A Journey of Living and Learning


By Max Virani

Some days it really kicks-in how privileged we are to be serving on the MXP. Yesterday we returned to the Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas where we got to meet and work with eleven amazing children. My brother, Tycho, was teaching them how to program LEGO robots to compete in sumo matches. We have to be very careful with this activity. Because this is a pushing match between robots, we want to make sure it doesn’t trigger aggressive behavior in the kids. Before going there, we talked with our lead instructor about what to be mindful of.

We had to recognize that most of these precious children have witnessed and directly experienced family trauma of a sort beyond what we can even imagine. On top of that, we happened to be an all-male teaching team yesterday. We know that their trauma was likely inflicted by men, so it becomes that much more important to show them that men can be gentle and kind. Our few hours with them can’t heal their hurt. That’s the long hard undertaking of their mothers and the staff and volunteers at Genesis. But we can at least help inch their efforts along as we try to show these kids that they can also learn to be creative with technology.

It turned out to be a wonderful visit. On this day the kids were beautifully bright and engaged. We have to preserve their anonymity, so I’ll make up some names and substitute photos. In the younger group, Michael and May were a dynamic duo. They were so impressed with the vehicle, they thought it must be worth a million dollars! Then they decided they wanted to own it. May asked, “What’ll it take to put it in our hands?” Natural wheelers and dealers. May must have been about 9 years old, but she grasped the programming activity like a natural. She taught her companions how the ultrasonic sensors work in the same way that bats echo-locate.

I was teaching digital modelling and 3D printing to Nadia and Maya who, though not related, were bonded like sisters. They bounced back and forth between their laptops, helping each other out at every step in the process. They decided to engrave their names with “BFFL” on the keychain medallions they created. When they exchanged their medallions, I believed they would remain best friends for life. Derek was a bit younger and he’d used a 3D printer once before. But now that he got to got to work on his own design, he tore into the lesson with unbridled energy. After he completed his medallion, he moved on to designing a house. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become an architect one day.

The resilience and delight we saw in these children was amazing. Our thanks go out to the families and staff at Genesis for allowing us to join them for one promising day in their journeys forward. We look forward to seeing them again.

The MXP is Dallas City of Learning‘s Mobile Tech XPerience. This rolling STEM classroom allows us to take the highest quality STEM experiences directly into under-served neighborhoods. It’s one small part of DCOL’s mission to address the opportunity gap faced by thousands of disadvantaged families.


Big ThoughtA Journey of Living and Learning

Dade Student Finds Her Future Inside Mobile Tech XPerience

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

It was a pivotal day for 8th grader Asija Woodson. There she was stepping foot inside the Dallas City of Learning Mobile Tech XPerience, the retrofitted RV that’s a technology fountain of inspiration for middle and high school students. It was early August and 13-year-old Woodson participated in Dade Tech Day at Billy Earl Dade Middle School, a DCoL Turn Up! event organized by Big Thought.

She walked inside the MTXP and immediately went to work developing computer graphics, learning computer coding, programming Lego sumo wrestlers, experimenting with robotics.

For Woodson, these weren’t mere school day activities: “I felt optimistic because I feel like I can further myself into a career trying some of the things I did that day,” she says while sitting inside the Dade auditorium.

The MTXP proved influential, a rolling treasure chest of ideas for building a future. “I just thought about myself in regards to thinking of a major when I apply for college,” she says. “Robotics has a lot to do with me maybe pursuing a career in engineering.”

Woodson admits these recurring thoughts aren’t new. Her family is diligently encouraging her to go into that field. She was even in a robotics class while in elementary school. But being inside that RV was an epiphany. Suddenly, it all clicked.

“There is a difference between family telling me and actually doing it,” she says. “It has inspired me. This really makes a difference. I can see it now.“

Photo by Can Turkyilmaz @turk_studio


Big ThoughtDade Student Finds Her Future Inside Mobile Tech XPerience

Laptops Connect Students to New World of Learning

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Twenty soon-to-be 6th graders packed into the Dallas City of Learning Mobile Tech XPerience, the super cool retrofitted RV filled with laptop computers, 3D printers, and Lego sumo robotics. It’s DCoL Tech Day at Billy Earl Dade Middle School and we have a healthy crowd of 145 kids.

It’s a good thing the MTXP is air conditioned, as August 4 in Dallas is always a scorcher.

But it was the churning of ideas, the sizzling vibrations of learning opportunities that truly generated the heat during the 6-hour day. Armed with a bank of 40 DCoL laptops, these students found a fountain of technology that gave them access to 3D printing, robotics, digital music production, garage band, photography, and 3D modeling. Those laptops were portals to a new world where the opportunity gap is but a bygone concept.

The kids inside the MTXP ventured into the multi-dimensional wonderland of 3D printing. With guidance from Karim Virani, Big Thought’s Information Technology Director, and his son, Max Virani, about 14 students stuck around to create a 3D image on a laptop.

