Nov. 10, 2016 – What a week this was! As I write this, a team representing the EAST Initiative is on a plane heading home from Silicon Valley after very little sleep but so much engagement and excitement. Last night the Initiative was recognized by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation as a STEM Innovator at their 2016 Pioneers and Purpose Reception and Banquet. EAST was one of four recipients of this recognition, but the only recipient not from the state of California. We shared this honor with the MK Level Playing Field Institute, the Girl Scouts of Northern California, and the Abraham Lincoln High School’s (San Jose Unified School District) Computer Science Program. The evening also saw recognition of John Haynes, an inspiring teacher at Kennedy Middle School in Redwood City, as the SVEF Elevate Teacher of the Year and of Dianne Greene, Senior Vice President of Google, as the SVEF Pioneer Business Leader of the Year.
The banquet hall was filled to capacity with people that have been instrumental in building the companies that we all recognize and know (and with whose tech we interact every day). At Table 30 was our small contingent from far away: three EAST staff members, the EAST Board Chair, and the facilitator and two students from the 2016 Founder’s Award winning school, Harrison Junior High School. Wow! I’m proud to report that the work we are doing was met with unbridled enthusiasm by everyone we visited with (and I think we talked to everyone there), and when the moment came, EAST was the only honoree to put a student on the stage to accept on behalf of the Initiative.
Prior to the banquet, we learned that this award has grown from a small recognition of innovative programs in the Silicon Valley area to a national recognition that is chosen in a blind evaluation by volunteer judges (from some very recognizable companies). We also learned that EAST is one of the few programs not based in the Valley, or California in general, to ever receive this award and that over the years it has only become more and more competitive. So much so, in fact, the SVEF staff said that this year was the most competitive year they had seen. And here we were, being held up as an Innovator and an example in the epicenter of Innovation!
Frankly, it was humbling. I was visiting with some of the guests at the reception and an executive at a technology company in the Valley made the point to me that it is often when you get further from home that you realize just how special the work you do is. He noted that, since you’re surrounded by your work, you get used to it and can assume that it just “is,” but after hearing about EAST and our story he assured me that the work our students are doing is amazingly special. After visiting with our students, he came up to me at the end of the banquet and told me, “Matt, I misspoke earlier, it’s not special, it’s extraordinary! And oh, so special. Please thank them again for me for everything they are doing and remind them that, when the time comes, we hope that we can talk to them about their career goals….” Pretty darn cool, if you ask me.
Now we didn’t just travel 3,300 miles to mingle at a reception and pick up an award. We used this opportunity to visit with people in the area about the work of EAST. We had the pleasure of sharing tacos with a VR specialist that has seen her career move from Hollywood to Oculus to Facebook to her own private work in developing Virtual Content for a variety of uses. She was equal parts fascinated and intrigued by our work and gave us insight into the future of this technology and advice on how to continue to build on the work that the Initiative is doing. We met with staff at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (the largest Community Foundation in the country) and stopped by SVEF ahead of the big show to meet with their founder and staff.
Not wanting to waste the opportunity to provide our Harrison team with some adventure, we ventured into San Francisco on election night to have dinner at one of the best restaurants in Chinatown. The honey-glazed prawns and walnuts were a huge hit, the eel was met with mixed reviews, and only two of us thought the jellyfish was tasty. Through a series of misadventures we found one of the best ice cream shops on the planet, but you wouldn’t know it by the neighborhood or the storefront, but (and take it from someone who knows these things) it was AMAZING even if it was sweet potato or popcorn based.
We also spent some time at the Tech Museum in San Jose. I serve on the Arkansas Discovery Network (ADN) advisory board, so I love to see how others are creating experiences that transform museums from places to see things to places to do things. The “Tech” was incredible! Totally immersive and hands-on, and they even wired us up with wearable technology that captured our personal experience in the various exhibit and work areas. At the banquet, I was fortunate enough to meet and visit with Tim Ritchie, CEO of the Tech, and discovered that we were both members of the Sam Dean fan club. Sam is a friend of EAST that runs the Amazeum in Bentonville, a member of ADN that is a “must-do” when you’re in that part of the world.
Oh, and we got a private tour of a company that’s headquartered near Stanford University that you may have heard of: Google. Our team took the Googleplex by storm and learned so much about the unique culture of “can do” that makes Google so innovative. I visited with one of their recruiters and she assured me that EAST is helping to provide that STEM pipeline that they value so much. I didn’t get to pick the Doodle, and they wouldn’t let us talk to the people working on the Space Elevator, but we were on campus surrounded by 50,000 of the smartest, hardest working people in the world. I came away realizing that when you step onto campus at the Googleplex you actually walk through a time machine and are living 3-18 months in the future.
When all of the going and seeing and meeting was done, we changed into our “go to a banquet” clothes at the San Jose Convention Center and went to the event. EAST was recognized (with actual fanfare), and we got to meet so many amazing people. The aforementioned Dr. Greene was easily the most fascinating. An engineer with experience in marine engineering, she was also the driving force behind some of the early efforts at Virtualization (she led VMware until it was acquired). She was someone who helped create the world we live in and continues to do so. She’s as passionate about sailing and windsurfing as she is about technology, and she caught the bug in high school when she was given the opportunity to… (wait for it)… tackle projects. Sound familiar?
When the event was over, we headed back to our hotel for not enough sleep before a California commute to the airport at “Oh No” o’clock. I was able to derive the following conclusions:
- EAST can stand up to any other model anywhere as a way to approach learning that is innovative and powerful. I long for the day when I can change that statement and say that EAST is the norm. All students, everywhere, should have the opportunity to do what EAST students do — to be innovative, themselves — every day.
- We are blessed to be able to share our successes with people who understand what success looks like and why the work that our students are doing is critical to the continuation of real innovation. EAST students will build the future using STEM skills, using their civic commitment, using their exemplary teamwork, collaboration, problem-solving, and communication skills. I’m especially thankful to the staff at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, the Tech, and Google for being so gracious with their time.
- You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to build that future. We’re doing it in Harrison and Springdale and Star City and Caddo Parrish Louisiana and Bucks County Pennsylvania and beyond. I hope that EAST can find a place in the Valley (and know some of our students will), but there is opportunity everywhere, and I am so thrilled to watch it blossom.
It was a special time. Not just because we won an award, but because we also got to spend time sharing our story and learning from others. We may land in Little Rock bone-weary, but it’s the best kind of tired. The kind that comes from working hard and doing a good job.
I want to thank the hundreds of facilitators and the thousands of EAST students (the hundreds of thousands over the years) that led us to this point. I want to thank Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the faculty at the Clinton School for Public Service Center on Community Philanthropy for agreeing to be references for us. And I want to thank you and all of the people that support the work of the Initiative and our students. We have something very special. They see it in Silicon Valley. I see it every day. I hope you see it too.
Until next time.