Roberto Gonzalez, president of the board and executive director of STEAM Box, talks with Providence Business News about the technology-based youth program and his recent recognition as one of Tech Collective’s Tech 10 award winners. The awards recognize Rhode Island’s most accomplished information technology and digital media professionals as well as entrepreneurs.
PBN: Tell me how you got the idea for STEAM Box and about its mission.
GONZALEZ: I’m a sound engineer who has been working in education since 1995 with organizations like the College Crusade, and the MET school. Those particular [organizations] preached locus of control to the youth. I found great success with youth doing just that. As a facilitator, offering control to the youth means relinquishing some of yours, and some people struggle with it. After watching youth grow from these opportunities, I learned to double down and began offering even more control. I started to invite youth into budget and personnel decisions. My experiences with STEAM (Science Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) and a recipe for success with students, drove me to put these ideas in a box and take them directly to the youth.
PBN: How did you feel when you were named a Tech 10 award winner?
GONZALEZ: I still feel unworthy. Last year’s featured winner was the amazingly talented Kimberly Arcand who works with NASA. Another one of this year’s winners is Maeve Donahue, who has multiple tech start-ups. I still don’t even feel like the STEAM Box successes are my own. These projects all belong to the youth, every one of them, from start to finish. My “work” is to support them. I have to find what they are truly passionate about, and we develop projects from there. It’s all their work. They don’t come for the math and sciences, but they learn the math and sciences while doing what they love. This is why I insisted on bringing youth like Sheyla Esteves and Fernanda Ramos to accept the Tech 10 award. It’s the youth at STEAM Box who deserve it!
PBN: Have you been able to engage more female youth in the sciences?
GONZALEZ: Yes! The statistics show more women graduating college this year than men, but significantly fewer women entering the science workforce this year than men. There are many reasons for this problem, but we’re creating a solution. We’re supporting our girls to follow their passions instead of funneling them into stereotypical paths. I’ve seen our R.I. girls get funneled into cosmetology and nursing against their will. These are great opportunities, but many of our girls have so much more to offer.
Mayra Fermin loved poetry, so with STEAM Box she designed a website to host it. Julie Cheeks and Estrella Estevez designed an animation program at Alvarez High School where the youth are workshopping art skills, designing costumes with mentor Jay Michael Lee, and learning animation skills every week. Sheyla Esteves is learning and leading youth in video editing and special effects. Aminata Traore and her sister Tenin are leading a new podcast at Alvarez High School in 2016. I am proud that STEAM Box is currently 59 percent fueled by girls. No grade requirements necessary. To the contrary, I’m targeting the youth who were otherwise disengaged, and we’re welcoming all students at each school served.
PBN: How many youth do you typically serve, and how many volunteers participate?
GONZALEZ: This has been a real challenge and a good problem to have. At Alvarez High School, with the support of Principal Zawadi Hawkins, we continue to evolve to meet the demand from the student body. For the sake of supplies and quality of programming, I have to cap our programs. I write each program for 8-12 youth after school, yet on any given day, you’ll find around 22 students participating in our science-based programming. We’ve addressed this by offering programming during the day as the school has recently moved to a project-based model. In December, we offered a lesson in coding to every technology class and every single student was engaged (no one asked to go to the restroom). We work with the science classes, and we spent a month of intensive in school time with our esteemed [English language learners] youth last spring. I want to serve every student possible. In this academic year alone, we’ve served over 230 youth at Alvarez which is about half the student body, and the school year is still young).
All of the programs are run by student leadership. They develop the curriculum with me, determine what supplies are needed and the time frame of each project. We have many great community mentors who participate also. U.S. Air Force General Marcus Jannitto chief among them. He had my back when we were overwhelmed making a hoverboard last spring. Jay Michael Lee (famous for his costume designs) is an amazing RISD talent who taught modeling and sculpting to our youth. New Providence School Board member Ivette Luna and local film maker Victor Ramos have supported our ELL group. Also, [Central Falls] Mayor James Diossa and City Council member Sabina Matos continue to guide my student council.
PBN: What sort of activities does STEAM Box promote for youth?
GONZALEZ: Providence is the priority for STEAM Box, which can be a challenge. Due to city resources, grass might be greener elsewhere, but this is precisely why our youth in Providence are the hungriest for opportunities like STEAM Box. We have an A+ level of activities. We design websites, mobile applications, custom perfumes, Harry Potter’s Butterbeer, virtual reality, artificial intelligence that can tutor you, 3-D-printed designs and more. The magic happens when a student steps up and leads something new from their own passion … Rosely Estevez and Jose DeJesus wanted to ride a hoverboard like Marty McFly in “Back to The Future”; it was ugly, but we did it! … Telemundo, ABC6, Poder Radio, Mystic Aquarium, and our incredible coalition of partners are always ready to help again. I wish I had something like the programs these youth are developing while I was at Classical High School.