Once a week after school, a group of East Palo Alto Academy students descend upon a makerspace to work on an engineering project with real-world impact.
They're designing, coding and building from scratch a proximity sensor that will beep when an object comes within a certain distance. The sensor is for Abigayil Tamara, a mobility-impaired Mountain View resident who needs an eight-foot wheelchair ramp to get in and out of her Toyota van. When cars park too close to that side of her van, they block her exit, and she's often left with no choice but to wait for the driver of the parked car to return.
The project is being spearheaded by a Stanford University student and a former teacher who believe fervently in engineering as a vehicle for project-based learning and student empowerment.
James Wang, a Stanford mechanical engineering student and Palo Alto High School graduate, started working several years ago with East Palo Alto's Streetcode Academy, which provides free coding classes and other tech resources to youth of color. He suggested the program could draw more students by moving beyond software instruction; as a result, the nonprofit created local makerspaces, including at East Palo Alto Academy, a public charter high school that serves primarily minority, first-generation college-bound students. Dubbed the "Dream Lab," the high school's second-story makerspace is stocked with computers, beakers, a 3D printer, a laser cutter and the like.
It was at Streetcode that Wang met Connie Liu, a former Nueva School teacher who founded Project Invent, a nonprofit that partners with local high schools to bring their students social-impact programs. Project Invent advocates for "getting that experience of going out into the real world and actually tackling problems rather than always being in this bubble of only solving already solved problems and problems with an answer in the back of the book," Liu said. She recruits local "community partners" like Tamara to work with students.
Together, Wang and Liu piloted the program last summer at East Palo Alto Academy. A group of students created for a blind community member a digitally enhanced cane that lights up at night and vibrates to let the user know when the lights are in use. The students presented their prototype at a Design for Social Good Showcase at the Stanford d.school, where they competed against students from well-resourced private schools like Nueva. They were selected as a finalist and won $1,000 to continue working on the project.
For this year's project, the East Palo Alto Academy students met Tamara at her home to see how she gets out of bed, what it takes to get into the shower, how she picks up heavy objects, how she interacts with her service dog, how she gets in and out of her van — essentially, "what it feels like to be in her shoes," student Gilberto Zuniga said.
Then, brainstorming ensued (including a sticky note-covered workshop at renowned design firm IDEO in Palo Alto), and the students eventually settled on the van as the problem they wanted to solve for her.
On a recent afternoon in East Palo Alto Academy's "Dream Lab," students, mostly sophomores, worked on different aspects of the project. While one group of students designed a caution sign that could be posted on Tamara's van to alert nearby cars to her ramp, three others bent their heads over a circuit board as they coded the sensor.
Through an introductory project, they had already learned about 3D printing, laser cutting and Arduino, an open-source platform that allows users to create interactive electronic objects. They made laser-engraved signs with LED lights to illuminate the engravings (their names or favorite logos).
More recently, Wang talked with the students about prototyping, encouraging them to start designing with low-stakes materials like cardboard and pipe cleaners and then iterate as necessary.
"Mess around and have fun," he told them.
Wang, a junior, said he is driven by an intense dissatisfaction with his own high school education. He chafed against what he described as a rigid academic culture at Paly, which he felt lacked true project-based learning at a serious cost to student engagement and mental health. He was part of a group of local high schoolers who started MakeX, a student-run makerspace at Cubberley Community Center.
He hopes to replicate that model with the East Palo Alto students.
Araceli Lopez, now a sophomore at East Palo Alto Academy, participated in the pilot project last summer. She said she's always been fascinated by technology, particularly smartphones, and helps her technologically challenged mother run her business. The program has become a source of encouragement and support for her, she said.
"If I didn't know something, they would always help me out. ... 'This is how you do this,' or they'd help me help myself figure it out," she said.
Several students said they were motivated to participate — giving up precious after-school time once a week — because it wasn't a program just for learning coding but one making a tangible impact.
"I initially saw it as an opportunity to just come here and make stuff, then I heard it's helping out the community, which makes it even better," said Rogelio Vasquez, who uses the Dream Lab during lunch and after school for woodworking projects.
Aaron Ragsdale, the high school's STEM director, said the program has exposed the students to an industry in which minorities and women are woefully underrepresented. And for students who struggle academically, it's an opportunity to restore their confidence and their connection to school. Ragsdale added that he was once that struggling high school student in Chicago who had wanted to become an engineer but lacked an avenue to pursue that goal.
The social-impact program gives all of the students "a sense of empowerment and confidence, (a) sense of agency," Ragsdale said. As they've progressed, he's seen a shift occur in their thinking: "'I'm not just a consumer; I can actually produce things that can change the world.'"