Avery Cereceres, 13, an incoming Dade student, says the 3D printing was his favorite activity of the day. Avery has an iPad at home, but not a laptop. He really took to 3D printing. He created a two-toned octagon topped by a science fiction-inspired image. His stance said it all: Spread legs, hands on mouse and keyboards, eyes fixated on the laptop screen.

“You can do all kinds of stuff with it,” he says. “If you need help, you can make it right. They will help you. You can be creative and show the world what you can do. You can inspire people.”

Melissa Villarreal, 11, who will start the 6th grade at Dade, felt inspired by robotics, particularly the connection between the laptops and the robots. Melissa does not have a laptop at home, so this was a fresh experience for her.

“It is fun when you build the robots and make them work,” she says. “It made me feel like I know more about technology. I didn’t know you could use a laptop to help build a robot.”

The ability to engage kids through technology, through the paramount importance of 21st century learning, jumpstarted the pulse of the third DCoL Turn Up! event of 2016, following June’s Discovery Faire at the Dallas Central Library and July’s Frontiers of Flight Turn Up! at Love Field.

“Connecting kids to technology is a direct way to close the opportunity gap,” says Kristina Dove, Big Thought’s Program Manager, Partner Relations. “They find new fascinations, new ways to ignite their imaginations. With those laptops, and the expert guidance of so many of our partners during a very successful DCoL Tech Day at Dade, we made sure students explored and expanded their capacity for learning.”

For Shanya Cherry, 11, who will call Billy Earl Dade Middle School her alma mater later this month, this was a chance for her to learn more about laptops and what they can do. She does have a laptop at home, but the robotics activity was still an eye opener.

“We got to do different stuff with robots and learned different ways you can make it move,” she says. “It was cool to make the robot move with the computer. I knew you could use computers to make robots move, but this was really cool.”

Big Thought and Dallas City of Learning thank Billy Earl Dade Middle School, Project Still I Rise, Keep Spinning DJ Academy, Texas Music Project, Poly Printer, Can Turkyilmaz @turk_studio, and Karim Virani for their incredible dedication to teaching kids technology. We also thank our many DCoL donors for their generosity. For a list of donors, visit

Photo by Mario Tarradell/Big Thought

Big ThoughtLaptops Connect Students to New World of Learning

Summer Learning Leaves Lasting Impression

By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager

Summer always arrives with palpable anticipation. It’s the season to break free from the regiments, to turn daring and try something new, to explore and embrace a side of you that laid dormant for far too long.

Warm weather, carefree spirits, open minds make the ideal combination perfect for learning.

Last summer approximately 35,000 students participated in programs and events that were part of Dallas City of Learning, the Big Thought-managed initiative that ensures all students have access to summer learning opportunities. That included 285,000 student-learning hours and 38,000 digital badges.

This summer the goal is even loftier. With the support of the national LRNG endeavor, we aim to reach 60,000 youth, partner with 210 local organizations, and offer more than 50 pop-up events ripe for learning and badging.

But in order to project the future we need to take stock of the past. We look back to move forward. So let’s shine a spotlight on last summer’s Geek Squad Academy, a most successful turn-up event brought free to kids thanks to Best Buy and Dallas City of Learning.

Geek Squad Academy drew 250 students to Friendship West Baptist Church in Southern Dallas on July 16 and 17. More than six months later, two of those kids are still full of excitement and enthusiasm about what they learned.

Michael, 10, and Zuri, 9, still vividly remember diving into the variety of activities, especially robotics, digital music, 3D printing, video production, circuitry and coding with Legos.

Zuri wants to be an engineer when he grows up, so he immediately connected to his dream career when learning the programming ins and outs of modern technology.

“I think it would be very, very fun if I kept on doing it because it taught me how to program stuff like an engineer,” he says. “And if it’s not perfect you have to try again to make it perfect, because if something goes wrong it can really go wrong.”

Michael was taken by the 3D printing. He designed a house. But not only that, Michael made the real-life career connection to realtors trying to sell you a house.

“I realized how they did it and now I understand that,” he says. “I learned how to design my own house. It was cool, too. It had a garage and everything.”

Then there are the interpersonal relationships, the social and emotional learning aspects of a two-day camp. Michael says he made a lot of new friends there; while Zuri felt the interaction with the teachers, particularly during the circuitry sessions. He worked with teachers as partners to transfer energy.

“It’s like wires when they touch to make a circuit,” Zuri says. “Your hands are like wires. If they don’t touch, it’s not a complete circuit.”

And yet, perhaps the most important lasting impression from the Geek Squad Academy camp is leadership. Kids were given projects to manage and complete.

“When we are doing group projects in school,” Michael says, “I think about the way I did it at Geek Squad Academy and I do it the same way.”

There you have it. Summer let Michael and Zuri stretch the boundaries of their knowledge, of their ability and motivation to learn. Summer gave them impactful learning. This is learning they will never forget.

Big Thought extends sincere thanks to its corporate, foundation and individual donors supporting Dallas City of Learning. For more information about this program, please visit


Big ThoughtSummer Learning Leaves Lasting Impression