Top talent in high-tech fields including self-driving car technology, augmented reality and artificial intelligence descended on Los Altos High School to show teens the exciting prospects that await them.
The lineup for Los Altos High's 12th annual STEM week, which ran from Monday through Wednesday Oct. 16-18, featured an enviable mix of Bay Area professionals who are leading the way on everything from 3D printing and satellites to researching drug-resistant organisms and editing the human genome. Speakers came from a broad range of companies including Google, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft and Nintendo.
The annual event is designed to drum up student interest for the wide breadth of careers out there in the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Although it's an opportunity for teens already interested in research and technology to rub shoulders with local experts, STEM week also marks an important chance to reach students who may not know much about those careers, according to Laura Teksler, one of several Los Altos High parents who organized the event.
"We have a pretty diverse student body, and some of these kids may not have thought about pursuing careers and degrees in these areas," Teksler said. "It can open their mind on what possibilities there may be."
One of the priorities of the weeklong event is to get more girls to consider careers in STEM fields where women are heavily underrepresented, she said. National data shows that although women make up 48 percent of the workforce, only 24 percent hold jobs in STEM fields. Among the people earning bachelor's degrees in engineering and computer science in 2014, fewer than one in five were women, according to the National Science Foundation. Eleven of the 36 speakers last week were women.
Parent volunteers also hand-picked six speakers to address students in Los Altos High School's AVID program, which supports low-income and minority students aiming to be the first in their family to pursue higher education. Each of the six speakers have backgrounds similar to AVID students, Teksler said, giving students a role model and living proof that they can thrive in a STEM career.
Students attended speaker events on Monday and Wednesday as a class, typically during their science and math period, and it was up to each teacher to decide which events to attend. Tuesday, on the other hand, was a free-for-all during the scheduled "tutorial" period, giving students the option to pick from more than a dozen speakers covering a huge range of topics including the ecological effects of wildfires, big data analysis in the corporate world, major breakthroughs in medical technology and the art and engineering behind the effigy that is set ablaze at the annual Burning Man event.
Teksler said the subjects can get complex fast, but speakers did a good job being personable and connecting with the kids. She was also impressed with the students themselves, who were able to keep up and ask questions that showed they truly understood subjects that delved into graduate-level science and mathematics.
"I was blown away," she said. "The engagement by the students, and the level of the questions and understanding that the questions demonstrated, was amazing."
Mountain View High School is hosting its version of the STEM week this week, with a similar lineup of scientists, mathematicians and technologists speaking on Friday, Oct. 27.
Keynote calls for more computer science
Computer science remains a niche subject in most high schools here in California, designated as an elective separate from the state-wide curriculum. But there's a growing push to change that.
Code.org co-founder Ali Partovi, an early investor in major companies including Facebook and Uber, argued at the Oct. 18 keynote event that computer science is as much of a "foundational" skill as English and math, helping students develop their brains and learn how to think. He said it's a huge problem that only 4 in 10 schools offer computer science as a subject in the United States, effectively short-changing future generations on a subject that plays a critical role in their lives.
"Kids today are increasingly surrounded by and dependent on computers," Partovi said. "To have kids go through school and not learn the basics for how the computers around them work is an unacceptable gap in their education."
The value of computer programming was abundantly clear to Partovi. Growing up in war-torn Iran, he said he had a terrible childhood, cooped up in the house because of frequent bombing raids by Iraqi forces as well as fear of the Iranian government. But there was a silver lining: He had a computer and early on learned how to program starting at age 9. By the time he moved to the U.S., he was able to snag a programming job and pay his way through college.
"Being able to program a computer was literally the American dream," he said.
Code.org has been instrumental in getting schools across the nation to participate in the Hour of Code, a one-hour introductory course in the basics of computer science. For younger students, activities include coding exercises where "blocks" representing lines of code are dragged and dropped in a succession, usually in the form of an objective-based game. Schools in both the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District and the Mountain View Whisman School Districts have participated in the Hour of Code.
Los Altos High School has offered both computer science and Advanced Placement computer science as electives. California is among the minority of states that does not accept computer science as credit towards math or science graduation requirements.
Some parents and students at the event questioned the heavy inclusion of computer science in the public school curriculum, and whether it would supplant the existing focus on other core subjects. There's only so much time in the day to teach students all the key concepts in the state-standardized curriculum, and some schools don't have the same level of classroom technology to support computer science.
Partovi said he doesn't see it as a zero-sum game, and that computer science can be woven into existing subjects like math. Students have an easier time relating computer science to the real world, he said, and surveys show that computer science ranks as one of the most popular topics in school -- just below arts and dance.
"I don't think its an 'either/or,'" he said. "I think computer science supplements and helps those other topics."
When asked about how an entrepreneur like himself would run public schools, Partovi said he would hesitate to follow the early Facebook mantra of "move fast and break things" when it comes to educating the next generation. It's important to challenge the status quo, he said, but not run schools like a startup.
"Entrepreneurship is great for advancement, but there are advantages to slowing down when it comes to schools," he said.