Tech Education for the Next Generation

Entrepreneur Tamar Huggins is building a new community of tech leaders through innovative curriculums

By Breanna Mroczek

When Tamar Huggins was in her senior year of high school in the early aughts, she was one of thousand of teens using Kazaa to stream music, connecting with friends on MySpace, and reading Perez Hilton for inspiration for her own blog. Like most teens, she would never have predicted that these platforms were paving the way for tech behemoths like Spotify and Facebook that would change the way everyone interacts with and consumes media. “Nobody was talking to us about anything relating to technology, unless it was specifically IT related,” Huggins recalls. “I started a Canadian celebrity gossip blog and it was something that I was really passionate about, so much so that I almost ended up changing my major in college. When I look back at it, I think if I had stuck with it, my life would have been completely different.” But Huggins has found a career as an entrepreneur in an industry that she is just as passionate about and finds just as rewarding: tech education. As the founder of Tech Spark Canada and EDUlytics, Huggins works to empower students and teachers through innovative education through the lens of tech, entrepreneurship, and equity. If one of her students is the next social media founder or celebrity blogger, she wants them to discover and utilize their skills early on. “I think about young people now, with all of the access that they have to technology, what is going to happen in the next 10, 15 years when they’re my age?” Huggins says. “They are so bright and they have so much potential, though they don’t always know it themselves. So, we design our programs in a way that gives students that opportunity to create anything that’s in their head.”

Huggins founded the non-profit organization Tech Spark Canada in 2014, which offers programming for students, educators, and corporations with the goal of increasing diversity in the Canadian technology ecosystem. Educators can engage with culturally-responsive and relevant curriculum development, and pursue training for teaching through an equitable lens. Corporations can work with Tech Spark to make their tech departments more equitable by modifying or redesigning certain programs to make the company more relevant to racialized groups. But key to Tech Spark’s core mission is its entrepreneurship-based programming for students, often offered in partnership with other youth-focused organizations. Huggins is passionate about providing young people with access to mentorship and training opportunities. “I have a real heart for young people, and it really pained me to see certain groups of students—particularly poor or Black students—being left behind in schools,” Huggins says. “I wanted to do something about that. I really wanted to provide them with an opportunity that would give them both the soft skills and the technical skills to really perform at the level which we believe that they can perform at.”

Through Tech Spark, students have a number of opportunities to work on tech projects like creating autonomous vehicles using virtual reality, creating apps and websites, coding, building tech-based businesses, and building and flying drones. But the programs offer more than just technical skills. Students learn social and emotional skills, and what Huggins calls “21st century skills” like computational thinking, problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork, collaboration, and creative thinking to help them thrive in any industry that they might choose to work in. “You have to be able to think critically, solve problems, and collaborate with other people at the bare minimum,” Huggins says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re working in advertising, tech, music, or construction—you have to be able to think. When you have people who can think critically, they can ask questions, they can poke holes, and they make informed decisions, I feel like then we’ll have a better world. Because then we’ll have people who will create things for the good for humanity.”

So far Tech Spark’s opportunities have only been available in Ontario, but there are plans to take all programs nationally and reach 70,000 more students and 2,000 more teachers in the next two years. This fall, Tech Spark launched Canada’s first tech entrepreneurship program through the Durham District School Board. “That, for us, was a huge win,” Huggins says. “Being able to impact the curriculum in such a meaningful way is something that I wanted to do when Tech Spark was just an idea to me back in 2012. And so, it’s come full circle now. Our students will build real businesses that generate revenue and that can receive investments. We really want to move them away from thinking of fictional business and into creating something real and tangible. Entrepreneurship allows individuals to create their own opportunities.”

Huggins is also actively working to change what and how children and teens are taught. After running Tech Spark for a few years, Huggins created EDUlytics in November 2019. The digital tool for educators, administrators, and students personalizes education using data science and artificial intelligence by identifying each student’s learning style, grade level, and cultural learning style using adaptive technology and assessments. Huggins is currently piloting the technology in Ontario, with plans to scale across Canada and, eventually, the United States. I’m a very ambitious person, and that shows up a lot in the work that we do as a company. I think that’s really the only way to run a business: do it well, or just don’t do it at all.”

