The Next Tony Stark with Dwain Hebda: November 2023

A graphic titled "The Next Tony Stark?", and under it are four bubbles of high school boys working on laptops or on science projects.

THE NEXT TONY STARK?

 

Despite their young age, these future tech stars already know how they want to improve the world with their talents 

 

Dwain Hebda, Senior Editor, ITArkansas Magazine

JUST AS TECHNOLOGY is ever-evolving, so too are the tech geniuses who help harness it to make our lives easier, more productive, and fun. We went in search of the next generation of tech talent growing up in the state to see how they got their start and what captivates them about the technology field. 

Our search led us to The Academies of Central Arkansas, an initiative of the Little Rock Regional Chamber in partnership with the four public school districts across Pulaski County. Established in 2019, the Academies utilize the Ford Next Generation Learning Model, which transforms the public high school experience by blending core academics with career and technical education. 

“These unique curriculums engage students by teaching math, science, English, and social studies and their relevance to an occupation or industry theme that interests them,” says Markous Jewett, vice president, Academies of Central Arkansas at the Little Rock Regional Chamber. “This model connects scholars’ learning with real-world applications, preparing them not only for college, but for career and life.” 

The Academies of Central Arkansas are located in public high schools throughout the Jacksonville North Pulaski, Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Pulaski County Special School districts. They include Jacksonville High School in Jacksonville, Sylvan Hills High School in Sherwood, Maumelle High School in Maumelle, and North Little Rock High School and North Little Rock Center of Excellence in North Little Rock. Participating Little Rock institutions include Joe T. Robinson, Hall STEAM Magnet, Parkview Arts & Science Magnet, West High School of Innovation, Southwest Magnet, and Mills University Studies. 

The impressive technical curriculums at the academies are giving the next generation of tech talent a running start on innovation and early career development. We’ve profiled a few of these outstanding young scholars here. Just like Tony Stark, Marvel Comics’ genius who harnesses STEM fields to champion justice as the Superhero Iron Man, these gifted young technology enthusiasts are on a path to improve their own communities, right here in The Natural State. 

ISAIAH KELSO, 16 
Junior, Little Rock Southwest Magnet High School
Tech Focus: Computer Aided Design, Robotics, A/V Production  
Future Plans: Computer Science 

Isaiah Kelso HIGH SCHOOL HASN’T taught Isaiah Kelso everything he knows about technology, but it’s close. Kelso spent part of his growing up in Memphis and says there’s no comparison between there and Arkansas when it comes to tech education.  “There were opportunities in the schools I went to in Memphis,” he says, “but they definitely weren’t as abundant as here at Southwest. They weren’t as centered for the students. You had to really look for things if you wanted to get involved.” 

Lacking academic opportunities, Kelso pursued his interest in computers and technology on his own.  “My earliest interest in technology would probably be the electronic toys that I had,” he says. “I would take them apart and see how they worked so I could understand how they operated and what I could do to replicate. I also had a computer that I regularly modified, and I gained a lot of knowledge on what I’m doing and how to do it correctly. I definitely used YouTube a lot as a resource.” 

Once he arrived at Little Rock Southeast Magnet, Kelso found plenty to satisfy his voracious appetite for all things tech. He credits the school for stretching his creativity and skill when it comes to exploring new areas of technology.  “Freshman year I got into a programming class, which I had a lot of interest in because I wanted to learn how to code,” he says. “Sophomore year, I had drafting and design, robotics and A/V production. I spend my time in a lot of different fields in technology trying to develop my knowledge. 

“They all have a learning curve to them. Before I studied A/V, I didn’t have any idea how to work a camera. Same thing with robotics; I’ve taken things apart on my own time, but I’d never been in an environment where I had all the parts laid out for me and I could choose what I wanted to build, dismantle, or make.” 

Kelso says these experiences have taught him valuable lessons about the problem-solving process and how it can be accomplished through a combination of scientific fact and targeted creativity. “All of my classes, and especially drafting and design, you sit there with a blank slate and you have to figure out how you want to articulate what’s in front of you and create something,” he says. “A lot of people look at daily technology and they just take it for what’s in front of them. I like that it’s an academic pathway that lets me further my understanding of how tech works and how to utilize it to be successful.” 

DAVID EVATT, 18 
Senior, Maumelle High School  
Tech Focus: Coding, Robotics 
Future Plans: App Development, Game Design 

David Evatt TECHNOLOGY HAS ALWAYS come naturally to David Evatt. The Maumelle native got into it through gaming and has taken to tech like a fish to water ever since.  But before he landed in his school’s technology curriculum, he was on his own to develop his skillset.  “I didn’t fully take an interest until about sixth grade, when I was playing a game one day and I thought it would be really fun to learn what’s behind everything,” he says. “That’s when I really wanted to delve into programming. Sixth through eighth grade I pretty much just had to wing it and look up stuff through YouTube, articles, or going to the library. Once I hit ninth grade, I could actually take the programming classes that our school offered.” 

