Upward Bound Senior Spotlight: Rebant Shrestha

Posted on - Tech Education, Youth

“Gotta keep the grind going.”

Papillion-La Vista Senior Rebant Shrestha (above, third from left) lives by this maxim. It’s served him well. In the fall he’ll attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha to study aviation on a number of scholarships, including a Dean’s scholarship and two POC-support scholarships.

He has worked hard and excelled widely, particularly in his favorite subjects: physics, journalism, and world history. He’s always on the lookout for the stories that shape the world.

“I like journalism because I like talking to people. I like interviewing them,” he said.

Born in Nepal, Rebant and his family moved to the United States when he was starting kindergarten. They lived in New York for a year and then moved to Nebraska.

Rebant juggled a lot during high school. He played soccer all four years while participating in Quiz Bowl, History Club, and the AIM Upward Bound program.

He shows an altruistic streak as well, volunteering every Saturday at Bergen-Mercy hospital. Depending on the day, he might restock items, direct visitors, work the gift shop cash register, or even help patients.

“I just kind of fell in love with it. I love helping people,” he said.

Rebant plans to either do air traffic control or get his pilot’s license and become a commercial pilot. If that doesn’t work out, he might build on the tech education he has received from AIM and become a drone pilot. With the FAA expecting huge increases in the number of commercial drones operating in the next few years, the need for drone pilots could quadruple.

Rebant has participated in AIM Upward Bound since his sophomore year. Upward Bound is a federal TRIO program that helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in their precollege performance. AIM coordinates Upward Bound programs and provides free technology education through the Brain Exchange at five area high schools.

“Since my parents haven’t gone to college, I’m kind of just on my own. So being in Upward Bound has helped me set my path right,” Rebant said.

Rebant appreciated the support and guidance he received during his time in Upward Bound, such as searching for and applying for scholarships. He also liked AIM’s Upward Bound summer academies, which exposed him to various career possibilities he otherwise might never have considered.

Though he’s graduated now, Rebant is excited to sustain his momentum through this summer into his time at UNO.

“If I slack off now, it’ll definitely be harder for me in college,” he said.

Given his dedication, talent, and work ethic, we doubt that’ll be a problem. From all of us at AIM, congratulations Rebant!  

Women in Technology: Marina Brown

Posted on - Tech Education, Women in Tech

Technology was not Marina Brown’s first choice of profession. Originally from Bulgaria, Brown is the daughter of medical professionals who urged her to become a doctor. She wasn’t interested in medicine, however. And as high school slid toward college, she began noticing how new technology was coming out all the time—and that programmers had fairly lucrative jobs.

She is now the manager of product development and data science at Werner Enterprises, a global transportation and logistics company headquartered in Omaha. She’s also an authority on cutting edge technology. At this year’s Infotec conference, for instance, she gave a presentation on the business applications of machine learning.

None of that would have happened without a kind of rebellion against her parents’ desire for her to study medicine. Once she realized she wanted to work in tech, she pursued her B.S. in Computer Information Management from College of Saint Mary in Omaha. She found herself adept at coding.

“I’ve always loved mathematics and have studied mathematics pretty hard for most of my life, so programming just made sense,” Brown said. “It was all about solving problems, and I love to solve problems.”

Shortly after college, she attended the prestigious University of Southern California to study for a Master’s degree Artificial Intelligence. She was a little bit ahead of her time, however.

“I wanted to build machines that could act, feel, and interact like humans. Back then, though, people were mostly focused on optimization and figuring out how to get a person from Point A to Point B in the fastest way. That wasn’t what I’d been thinking about when I thought about artificial intelligence.”

So she dropped out of that program and pursued a profession in product management. She worked at First National Bank as a product manager for several years before switching to ACI Company, an electronic banking and financial transactions company, where she guided and led development teams. Along the way, she received her Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Now she is responsible for the life-cycle of products at Werner Enterprises. She leads a team of software developers, and while she no longer codes like she did in college, the position suits her well.

“I have a social personality, so I don’t want to be looking at code day-in and day-out, because it’s not as exciting for me,” Brown said. “But going around and trying to figure out what technology applications users want to use, and how they want to use them, and providing that knowledge back to the development team, really seemed to resonate with me.”

