Us A Line

18 Northtown Drive  Jackson, MS 39211  p: 601.977.9200  f: 601.977.9257

Tag: Spark-o-Matic

January 8th, 2018

This machine transforms STEM into STEAM

When we started up a robotics team as part of MWB’s Spark-O-Matic program last August, the thinking was it would be an amazing opportunity for our students to hone their STEM-based skills. Enhancing STEM knowledge through designing, building and programing a robot is, after all, what programs like FIRST Robotics are all about.

Yet, I have to admit I was kind of hesitant about one thing: I worried that we wouldn’t be able to maintain the arts¬† focus which is at the heart of Spark-O-Matic‚Äîwith the kids creating their own websites, illustrations, animation, videos, podcasts, digital stories, and more‚Äî through technology. With robotics, instead of cool arts-y stuff, we’d be doing a lot more science-y, tech-y, engineering-y, and math-y stuff. (Though, the kids, early on, did bring their usual visual flare when doing initial sketches for the robot “lift” mechanism.)

It’s okay to be more science nerdy, we reasoned, because we’ll still create great video documentaries, form production companies and do other arts-based projects in-between programing and building bots. And, with robotics as a central component of Spark-O-Matic, the students will engage in something that could directly help with college (FIRST offers lots of scholarship opportunities) and get them on an even more direct path to highly in-demand STEM careers.

As we started our robotics program, we quickly learned that we might not have to sacrifice the arts for the sciences. In fact, there appeared to be several warm, fuzzy, digital arts-oriented facets to launching a robotics team. For instance, each FIRST Tech Challenge team has what’s called an Engineering Notebook, which can be a notebook or a website. In Spark-O-Matic, we do websites. So, we just did our own spin on an engineering notebook¬†that let the kids creatively tell their story.¬†Also, each FIRST team has to have an attention-getting team T-shirt. So, hey, we crafted our own artful T-shirt design from a sketch by Spark-O-Matic’s Kelvin Walton (Kelvin’s pictured top right, below).

Robotics-based STEM got even more STEAM-Y as we competed in our first FIRST Tech Challenge this past Saturday. Come to find out, we weren’t the only team whose members can design their own T-shirts. Creative team websites abounded as well. So did crazy hats. In short, these machines do indeed turn STEM into STEAM. It’s all woven right in there together. Bottom line, I’m not so panicked now about leaving the arts behind as we move forward with robotics. The same Mac laptop we use for crafting videos is now what we use for writing robot code. Spark-O-Matic has a new, multi-faceted, geeky, artsy digital heart.

Besides, our Spark-O-Matic team had a fantastic time at the competition. We made it to the Final 4 (forming an alliance with another young team), we learned that our team has some mad robot driving skills, the kids made lots of new friends and best of all, took home the coveted FIRST Robotics Motivate Award for their inspiring robotics journey.



Not to mention, everybody at the event got to share in that one-of-a-kind, weird, wild, Spark-O-Matic magic. So, as far as we’re concerned, go robots‚Äîfull STEAM ahead!

November 22nd, 2017

Spark-O-Matic Births Command Z Productions

Command Z Founders, Left to Right: Emmanuel McDougal, Kelvin Walton, and Zale Smith. Far right, Spark-O-Matic founder Marc Leffler.

About a year or so ago, MWB creative director launched a new program aimed at digital media skills education for youth. Marc partnered with a local library system to host the program, which consists of about a dozen youth from Jackson, Mississippi. A trio of Marc’s older students have formed their own production company Emmanuel McDougal, Kelvin Walton, and Zale Smith have launched “Command Z Productions.”

Why “Command Z”? Because one of the most valuable lessons these students have learned is that “you can always un-do” (referring to the common keyboard command to step backwards through recent actions).

Marc’s philosophy with his Spark-O-Matic students has been to encourage creativity and especially experimentation.

“You can always un-do.”

