future,” Mwirotsi said. “We have some amazing, self-motivated kids, and they are concerned about [each other]. They are calling and saying, ‘Is there anything we can do to help?’ … We just need to help close the gap. If we’re going to build a tech workforce in Iowa, we have to realize that the kids who don’t have access to technology are very, very smart and very bright.”

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