Her expertise in coding, however, has helped her succeed as a product manager. Brown said people entering the product management field tend to have one of two backgrounds. Either they come from the technology world and need to learn business-speak, or they come from the business world and need to learn about technology. She said people transitioning from technology to business generally have a much easier time adjusting to the demands of product management.

How does she feel about working in a traditionally male-dominated field?

“I love it, honestly,” she said. “A lot of women think of technology professions and they think of coding. And that might not be what they really want to pursue out of life. But there are so many opportunities in the technology space above and beyond just being a programmer, that when I think of women, I always try to explain: you can do so many different things.”

Not only do women have the ability to succeed in tech, they have a kind of ethical imperative to enter tech environments, Brown contends.

“You can help, in a variety of ways, our society, by just partaking in the step of technology development without having to drown in code,” she said. “We need women in technology because they tend to address more female-oriented problems that our male colleagues just don’t think about.”

For instance, without women’s voices in the room, a male-dominated team of developers working on early cancer-detection technology might be less likely to consider breast cancer a priority, she said. “That has real-life implications to fifty percent of society.”

The broad societal value of women in technology is one of many reasons Brown uses to encourage young women to pursue tech careers. She also emphasizes the diversity of jobs available in technology, as well as the high pay, which helps women sustain themselves.  

“There is just so much innovation going on, and we need more and more women to be part of this innovation,” Brown said. “If they don’t partake, our society will be worse off for that.”


AIM Upward Bound Senior Spotlight: Lesly Lopez

Posted on - Youth

Omaha Bryan High School senior Lesly Lopez loves to read. One of her favorite authors is Rainbow Rowell, the Omaha writer whose novel Eleanor & Park was recently optioned for a film adaptation. She also enjoys reading poetry.

More than that, Lopez is a writer. She began writing as part of the newspaper staff at the Bryan Orator, mostly reporting on sports. She won two awards from the University of Nebraska at Omaha School of Communication: first place in Feature Writing and second place in Sports Writing.

Then she found out she loved writing more than reporting. She began writing in different genres and experimenting with new techniques she’d learned from her English teachers.

“I’ve always had great English teachers,” Lopez said. “They always supported me through everything. I remember my freshman English teacher was the one that impacted me the most. She told me I was too good to be in regular English, so she made me go for Honors and AP.”

And that’s what Lopez did. She excelled through high school, earning a full-ride Board of Governors scholarship from Metropolitan Community College.

In the fall, Lopez will attend MCC on a full-ride to complete her gen-ed requirements before transferring to the University of Nebraska at Omaha to double major in Special Education and ESL.

“I was in ESL myself when I was younger,” Lopez said. “I know how they feel. I was in their shoes once and I want to help them go through it.”

During college, she wants to spend a year studying abroad, preferably teaching in Africa. She has a thirst for learning about different countries and cultures and is eager to broaden her view of the world.

The comprehensive academic and personal support she received from the AIM Upward Bound program has helped Lopez navigate the difficult world of high school. She cited AIM Upward Bound coordinators as key to her success.

“If I didn’t have them, I don’t know where I would be right now,” she said. “They were just always there to support me. They always had me with anything.”

Like many students, Lopez also had trouble figuring out the mind-bendingly complex world of scholarship applications. She said she appreciated AIM’s help through the process.

“I honestly don’t think I would have found those things on my own.”

Finally, Lopez expressed some general parting words of appreciation for Upward Bound in general. Upward Bound is a federal TRIO program that helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in their precollege performance. AIM coordinates Upward Bound programs and provides free technology education through the Brain Exchange at five area high schools, including Omaha Bryan.

“Being in AIM Upward Bound has really been a positive thing in my life,” Lopez said. “I’ve struggled a lot in my life. I’m thankful that this program is here at Bryan. Some schools don’t have programs like these, and I’m glad I always have someone to talk to here.”


Women in Technology of the Heartland Helps Women Navigate the Tech World

Posted on - Community, Women in Tech

“It’s revolutionary, really, for women in technology right now.”

