Blach, Egan host inaugural STEM Career Day

Jane Ridgeway/Town Crier
Egan Junior High students examine a robotic surgical tool during STEM Career Day.

The seventh- and eighth-graders passed around a vessel sealer, an imposing laparoscopic surgical implement, with trepidation at first.

“Is it on?” a student asked.

No, speaker Katie Scoville assured them, the robotic arm couldn’t do anything to hurt them.

Student squeamishness appeared to have eased when Scoville paused before pressing play on a video of the tool in action during a surgery.

“This is the place to cover your eyes,” she said.

But the students wanted to learn it all.

In the next room over, where a paper DNA helix garlanded the walls, Elizabeth Lytle and Asha Chandrasekhar immersed students in the worlds of virtual, augmented and mixed reality technology.

“The screen is no longer a boundary,” said Lytle, holding up an Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset.

Scoville, product manager at Intuitive Surgical, and Lytle and Chandrasekhar of virtual reality firm zSpace, were only three of the 29 speakers who descended on Egan Junior High and Blach Intermediate School science classrooms last week for the district’s inaugural STEM Career Day. The speakers were drawn from amidst local parents and other community members.

Visitors even included a local alumnus, mechanical engineer Michael Orton, a graduate of Bullis Purissima, Egan and Los Altos High.

From NASA to Facebook, from pediatricians to information-technology attorneys, the day’s speakers aimed to broaden students’ perspectives on the wide array of career paths within science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“There’s a call to action for STEM,” said Karen Wilson, STEM coordinator for the Los Altos School District. “We talk about the need for girls, but we have a need for everybody.”

And there’s a lack of knowledge, she added, about the diversity of specialties and expertise within the field.

Screens in each classroom displayed webs mapping the connections among engineers, product managers, marketers, research scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs and more. Many speakers emphasized the different roles that members of a collaborative team can play in the sciences.

Scoville described how, in addition to the surgeons who manipulate robotic devices to perform laparoscopic surgeries, an entire team of other professionals are writing up the specs of those devices and rigorously testing them for safety.

Lytle drew students’ attention to the role a product designer had played in the introduction of Oculus Rift as she removed her glasses to don the bulky black headset. A different designer, she noted, might have let the user keep his or her glasses on.

Egan student Karthik Iyer said STEM Career Day had awakened him to new possibilities for future careers.

“It gave me an interesting vision of what I could become,” Iyer said. “I’d be interested in using robots to fix people.”

Speakers also discussed their varied paths to their current jobs, including those who struggled in math and science in high school and made the transition later in life.

“It was good for (the students) to hear the different paths speakers took,” Wilson said. “They went into college for one thing and came out with something else because of a class they took or something they heard.”

And for Blach and Egan students, Wilson noted, it could be a career day like this that sparks that initial interest.

“At first I thought it would be really boring,” said Egan student Lauren Morimoto, “but it was actually really interesting. I knew robots had started doing surgeries, but I didn’t know how it works.”

The two-day event was sponsored by the Los Altos Educational Foundation, which has funded a variety of STEM programming in the Los Altos School District.

Although this was the first STEM Career Day, Wilson said it won’t be the last.

“It was a great first year,” she said. “We’re already talking about how we can make it bigger and better for next year.”

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