FGCU leading Microsoft-funded project to bring digital training to Immokalee

4 – minute read

Florida Gulf Coast University’s U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering is joining forces with two regional organizations on a project funded by a grant from Microsoft. It is designed to provide digital skills training to underserved students in the rural Immokalee community.


The effort is a collaboration with the Immokalee Foundation and the Collier County Industrial Development Authority. Christened TechSpark Immokalee, the project is being made possible by a $50,000 grant from Microsoft with a dollar-for-dollar match from the Collier County Industrial Development Authority.

Through the initiative, more than 150 Immokalee Foundation middle school students will participate in a four-week training program focusing on providing them with skills such as data processing, robotics, augmented and virtual reality, and generative artificial intelligence.

student at computer
An Immokalee Foundation student gets some assistance from a foundation program instructor at FGCU. Photo: Immokalee Foundation.

Huzefa Kagdi, dean of the engineering college, said the collaboration is the first of its kind in Southwest Florida that is centered on digital inclusion. “It will create an experiential-learning ecosystem for middle-school students to help develop digital skills in critical fields of engineering, computing and construction,” Kagdi said.


“Advanced digital skills, such as those in artificial intelligence, machine learning and cybersecurity, are becoming increasingly important in a variety of domains. Therefore, it is imperative to provide awareness, learning and training opportunities on these topics to students, right from their formative years,” he said.


The initial grant is for one year, with the possibility of extension for another year based on the availability of funding and the amount of progress made the first year, said Daniel Linares Garcia, assistant professor of construction management and civil engineering at FGCU. Linares will serve as the Microsoft TechSpark Fellow and lead instructor for the program.

“TechSpark Immokalee seeks to raise awareness of digital skills for the jobs of the future. Our approach is that students will be involved in training sessions where they will get to know about these skills and their corresponding technological advancements and methodologies,” he said.

students welding
Immokalee Foundation students learn virtual welding at STEM camp at FGCU. Photo: Immokalee Foundation.

A team of FGCU students, other faculty, staff and alumni will work to develop a specialized curriculum to engage the middle school students. In-person sessions will begin next spring, said Linares, who also will be supported by Immokalee Foundation faculty and staff.


Linares said he is excited about the involvement of FGCU engineering students in TechSpark Immokalee.


“Our students are perceived as role models for students at schools in Immokalee, so their involvement will cement their vision toward higher education,” he said.


“FGCU students will help in many ways, including supporting the curriculum development, supporting the teaching effort, managing resources and doing outreach to other stakeholders.”


Among those involved are the college’s student ambassadors, campus chapters of professional societies and students using TechSpark Immokalee as a case study for their own classes. Other students will join alumni to share their experiences in career paths through panel discussions.


TechSpark Immokalee will have a special focus on skills needed for the future of construction workers, which is right in Linares’ wheelhouse.


“Construction is facing a workforce scarcity issue, and I am not only talking about labor workers but also professionals. Although the construction industry has been considered ‘non-technological,’ this is changing. In the future, the industry will have different ways to do things, and digital skills will be critical,” he said.


“In addition, construction workers receive above-average earnings, so the potential for youth seeking a stable and rewarding career and life is immense in the construction industry. However, the curriculum is focused on digital skills that can be used in any other industry,” Linares said.

Project teammates say it is increasingly important to help middle school students, especially those from underserved communities, enhance technological skills.


“We are building the foundations of our future society today. So, if we are already planning a future society where technology will be more widespread, we need to have the people who support those efforts now. We think that aiming at middle school students is a good balance,” Linares said.


“We also want to help underserved communities because they have fewer opportunities to learn about these things.”


Noemi Y. Perez, president and CEO of the Immokalee Foundation, agreed. “The Immokalee Foundation ensures that our students are best positioned for success in their chosen career path now and far into the future,” Perez said. “TechSpark Immokalee will play a critical part by preparing them for the increasing influence of digitization and technology in the professional world.”

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