Marie Hiykel directs two federally funded pre-college support programs for the AIM Institute. When Hiykel was growing up, she said, most girls she knew said they wanted to be a mommy or a nurse. Back then, a girl saying she wanted to work in tech would not have been supported. Recently, however, Hiykel encountered a girl who said she wanted to teach technology when she grew up.

Hiykel was one of roughly 60 attendees of the Women in Technology of the Heartland (WITH) meetup group Tuesday at Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters. WITH provides a fun networking forum for women to learn from and share with one another, focusing on developing and promoting IT talent women through mentoring and outreach. According to its meetup page, the purpose of these efforts can be distilled into the motto: “so we’re not the only women in the room anymore.”

The event was co-sponsored by Tek Systems, who provided pizza and soda; Object Partners, who helped with promotion and communication; and Agape Red, who treated the group to drinks at a nearby bar afterward.

Abby Jones, technical solution architect for Mutual of Omaha, gave a funny, informative, and inspiring presentation about her journey to becoming a software engineer. After majoring in English, Secondary Education, and History, Jones taught herself sign language and became an instructor for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. She taught at Beveridge Middle School for several years before becoming intrigued with the idea of programming. With help from multiple people, she began teaching herself to code, making fledgling websites, and learning and networking as much as she could.

Jones credited WITH for helping her take the steps she needed to take to switch careers from education to software development.

“The steps were so small I almost didn’t notice them. But they were life-changing,” Jones said during her presentation, which balanced interesting autobiographical anecdotes with technical specs about different projects she worked on along the way.

Next month’s meetup will concern using technology to encourage and empower women.

Each WITH meetup is structured to allow for casual networking and opportunities to connect with other women who have expertise in technology.

“Other women in my neighborhood, when they hear what I do, they go, ‘Oh I don’t know anything about IT,” said Ashley Podwinski, who works in risk management for Nelnet. “And then they’re like, ‘Can you fix my router?’”

Podwinski previously worked in the male-dominated software development field. One of the things she missed most about that environment was female camaraderie and humor.

“It’s nice to see other women who know what the difference between Copper and Fiber is, and can make jokes about them,” Podwinski said, referring to computer science terms.

While she acknowledged the heartening progress Hiykel had mentioned, Podwinski also expressed a cautious optimism about the headway women have made in the technology sector.

“You do start to see more women in the CIO roles, so that’s nice. But there’s still a ways to go.”

Thankfully, groups like WITH are working hard to change that, so that a woman who wants to be CIO will be as supported as if she wanted to teach technology, become a nurse, or do anything else with her life.


AIM Institute releases 2018 Impact Report

Posted on - Press Releases

Two students explore robotics and programming at the AIM Brain Exchange.

AIM Institute has had an impact across generations throughout its 27-year history. The 2018 nonprofit impact report highlights how AIM, through the support of its partners, donors, collaborators and the community, has impacted lives through the footprint of its programs and services, and how to support AIM as it elevates its mission.

We are at an unprecedented time where technology touches every industry and occupation.  AIM Institute is the only nonprofit dedicated to building a connected community for tech talent. In 2019 and beyond, AIM Institute is steadfast in its mission to continue to grow, connect and inspire the tech talent community, impacting thousands of lives across the Silicon Prairie.


Highlander Code Camp Builds Tomorrow’s Tech Workforce

Posted on - Community, Tech Education, Youth

Teach a kid to code, and they can debug their life.

Studies have shown that programming benefits a child’s cognitive development, especially reflectivity and divergent thinking skills, both crucial to creative problem-solving. Learning how to code also helps children enhance their metacognitive abilities, so that they can think about the way they think. Metacognition training has demonstrated increases in academic performance and happiness. Therefore, teaching a kid to code could improve their chance for future success, even if they decide not to pursue a career in programming.

The community development nonprofit Seventy Five North knows this. That’s why they partner with AIM Institute on Highlander Code Camp, a seven-week-long web development program for students who live in or attend high school in North Omaha and who receive free or reduced lunch.

North Omaha is a culturally rich, historically disadvantaged quadrant of the city that has long faced structural inequalities. Health hazards caused by 130 years of corporate misconduct help perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Neighborhood decline frustrates longtime residents. Simultaneously, North Omaha is an epicenter of arts, music, community revitalization, and innovation in education.