“It has been amazing to watch these young people build their own creative products,” says Marc. “They began the program with an incredible set of creative skills – writing, music, storytelling – but with limited exposure to the tools that one can actually use to create a consumable, marketable media project. Once this skill gap was closed, it was off to the races.”

Command Z is nearing completion on their first bona fide project, a film honoring civil rights hero Medgar Evers. In making the short film, Command Z founders travelled to various historical places around Jackson to gather applicable content. They also interviewed citizens and civil rights historians, some actual contemporaries of Evers, about the legacy of the martyred civil rights leader.

Command Z will premiere the Medgar Evers tribute on December 8, 2017. Stay tuned to our media platforms for viewing information.

Command Z Founders discuss their Medgar Evers film project. 

May 26th, 2017

MWB’s Spark-O-Matic: The great digital arts melting pot

Well, a whole school year’s gone by since we started the marvelous mayhem that is Spark-O-Matic in early September of¬†2016 at Medgar Evers Library. And fittingly enough, it’s been most educational, both for mentors and for students, in the exciting months¬†since.

Together, even without a bright, shiny¬†digital creativity lab, we’re exploring how to design websites, make videos, produce soup commercials, delve into logo development (see this post’s featured image), create captivating personal stories with Lida Burris¬†that get seen up on the big screen, and much more.

We’re also learning¬†that sometimes, it’s important to put away your digital devices, even during a digital arts class (maybe especially during digital arts class).¬†And that it’s good to unplug for a while — perhaps do some letterpress at the Mississippi Ag Museum and¬†regain your connection to the real world. After all, one essential key to achieving digital literacy is knowing how to strike¬†a healthy balance between time online and off.

Most importantly, though, the students are discovering how to collaborate together, make connections, share ideas, find their voices and freely express themselves in an increasingly loud, noisy world that can all too often drown them out and mute their creativity. In fact, my favorite times at Spark-O-Matic are when a few students who are inspired and passionate about something—like transforming their own illustrated sketches into digital art—take the lead and share their skills with others. There is such talent in this group, such incredible potential.

These are the times, too, when the class becomes a true melting pot, simmering with ideas that are made better with each new insight offered up by the students themselves. This is peer-to-peer education at its finest. The way the kids guide each other in solving problems, overcoming technical issues, troubleshooting, and tackling details like shading and perspective is amazing.

And now we’re embarking on two new projects that could top them all: One, a cool music video project¬†propelled by the theme, “What Medgar Evers Library means to me‚Ķ”¬†Kicking things off a couple weeks ago, we discussed what form such a¬†music video would take. Together, we made a list of what we like best about this library, which included:¬†Talent shows,¬†Game day,¬†Movie Flick Saturday,¬†Spark-O-Matic,¬†Creativity,¬†Community,¬†A place of peace,¬†A place to speak your mind,¬†Family,¬†Superheroes (drawings and people),¬†Voting,¬†Babysitting,¬†Volunteer, Conversation, Escape, Family… and so on.

Angel, a rising 9th grader at Callaway High School, ¬†came up with a winning idea: Have the words and phrases from our list illustrated on handmade cards that students, in groups or individually, hold as they pop up¬†around the library. The plan is to get those action-word pop-ups on camera, then create a soundtrack with¬†masterful music assistance from Will Jolly over at Brown River Sound. Will’s already stopped by to scratch beats and get us going on the music track.

Another big project underway is something in partnership with James Bridgeforth from the Mississippi Heritage Trust (mississippiheritage.com).

The Heritage Trust is about preserving Mississippi’s historic places. One of those places is Medgar Evers’ home. So, this summer we are embarking on a Spark-O-Matic documentary about Medgar Evers‚Äô home that will created by our students.

Medgar Evers: Where he lived then. Where he lives today: In the hearts and minds—and lives—of the children and families served by the Medgar Evers library.

We will tell that story through: 1) A visit to Medgar Evers’ house where we will gather video footage, and 2) Interviews with the families and kids who come to the library, talking with them about Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Starter questions for our patron interviews:

Who is Medgar Evers?