Evatt’s comfort level with programming and technology has come from endless hours honing his knowledge and perfecting his craft. “Overall, I’d say things came naturally to me,” he says. “In our programming course, they gave you all your work for the unit and you could do it at your own pace. Each thing had a deadline, and normally I’d be about a month or two ahead. I’ve just always just been drawn to coding. It’s fun to type a few hundred lines of code and the computer does whatever you are trying to make it do.” 

Evatt says it’s not just the things that have turned out well that have taught him about his chosen field; setbacks and failures have been just as instructive, if not more so. “I’ve participated in the robotics team and that taught me not everything is going to go as planned,” he says. “I programmed one of the robots which went horribly, because I had to wait for a few months before the robot was even built and I got it last minute. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to test the program that I had made.  Programming in general has taught me a lot about problem solving. It’s shown me how to break things into smaller steps. Like, this is the overall thing we’re trying to do, but we need to do this, this, and this to get to that point.” 

As for the next generation of students, Evatt’s best advice is to embrace all aspects of the process.  “Things probably are not going to work on the first try, and if it does, double-check,” he says. “Programming is probably not going to be as easy as you think it is. I thought the app I made was going to be super-easy, and it turned out there was a lot of stuff that I still had to learn.” 

KRISH PATEL, 17 
Junior, Joe T. Robinson High School, Little Rock 
Tech Focus: Computer Science, Robotics 
Future Plans: Software Engineering 

Krish Patel THERE’S NEVER BEEN a time when Krish Patel didn’t have an interest in technology.  “It started when I was little, before pre-K or Kindergarten, when my parents got me a tablet,” Patel says. “That sparked an interest in how those things work. After that, my parents put me in my first robotics program in elementary school, which consisted of the basic start of robotics. That led me into my middle school years when I joined the robotics team.” 

Patel also participated in the EAST program; EAST stands for Environmental and Spatial Technology and is an educational program combining elements of technology education, collaborative teamwork, and service learning—while stressing student engagement.  “I took EAST in sixth and seventh grade, and I did robotics throughout middle school,” Patel says. “Leading into high school they gave me more classes in computer science, which I’m in right now. This class is helping me prepare for my career—I want to be a software engineer. I’ve done my research and discovered that computer science classes early on will help me further my career though college and after college, too.” 

In addition to classroom instruction and activities, Patel credits Joe T. Robinson for its method of connecting the dots between coursework and careers. “I’ve been an ambassador here in the NGL Ford program—that’s when you can start taking different career paths,” Patel says. “You can go the IT way that I’m going, or you can go into business, or medical, or something else. My school is invested in my future and how my career path leads me to greater success later on in my life.” 

Mentorship has also been a big part of Patel’s high school experience. “My counselor and I have a bond, because I’ve always been curious about what classes to take and how it’s going to help my future,” he says. In that same spirit of mentoring, Patel would advise younger students interested in technology to take advantage of classes and activities at a young age and strive to learn everything they can. “I would first tell them to focus on your fundamentals,” Patel says. “Figure out the classes that you think will help you with what you think you’re going to do later on in life, and take those classes specifically. I believe it’s all about the fundamentals. Without a good base, everything else won’t make sense, which will lead to failure.” 

TYLER GREEN, 18 
Senior, North Little Rock Center of Excellence 
Tech Focus: Computer Science, Robotics 
Future Plans: Mechanical Engineering/Electrical Engineering 

Tyler Green WHEN TYLER GREEN reported for the first day of class freshman year at North Little Rock High School, he didn’t know the “school within a school” called Center of Excellence even existed. But it didn’t take him long to discover and gravitate toward the COE’s programs, which fed an interest he’d held in STEM fields since elementary school.  

“There are, historically, a lot of misconceptions about the Center of Excellence and what it is as a school,” Green says. “To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have learned about it without knowing people who are in the COE and talking with them and learning what it is and how beneficial it can really be.  The Center of Excellence fosters career-based learning with STEM-related and technology-related curriculum, which was exactly what I was looking for. I quickly came to the conclusion to switch over to COE before the end of my first semester of my ninth-grade year.” 

Since then, Green has stayed immersed in the school’s academic programs and extracurricular activities. He’s participated in EAST programs since middle school, is president of COE’s Technology Student Association, and has participated on the school’s robotics team. “We create robots to go and compete against other schools to solve certain challenges,” he says. “That’s been an amazing experience, both in the engineering design process and in the benefits I get from sharing with my friends and other people on my team.” 

Green has already set his sights on studying mechanical or electrical engineering in college. He says these fields provide him with a platform for introducing innovation to benefit society. “I want my job to involve the process of creation,” he says. “I just love making new things, whether that be new technology or new innovations in existing technology. I want to be creating things for the rest of my life and I want to use what I design to help people in the world.” 

Green is aiming high when it comes to his choice of colleges—Stanford and MIT are reportedly in the mix—but he says he can easily see the opportunity for happily living out his career in Arkansas.  “When I was first coming up in middle school and elementary school, I was thinking, I’m going to have to leave and find employers elsewhere,” he says. “But after seeing how much the COE has shown me in terms of the local businesses that are here, I definitely could see myself staying in Arkansas and finding a life here to do what I would like to do.” 

———————————-

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this article was originally prepared for the print edition of ITArkansas Magazine.