Highlander Code Camp runs June 3 to July 25 at the AIM Institute’s Brain Exchange building. The day begins at 9 am with free breakfast, followed by web development instruction from Kent Smotherman, an experienced AIM Interface Web School teacher, for three hours. Students receive a free lunch before embarking on an afternoon of enrichment activities, like field trips and additional instruction. They also receive their own laptop to keep.

The camp helps students realize what career possibilities exist in technology. Every Thursday, students visit a local company to see how what they’re learning now can transfer to their future. Sometimes, these visits result in valuable long-term connections.

“We had one student last year who visited the back-end security department at First National Bank,” said Alexis Bromley, director of strategic partnerships for Seventy Five North. “The First National people said, ‘When you graduate, give us a call because we want to hire you.’”

Students have the freedom to choose what kind of website they want to make. Smotherman will tailor his instruction to the needs of the class, teaching students how to build each of the various components they will use to design and create their own beautiful, functional websites.

Bromley said: “We’ve had students make websites for their favorite Dungeons & Dragons character. We had someone create a website for a health fitness plan, so if you want to get a workout or a healthy diet, you can log onto this website and interface with it. They even learned how to make it mobile-responsive.”

At the end of the camp, the students go through a graduation ceremony attended by family, friends, teachers, mentors, and advisors. Each student will give a ten-minute presentation on how and why they built their websites, discussing what they have learned, what challenges they faced, and what they want to do with technology and web development in the future.

“All of the students who have participated in the program have had an incredible time and rave about it,” Bromley said.

Highlander Code Camp serves a unique need in our community: helping students of color develop programming skills. Students of color are underrepresented in tech. Many factors contribute to the problem, including racism in tech classrooms and racism in the workplace, two issues SPN has reported on in the past. A lack of targeted tech-ed outreach to students of color does not help the situation.

Highlander’s aspirational goals are to secure enough funding to increase class size, and to eventually offer the program year-round.

“A lot of students think, ‘This is an incredible program, how do I keep going,’ and we don’t always have the outlet for them,” Bromley said. “So we would love to figure out how to do a Code Camp 2.0 where, throughout the school year, students who have participated in the program are coming once a week and learning the next phase of web development.”

Beyond teaching participants practical coding skills, Highlander empowers youth to believe in themselves.

In an interview with the AIM Institute, Flywheel Happiness Engineer and former Highlander instructor Eric Swanson said that the young women in his class especially benefited from their time in the camp.

“For a lot of these girls, they had just never been exposed to the idea that they could do tech,” Swanson said. “So when they found out that they were good at it, they were just floored. Everything they had been told up to that point was a lie to them. They were all, ‘Wait a minute. I can do this.’ Just the level of talent, it was always there. Nobody told them that they had it…But it was there, man. It was there.”

Omaha Gives

Please help sustain the vital tech education that AIM provides for our community’s youth. AIM is not only building the tech talent ecosystem to help fill the economy’s need for IT professionals, but improving lives in the process. The more lives we can improve, the better our entire community will be. Donate to our Omaha Gives campaign today to support our youth-in-tech programs—and a stronger, healthier city overall.

Be cool! “CONEct” with Tech at the AIM Brain Exchange and rally support for our youth programs

Posted on - AIM Newsroom, Press Releases

Nonprofit AIM Institute will celebrate achievement in youth programming with an ice cream social at the AIM Brain Exchange, 1902 Howard Street on Wednesday, May 22 at 11 a.m. During this event, visitors will enjoy complimentary ice cream and “Raspberry Pi” as they experience student STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) technology used in AIM’s youth programs at area schools. Visitors also will have an opportunity to support expansion of AIM’s youth programming in Omaha and Council Bluffs.

In a world that’s becoming increasingly complex, success is driven not only by what you know, but by what you can do with what you know. It’s more important than ever for our youth to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information. Reaching more than 6,000 children in 2018 thanks to support from the community, AIM’s youth programming is designed to build skills students need through hands-on and inspirational activities with technology that incorporates STEAM.

Underwater Robot Wars at Monroe Middle School

Posted on - Tech Education, Youth

Last Friday, students at Monroe Middle School battled each other by proxy at the underwater robot wars.

