Jun 12, 2015
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The West Contra Costa Unified educator known for his unique approach at getting youth interested in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) can now also say he’s also won the attention of President Obama’s staff.

Phil Gonsalves, the West Contra Costa Unified’s director of science and math curriculum and instruction, was invited to participate on Thursday in the opening for National Week of Making, a White House initiative.

Gonsalves has won praise in Washington D.C. for preaching what President Obama has been supporting: Incorporating real-life examples of what students learn from math and science textbooks into classrooms. His talk on the panel, Connecting Making to Education, was well-received by several White House staffers.

The educator is leading the charge to bolster STEM education in schools through a Chevron-funded project to build a Fab Lab in the district. The Fab Lab, expected to open in September, will provide a personal digital fabrication workshop for students and local community members where “almost anything” can be made.

Rather than simply looking at a mathematical equation, students will be able to create both a digital and real-life model from it.

Fab Lab Richmond, which will serve both students and local communities, is part of a partnership between the district, Chevron and Fab Foundation to bring technologies to local schools that will enrich STEM-related curriculum and prepare students for jobs of the future.

Gonsalves says he wants American companies to count on U.S. schools for its future talent, and to do so he needs to discredit the old saying, “When am I ever going to use Algebra in real life?”

To do that, he took an equation, brought it to a professional engineer, and then went to the fab lab to create something students could see and touch. With Fab Lab Richmond, students themselves will build models and products. For example, below are videos showing how the district created a truncated icosahedron model using a 3-D printer.

In a technologically-driven era, Gonsalves says, more U.S. schools — and particularly teachers — need to view fab lab-based education as an integral part of STEM curriculum, not just an elective. An ideal setting would have a student learning math in the classroom, then applying within the classroom or in a fab lab that instruction.

“I’m an educator who has learned to be a maker,” Gonsalves said. “If teachers don’t see it as added value, it’s not going to go anywhere.”

He clearly has support from a certain executive in Washington D.C. Last year, President Obama hosted the first ever White House Maker Faire and issued a call for “every company, every college, every community, every citizen” to find ways to pour their ingenuity into creative and marketable projects and solutions that improve lives.

The support for the Fab Lab Richmond is part of Chevron’s ongoing investment in education partnerships and programs across the nation, which have totaled more than $140 million since 2010. The support is particularly important to the company and its vendors and business partners who rely on a STEM-skilled workforce that is prepared to compete in a global marketplace. The programming also arms students with the critical skills needed to succeed in jobs of the future, which is important to a community like Richmond that is looking for sustainable and lasting economic growth.


About the Author

Mike Aldax is the editor of the Richmond Standard. He has 13 years of journalism experience, most recently as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. He previously held roles as reporter and editor at Bay City News, Napa Valley Register, Garden Island Newspaper in Kaua’i, and the Queens Courier in New York City.