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California Nonprofit Connects Students in ‘Tech Deserts’ to Careers in STEM

Center for Powerful Public Schools’ Engineering Environmental Innovation (EEI) program prepares high school students for careers in energy engineering and sustainability. This story is part of a series on the innovative ways that 2015 Youth Opportunity Fund grantees are supporting innovative and scalable programs that increase the employability of young people and connect them to economic opportunities in their cities.  The $3 million Fund is led by the Citi Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance.

Despite increased interest in STEM careers, recent research found that women and people of color remain significantly underrepresented in the field.

A new program in Los Angeles is working on the ground to bridge those gaps by connecting underrepresented students to career pathways in STEM while they’re still in high school. The Engineering Environmental Innovation (EEI) program, run by Center for Powerful Public Schools, focuses specifically on preparing students for career pathways in energy engineering and sustainability. 

“The most important aspect of the program is to provide students with access to opportunities that they would otherwise not get,” said Mike Conway, director of the EEI program at Center for Powerful Public Schools. “These are students in communities that are often technological deserts.”

The program functions both in-school and afterschool at three diverse high schools, and students get a robust, multi-faceted look at the field. They learn technical aspects of energy efficiency engineering while also exploring concepts of environmental justice, including racial diversity and gender equality within the STEM workforce. The program is giving students engineering skills, exposure to efficiency contracting, and real-world experience at making more sustainable, climate resilient cities.

Center for Powerful Public Schools received a Youth Opportunity Fund grant in 2015 to launch the EEI program at three different public high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD): Carson High School’s Environmental Science, Engineering & Technology Academy (ESET), STEM Academy of Hollywood, and Environmental & Social Policy (ESP) Magnet High School.

Part of a Larger Initiative

There’s a reason that Center for Powerful Public Schools is working with these high schools specficially. They’re all “Linked Learning” schools, which means that each of them has specific career pathways or academies that students can enroll in, such as Law and Government, Performing Arts, or STEM.

“There are 44 Linked Learning pathways in LAUSD that provide both college and career preparation and give students an opportunity to see themselves in the professional world,” said Esther Soliman, LAUSD Linked Learning Administrator.

Linked Learning is part of the state’s larger effort to make students college- and career-ready, allowing students to explore academic coursework and experiences in the field they’re interested in before they graduate.

Not only does the EEI program expose students in these Linked Learning pathways to STEM careers, it gives them the opportunity to work alongside subject matter experts in the field: scientists and graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, materials science researchers at the University of Southern California, and leading energy engineers from the firm Towards 50.

“We don’t think of our students as having some deficit,” EEI Director Conway said. “We know that their genius is latent. It just takes exposure to high-level, quality experiences for their confidence to emerge and  that genius to become obvious.”

Students at Carson High have praised the program and the skills they’re learning. “We learn new things, creating anything that comes to mind,” said Mark Bojorquez, an 18-year-old senior at Carson High.

“It’s really created a passion for everything that I do outside that involves helping the environment,” said Gerardo Gallegos, another Carson High senior who will be studying engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

A Win-Win Situation

Earlier this year, students in the EEI program presented their work at the Linked Learning Student Showcase, a United Way of Greater Los Angeles event where 15 groups of students from across Los Angeles County gathered to exhibit their semester projects and compete for awards.

Students from Carson High won top honors as Best in Show for their energy efficiency project, Bright Ideas: Engineering Environmental Innovation. They exhibited how they programmed wireless LED lights to react to Twitter posts.

“By tweeting #EEI and either ‘red,’ ‘blue’ or ‘green,’ anyone anywhere in the world can change the color of the lights in our lab,” said Melissa Rodriguez, a senior who is the EEI spokesperson at Carson High. “I think that it was really cool that students like myself were able to program lights to do that.”

In May 2016, 60 EEI students were invited to  LA City Hall South by City of Los Angeles Commissioner Monica Rodriguez to conduct a professional lighting audit of the municipal building. Studentsutilized the skills they have learned as energy efficiency engineers, compiling a comprehensive report with recommendations for how to increase efficiency of the building through lighting upgrades.

“Energy efficiency is important because it saves money for our government and it also helps the environment,” said Emilio Chavez, an eleventh grade EEI Audit Team leader at Carson High. “So, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

“These students are going to change the world and become future leaders, especially within environmental sustainability and energy engineering,” said Barbara Sheng, EEI’s program manager. “They’ve definitely found a passion within that field.”

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The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s 
Pathways to Progress U.S. commitment—a three-year, $50 million investment to give 100,000 low-income youth in the United States the opportunity to develop the workplace skills and leadership experience necessary to compete in a 21st century economy.

To learn more about nonprofits working to place low-income young adults on a path to success, check out the 2015 Grantee News Features and Blogs.