Holiday Fund: Connecting underserved students to tech careers | News

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Comfortably ensconced in plush orange-and-black gaming chairs earlier this month, the middle school students focused intently on their gaming machines, adding tiny screws to the devices they were each building from scratch.

At the head of the classroom, John Colleton, executive director of The Circuit EPA, deftly picked up a screw on the end of a magnetized screwdriver and poked it into a tiny hole on the demonstration device he was building. A video showing his actions was projected in real time on large screens so the students could see his every move.

The Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School students, who are among a lucky 25 in the nonprofit Circuit EPA’s pilot gaming technology program, are not only getting hands-on experience with building tech devices, they are also learning management, collaboration and communication skills.

They even assembled the cool-looking, comfy chairs.

In a few years, these budding tech enthusiasts – boys and girls alike – will be ready for jobs in the tech sector, from the trades to engineering. Some may choose to be coders; others could be programmers or electrical engineers or may enter other science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) fields.

The fledgling program, which serves sixth through eighth graders and is open to all 600 students at Cesar Chavez Ravenswood, received a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly’s Holiday Fund this past year, which was “transformative,” Michele Sharkey, Circuit EPA’s vice president, said. Back then, Circuit EPA was just an idea, one that formed in 2021.

But over the past 12 months, the nonprofit has not only developed the gaming class; it has introduced these kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to virtual reality. The students will also learn about burgeoning esports technology and other tech disciplines as part of the curriculum. Also in the pipeline: a chance for youth to study media arts so they can report and broadcast from Super Bowl 60 in 2026.

Immersing kids in tech

It’s this kind of hands-on, immersive experience that Circuit EPA offers, and it’s meant to train a wide spectrum of students at all levels.

“Not everyone is on the four-year college path. This is an opportunity for kids to engage in trades. When they graduate, they will be so much more competitive,” Sharkey said.

Despite their proximity to Silicon Valley, East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park students have had little exposure to tech businesses, even to those operating within their city borders, according to Maria Chavez-Pasana, director of operations of Circuit EPA. A survey of the students to gauge their familiarity with tech showed as much.

“Not one of the students who took the survey have ever been to a tech company,” she said. “But the talent is definitely here. You just have to tap into it.”

Sitting around the massive tables covered with game machines, the students have been coming to the gaming program three times a week after school since October. They hail from all different backgrounds, races, ethnicities and genders.

This program runs for roughly eight weeks at 12 hours per week.

When students return in January, they will be able to take part in regular programs that Circuit EPA will offer. The esports program, every Tuesday and Thursday after school, will give middle school students the chance to participate in competitive esports. Club Circuit, an “out of school time” tech club program, will run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday after school.

Seventh grader Antonio Birrueta, who has the program’s best attendance, said he was first introduced to virtual reality (VR) headsets during a summer program at the middle school. His mother was excited and wanted to put him and his brother in the program.

“I like building stuff like PCs and I’m interested in VR,” said Birrueta, who wants to become an architectural engineer.

The Circuit EPA program has changed how he sees the world and what he can accomplish.

“With VR, I can design stuff. It’s not just on a piece of paper. I can see around it,” he said.

Michael Lopez, an eighth grader, said he has been in the program for several weeks in addition to an after-school robotics class.

“I just have a love for computers and I like hanging out with my friends. It feels nice that I can get hands-on experience with tech that I might not have at home,” he said.

The Circuit EPA program has encouraged him to get a degree in computer science or another STEAM field, he added.

Tech isn’t only a gateway to a better-paying job. To many, it represents the survival of their community. Gentrification within East Palo Alto and Menlo Park and the region’s extreme housing costs are forcing many students and families to move out, Chavez-Pasana said.

“If these kids are ready to compete when they graduate, the nature of the community will change on a positive note,” she said. It will see more economic stability, less crime and hopefully, students who stay in the district, she added.

A game changer

The program currently has enough space for 40 students and expects to expand in 2024. It also currently has a pilot program, the Immersive Learning Project, that uses virtual reality as an experience to supplement teachers’ curricula in social studies, science and language arts.

An eighth-grade science teacher took the students on a virtual space walk, for example.

“We can link studies with what the teachers are teaching. If they are studying about Egypt, they can take a virtual walk through the pyramids,” Sharkey said.

The program also partners with the Kappa Alpha fraternity at Stanford University, which pairs engineering students as mentors to the middle schoolers.

The Circuit EPA is a game-changer for students in the Ravenswood City School District, Superintendent Gina Sudaria said in an email.

“It links the excitement of STEAM with real-world opportunities, providing our young people with the tools and inspiration they need to succeed in today’s tech-driven world,” Sudaria said.

“I am genuinely excited about the positive impact Circuit EPA will have on our students’ futures, opening doors to new possibilities and nurturing their potential to be tomorrow’s innovators,” she said.

Sharkey said she wants to see The Circuit EPA become a destination tech-learning hub, one that students from other schools will want to visit. She also wants tech companies to see The Circuit EPA as a place where they can help train, cultivate and pick up talent and skilled workers right in their own backyards.

“Ravenswood (City School District) should be the center of tech innovation,” she said.

Circuit EPA has big plans to that end. A $15 million fundraising campaign is underway in partnership with the Ravenswood City School District to build the 8 to 80 Zone Innovation Center. The on-campus hub would offer opportunities for students to learn about virtual-reality tech, robotics, esports, gaming technology and media careers such as in television, radio, voice recording and graphic design. 8 to 80 zones are a collaboration between former San Francisco 49ers Steve Young and Jerry Rice to provide youth living in under-resourced communities with skills for technology and other STEAM fields.

The center would also have a joint-use space that other STEAM organization groups, such as the Street Code Academy, can use. At present, the initiative has raised $5 million in in-kind services from contractors and others, she said.

Back at the tables at the middle school on a recent afternoon, Colleton instructed the students to find and remove tiny screws from parts packages.

He cautioned the students to keep the screw in their hand so it wouldn’t roll off the table and get lost on the floor. But Birrueta disagreed with the instructor’s suggestion.

“Who had that dumb idea?” the student said, showing a bit of critical-thinking initiative, another skill the Circuit program seeks to instill in students.

Colleton asked the student where he would put the screws for safekeeping.

“In a tray,” Birrueta said, noting small trays the students had nearby.

Colleton directed the students to follow his young pupil’s example.

“That’s much better,” Birrueta said, satisfied.

Information about The Circuit EPA can be found at www.thecircuitepa.org.

More information about the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, including how to contribute, a list of people who’ve already donated and additional stories about the impact of the Holiday Fund at PaloAltoOnline.com/holiday_fund.

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