An important distinction between EDUlytics and other tools in the tech education sector is that, while EDUlytics collects and uses data that can reform education from a policy standpoint at the provincial level. the students and their parents have complete control over the data, what’s being collected, and how the data is used. “I believe strongly in data ownership,” Huggins says. “We typically don’t have access to the data that’s being collected on all of us. And when we have issues like this pandemic, or the terrorism attacks of 9/11, we get new rules and regulations, and the introduction of new types of security. We get a Big Brother umbrella idea of how we have to protect everyone, but at what expense? I already see a lot of problems arising with contact tracing, as the technology is being used to police certain types of communities. And when we overcome these big events, those security measures and all of those issues of privacy remain.”

The pandemic has increased the collective interest in effective technologies for delivering online education, but Huggins has long been an advocate for tech education. “I would like to believe that I am a visionary, and I am always thinking ahead in terms of where the world is going and just how things are moving economically,” Huggins says. “Ten years ago, I really felt strongly that education really needed to be centered around technology, otherwise our students were going to be left behind. For instance, artificial intelligence is something a lot of people are scared of, but I have always thought that, if we can teach young people to get behind the creation of AI, they won’t ever have to worry about losing their jobs. AI is going to erase a lot of things, but there will always be a need for human and AI connection. I don’t ever believe that technology should function 100% on its own, because then we’re going to end up in an I, Robot situation. I think that the compassionate, human side of things needs to be there whenever we’re designing anything. When you start to remove that, it becomes problematic, especially when it’s technology that is being built for racialized or poor communities. If we had more diversity in the teams who design and create the technology, we would be able to have technology that can work for everyone.”

Fortunately, neither Tech Spark or EDUlytics have been challenged significantly by the pandemic. As a technology company, Huggins’s teams were already set up for working remotely. Tech Spark transitioned all of their programming online. In fact, being able to leverage the digital opportunities created by the pandemic will help Huggins achieve her goals. Huggins notes that some funding has been delayed or cut as companies scale back their budgets, but several funders continue to support their work. RBC has even helped Tech Spark launch a new, national virtual training programs for teachers. What Huggins hopes to be able to do is support students who suddenly lack access to technology, and in term Tech Spark programs, because of the pandemic. “You would never really believe how many young people in this day and age do not have access to even one device in their household, or internet,” Huggins says. “Two principals told me about students who had to come to the school parking lot just to get internet access. Just down the street from where I live, there are people living without access to what I think are basic necessities in 2020. My hope is that, with the schools that we work with in the future and with our corporate partnerships, that we can donate resources to students and families who are under-served and under-resourced, in addition to providing them with our programming.”

The most growth for Huggins during the pandemic has been the opportunity, and need for, providing personalized education—as highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement. “The pandemic has put a spotlight on the equity and anti-Black racism issues that we have been preaching for years,” Huggins says. “Now school boards are reaching out to us in waves and it’s easier to have a conversation with them, because there is really no option to continue to ignore the issues around racism in education that has been going on for decades. It goes beyond performative allyship. It is about being able to partner on a deep strategic level so that we can really create systemic change. As horrible as the pandemic is, it’s definitely provided us opportunities to grow and scale both of our companies. If anything, this pandemic has really shown us a lot of things good and bad, and has really brought people out to help in ways that they’ve never thought of helping before.”

With plans only to grow across Canada and the United States in the next five years, no matter how long the pandemic rages on, Huggins encourages others to use this time to take the leap and start something new. “I don’t think that entrepreneurship is for everyone, but I do strongly believe that there are a lot of people that have that talent and that gift within them to become entrepreneurs and to thrive, especially in times like a pandemic,” Huggins says. “A lot of entrepreneurs are birthed out of challenges like these. I would encourage people to really think about how they can use their skills and talents to help other people. For those who are looking to start something new, I think now is the time to just do it, but to do it genuinely and honestly. Make ripples where you are.”

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