Eastside Prep: bright kids, cool stuff, cookies. What’s not to like?

I tweeted last night (twice) about my visit with the student engineers at Eastside Preparatory School in East Palo Alto. I thought I’d elaborate a bit.

Short story: If they’d had this kind of stuff when I was in school, I might be driving a Tesla and living in Portola Valley instead of working in a dying industry stringing sentences together. Then again, no way I was as smart as the kids I met at Eastside’s Spring Engineering Showcase.

How smart? The evening kicked off with some of the budding Mark Zuckerbergs and Marrisa Mayers addressing a theater full of parents, teachers and students.

Kathy, a senior who with her team designed an Android app to guide  injured athletes through physical therapy (sounds a little like the health plan of the 21st century), was speaking when I arrived.

“We want to get our app into the Android Market and make some money,” she said. (Put in her Tesla order.) She urged her fellow female students to do as she had and compete in the Technovation Challenge, a competitive program to encourage girls to explore technology. 

Why?

Sure, you learn stuff, meet mentors, end up with a cool app. “Plus we get free snacks every time we go,” she said. (Free food? If she doesn’t have soul of a programmer, I don’t know who does.)

After the speeches the crowd bolted out of the auditorium and across the campus to see the gizmos the kids had worked on for months.  And the stuff was cool, which I’ll get to in a minute. But what was really cool was the kids.

In talking to them it was clear that the work was hard, the problems difficult, the trial and error at times frustrating. But the thing was, none of them seemed to feel that there was anything extraordinary about tackling difficult technical and engineering problems. Why shouldn’t a kid be able to do it? What would you expect?

“Java is just like writing,” I overheard one student explaining. “It’s just like regular writing.”

These are kids who will be comfortable stepping into the roles and jobs that Silicon Valley is going to need to fill throughout the 21st century. These kids know what’s possible and they now know what it takes to make the possible a reality.

They also know that change is good; that being nimble is vital and that in technology nothing is set in stone. Again and again, teams told me that they started out working on one solution and ended up heading down a different path.

 An app to build your own animal became an app to teach kids about animals on the verge of extinction. An automated organizer became a bicycle designed to help the visually impaired. A big, big teddy bear meant to comfort autistic boys became a much smaller and much more affordable and much more marketable teddy bear to comfort autistic kids.

So, some specifics: In room 109, I found a the bicycle for the visually impaired. It uses infrared sensors to detect nearby objects and send a vibration as a warning through the bike seat or handle bars to indicate whether the danger was in front or behind. (Presenter Monet helpfully pointed out that infrared is also known as IR. Hey, at least she didn’t say, “It’s IR, old man.”)

It’s just an early iteration, the team told me. They hadn’t had a lot of time after pivoting from the organizer idea.

“It wasn’t that useful,” Carlos said of the organizer. “We just thought this was a more innovative idea.”

And Monet says the team has other ideas: adding a GPS with audio capabilities, so the rider can hear where they are and where they’re going, for one.

Then there was the bear, which features a button a child can push to hear the bear quote Dr. Seuss: “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”

There were digital doll houses and video games and re-imagined board games ported over to computers — including “Battleship,” my downfall.

As I typed in coordinate after coordinate and hit not the broadside of a battleship, I was sure the game was rigged. Well, until a high school kid asked if he could sit down and give it a try. I was barely out of the chair when he had taken down his first ship. The rest of the fleet soon followed.

Maybe it wasn’t my night. Then again, surrounded by such energy, intelligence and determination, how could I go wrong?

*I didn’t use any of the kids’ last names in this post because although I was invited onto campus, I never did find my host and so I never did ask about using the kids’ full names. With students under 18, I like to have parental permission before publishing names and that didn’t work in this case.

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