Since October, two teams of students in the AIM TRIO Talent Search program have been building their own Remotely Operated Vehicles. They have worked with instructors from the AIM Brain Exchange, as well as teachers for Monroe’s Science Club and Tech MashUP, to design and assemble the robots.

In doing so, students have learned about robotics, electronics, construction, design, problem solving, and teamwork.

“It’s been fun to see how their brains work,” said Jon Larsen, an instructor at Brain Exchange. Larsen and Erin Lasiter, executive director of the Brain Exchange, advised both teams on the finer points of robot construction, like soldering and wiring.

Monroe instructor Sherri Strain said students have worked on the robots at least an hour-and-a-half each week for almost the entire school year. Along the way, they’ve built some useful skills.

“They’re doing a lot of things that they didn’t think they’d be able to do: soldering, cutting pipe, all of it,” Strain said. “It was very entertaining for us, just watching that growth.”

The underwater robot wars comprised three rounds: a maneuverability course, a speed trial, and a rescue mission.

In round one, students piloted their robots through three underwater hoops, to flex the robots’ mobility capabilities.

In round two, the robots raced each other to the middle of the pool and back.

The final round was a rescue & recovery mission. Teams used their robots to pick up plastic rings, garden trowels, and rocket ships that were scattered around the bottom of the pool.

While the Science Club’s green robot won all three trials, Tech MashUP’s blue robot won for best design, team unity, and perseverance.

AIM Trio Talent Search Coordinator Shane Barsell said the idea for the project came to him from the annual Council for Opportunity in Education conference, which he attended last year in NYC.

“It’s really exciting to see the students do something different that they wouldn’t usually do in the classroom,” Barsell said.

In addition to the STEM skills they developed, students learned how to persevere—the project took eight months to complete.

The AIM TRIO Talent Search program helps students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the potential to succeed in higher education. The program provides academic, career, and financial counseling to its participants and encourages them to graduate from high school and continue on to and complete their postsecondary education.

AIM provides free technology education to youth who would not otherwise have the opportunity to experience it. We are helping build a strong, sustainable, and diverse IT workforce locally. Please support our youth-in-tech programs via Omaha Gives.

Underwater robot kits are available from SeaPerch.

Interface Web School Grads Connect with Local Employers at Graduation Ceremony

Posted on - Community, Tech Education

When Sarah Paczosa was laid off from a printing company after 17 years, she needed a change. The industry wasn’t as promising as it used to be. So she enrolled in the 10-week Foundations of Web Development course at the AIM Interface Web School.

“I came in not knowing anything,” Paczosa said. Now she is fluent in HTML, CSS, Javascript, WordPress—everything she needs to know to build an elegant and functional contemporary website. Soon she will add Java to her list of skills, as she enters Interface’s 14-week Java specialization course to become a versatile, full-stack developer.

Paczosa is one of 14 Interface students to graduate last Thursday in a ceremony held on the historic Trading Floor of the AIM Exchange Building. Representatives from OpsCompass, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, Flywheel, Mutual of Omaha, Bellevue University, and Gallup attended the event to network with the graduates.

Mutual of Omaha Senior HR Specialist Dean Frazee said he was excited to meet the students and to scout new talent. He expressed his support for the code school model.

“To me, it’s wonderful that you can bypass the traditional route and get to the things that you’re really gonna use in the environment that you really want to work in,” Frazee said. “That’s a huge advantage. I wish more people did it.”

Interface is the only nonprofit, accredited code school in the Omaha area. It has an 80 percent job placement rate thanks to the ongoing efforts of AIM staff, who keep in close contact with companies looking to fill crucial IT positions.

“You have a whole team of people trying to find you a job,” Paczosa said. “The people that work at AIM are really great.”

(At Interface, each student is assigned a personalized tech concierge to connect them to job openings and search for new opportunities on their behalflike an academic advisor that follows them after graduation).

Laying the Foundation for Success

Interface not only helps students builds the skills necessary to obtain a more rewarding job right away, it also positions them to pursue a more extensive formalized course of study in computer science, if they want to go that route.