What did he do?

How does what he did live on today?

In our first lively discussion about Medgar Evers, his family and his home, the students added the question, “What is civil rights?” to the mix. That’s a huge question we’ll continue to explore through the project. Once complete, the students’ documentary will be shown at a¬†Mississippi Heritage Trust gala event in December of this year.


We’re going to keep the creative sparks flying over the summer at Spark-O-Matic. While the school doors are closed, the library’s will be wide open. Big things are happening. And you’re invited join this crazy, creative melting pot, Tuesday nights from 5:30 to 6:45.


“You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea.”¬†‚ÄMedgar Evers

July 26th, 2016

MWB Spark-O-Matic: Let the multimedia mentoring and marvelous mayhem begin!


Do you have the digital skills to pay the bills? And are you ready, by chance, for the opportunity to share those skills with middle school students as a multimedia mentor?

Because there is a real need. Yes, scads of middle schoolers have already reached PhD level on Pokemon Go, but research shows that, by and large, they’re not getting the digital and creative literacy know-how they need to really succeed in school, college, career and life. (Check out some of that research, collected right here.)

Sure, the world is getting more digital all the time, but the digital divide is still real in places like Mississippi. Meanwhile, the percentage of jobs requiring technology skills (at 97% five years ago) only continues to grow. Moreover, by the time today’s students join the workforce, they will have to be able to work collaboratively and do a good bit of critical thinking, too.

That’s where you come in, as a tech-savvy volunteer with Spark-O-Matic, coming soon to a library system near you‚Äîthe Jackson/Hinds Library System.

The idea behind Spark-O-Matic is to help build the digital literacy and critical thinking skills of under-served kids. Through engaging, collaborative projects in audio and video production, the digital arts, and online media, young people can hone their abilities to address issues in their community, access and understand technology, find their voice, and play a smart, active role in our increasingly digitized society.

At its core, this endeavor is about students learning how to use these tools for creating, understanding, self expression, and perhaps even social change.

As a volunteer mentor, you’ll help guide students in digital literacy and good digital citizenship while giving them tech access that bridges the digital divide. The program would be a resource for educators as well, who may be looking for guidance in implementing technology into their own curriculum.

Each after-school Spark-O-Matic class will explore digital topics such as:

‚Ä¢ Digital Basics: A first class would cover essentials such as how to use computers, the internet, email, and other digital tools effectively. Mentors would also guide students in how to strike a balance in life between time online and off. Digital tools are useful and fun, but they should be used responsibly and for a person’s betterment as smart digital citizens.

‚Ä¢ Video Creation: Students will check out a project called College Discovered, where freshmen at Mississippi’s 8 universities created their own videos about the different aspects of university life and their dreams and hopes for life after college. Then, through Apple iMovie, students can create videos about their own hopes and dreams.

• Digital Music Making: A peer-to-peer project where a group of high school students who create hip-hop with their laptops share their experience. Mentors would guide students in the music-making possibilities of Apple GarageBand and other software.

The list goes on, from visual design and web creation to digital storytelling, photography, video editing, coding, app development, and more. The focus will be on letting kids see that the online world can be much more than just Snapchatting.

I’m working with Patty Furr, executive director of the Jackson/Hinds library system to launch pilot Spark-O-Matic programs in the fall at library branches where they could be of most benefit. Spark-O-Matic classes will be held in the evenings after work a couple nights a week to start. More details to come as we get closer to launch.

To take part, you don’t have to be a movie-making, visual-art producing, code-crafting, tech guru. (Though, that would be great, of course.) You just need a digital skill or two that would be helpful in reaching students where they are (’cause they‚Äôre all over the place, just like all of us).

So, if you‚Äôre interested in sparking students‚Äô digital creativity and guiding them in career-building, life changing skills, email me, Marc Leffler, at marc.leffler@mwb.com. I would love to talk with you about being a Spark-O-Matic mentor right from the start. Because it’s gonna be some mighty marvelous mayhem.