“At Bellevue University, we recognize the high quality of this program, so students can actually transfer into Bellevue and attain college credit for the work they’ve done at Interface,” said Mary Dobransky, Dean of the College of IT at Bellevue University. Dobransky sits on the AIM Board of Directors and has been a longtime fan of the work AIM does to build the local tech talent community.

One of the most important aspects of Interface, perhaps, is the camaraderie built between students and teachers. Multiple graduates mentioned their gratitude for their instructor, Kent Smotherman.

“Kent was great: super helpful, positive, generous with his time during and after class,” Paczosa said.

“The experience was so good, I’m doing it again,” said Kent Seevers, graduate of the Foundations of Web Development course. This time around, Seevers will be taking the .NET class, on his way to becoming a full-stack developer.

If you are interested in hearing more about Interface, please attend a free info session to see how you can upgrade your life in two nights a week while keeping your dayjob.


Upward Bound Student Spotlight: Alexis Hamilton

Posted on - Tech Education, Youth

When she becomes a psychiatrist, Papillion-La Vista High School graduating senior Alexis Hamilton (above, second from left) wants to use technology to reach people in rural communities who would not otherwise be able to access the care they need. That’s good, because according to a 2017 report by the physician search firm Merritt Hawkins, there’s a severe and escalating shortage of psychiatrists, especially in rural areas.

One solution is telepsychiatry, a branch of telemedicine, which is the practice of using technologies like Skype to provide healthcare from a distance. Hamilton sees telepsychiatry as a crucial tool to address the need for mental healthcare workers and plans to incorporate it into her path as a psychiatrist.

“Especially people out in rural areas out in Nebraska don’t always have access to people in the mental health field. Telepsychiatry will help me interact with those people, and it will help make their lives easier,” Hamilton said, adding that it will make her life easier, too, by saving her on driving time to distant clinics.

The motivation to become a psychiatrist comes from a personal place for Hamilton: her mother struggled with mental illness. That struggle profoundly impacted Hamilton and her siblings. But despite these struggles, Hamilton has worked hard to excel in every aspect of her life.

She is now reaping the rewards of that hard work: she just received a scholarship to Doane University, where she will double major in Psychology and Spanish. In a few years, she hopes to attend UNMC for med school.

Currently, she participates in UNMC’s High School Alliance Academy (HSAA), a health sciences enrichment program that allows high school juniors and seniors with the opportunity to observe, shadow and work alongside health care professionals and researchers at UNMC.

“It’s fun because you get to interact with the different professors there,” Hamilton said of the HSAA. “Interacting with someone who researches cancer for their living is really awesome and interesting.”

In addition to her academic work, Hamilton runs cross country and track, wrestles, and swims. She volunteers at her wrestling club, coaches girls wrestling, participates in National Honors Society and the AIM Upward Bound program, sits on the Honors Council at HSAA, serves as Senior Secretary for Papillion-La Vista, and even helps out her school’s counselors.

“I am in everything,” she said. “I can’t even name them all.”

Not surprisingly, given her career interest, Hamilton said her favorite class in high school has been AP Psychology.

Surprisingly, given everything she’s involved in, she calls herself a procrastinator.

“I am a procrastinator. It’s not always fun. I try really hard to balance my time even though I do procrastinate.”

She clarified that she schedules out her entire life and is usually able to stick to the schedule.

“If it doesn’t get done, there’s always tomorrow,” she said, affecting an air of wisdom, before wisecracking, “There’s two ways you could look at that: a good way, and a bad way.”

Hamilton said she prized her time in the AIM Upward Bound program and developed a positive rapport with AIM staff.

“I feel like I have really close relationships with them and can talk with them about anything. It can be school-related or I can just joke with them,” she said.

She appreciates the help she received from AIM in researching and applying for scholarships. “I wouldn’t be able to go to college without the scholarships I have gotten.”

Most importantly, Hamilton said Upward Bound helped her understand that STEM is for everyone.

“It’s really opened my mind, especially as a female that wants to go into the medical world, to how I can use technology, math, and sciences to make sure I am successful,” she said.

And, not surprisingly, given her passion for helping people, Hamilton wants to work to make sure other girls know they too can be successful in STEM.

“I want to give girls the voice that, yes, you can like science, you can like math and still have fun with it. I think Upward Bound is a great motivator for girls to get into technology.”