Omar Reyes Benítez | Photos by Viktor Budnik
Ventura nonprofit STEMbassadors is leading the way. Through
programs like its IDEA Center and professional development initiatives, the organization is helping students get precious experience in a pricey industry.
It was founded in 2017 by a group of students dedicating themselves to demolishing the expensive barriers of entry that come with the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) industry. At the time of its inception, STEMbassadors consisted of eight students ranging from seventh to ninth grade, led by their teacher and current president, Alex Wulff. Wulff has taught for years in the Ventura Unified School District, and is currently on the faculty of De Anza Academy of Technology and the Arts, also known as DATA Middle School.
“When I became a teacher, my number one priority was doing things differently. And I don’t mean that disparagingly, because teachers are the best people in the world; but we do follow a lot of really traditional methods and we’ve been doing this forever because the system encourages us to do that,” said Wulff. “When we break free from that and start empowering kids and doing exciting stuff, the job gets so much better. I would teach for free, just like I’m here for free.”
Today the organization has grown to over 15 members from all over Ventura Unified School District, serving over 4,200 K-12 students. STEMbassadors has worked with kids from E.P Foster Elementary School, DATA Middle School, Ventura High School, Foothill Technology High School, Blue Ridge Academy and more, giving them all access to innovative programs and services.
In 2022, the organization opened a dedicated space in Ventura where it can offer exciting opportunities to students, appropriately named the IDEA Center. Short for Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship and Art, the IDEA Center is a space where the academic community can receive hands-on experience with expensive machinery that their primary schools may not be ready to offer.
“Many schools in our own district who had managed to get a 3D printer or two, even a CNC router, oftentimes did not have the educational or technical resources for themselves to maintain that machine and make it readily available for their students,” said Jaelen Hsu, IDEA Center director. “This would result in technology being left unused and dusty in a closet instead of in the hands of students.”
The IDEA Center is equipped with state-of-the-art machinery, ranging from 3D printing, waterjet cutting, vinyl printing, engraving, fabric weaving technologies and more. The space itself is sophisticated and refined, yet outfitted with an undoubtedly youthful spirit that could only have been conjured by a spry and excited engineer. Walking into the space you are welcomed by a cascading chess board that mechanically moves in waves, and upon further inspection you may find scattered wood-engraved signs with cheeky statements like “I had an IDEA, but…”
Shannon Fanning is a Ventura local and member of the IDEA Center. She joined with the intention of learning more about 3D printing but was soon intrigued by the Saori weaving loom. Now, she is well underway on a personal project that she has found to be therapeutic. She wishes something like the IDEA center would have been available to her as a child.
“I am not a calm, easygoing or relaxed person and I would think that this is terribly, painfully boring and slow; but [weaving] hits me in just the right spot and it’s surprisingly meditative. This would’ve been good for little me and could be good for little [students] if they can get over the slowness,” said Fanning. “Maybe I wouldn’t have been afraid of science, because it wasn’t pushed to little girls as it would have been to boys. [The IDEA Center] basically would have shown me that this other world existed.”
The intention behind the center is also to increase accessibility for marginalized youth and under-resourced communities that otherwise would go without the opportunity to utilize or even see the innovative equipment in action.
“A space like this makes everything accessible,” said Wulff. “Any kid can come in here and they can take whatever their passions are and make them better through the use of these technologies and by learning these different skills.”
In the future, STEMbassadors are beyond excited to not only welcome new guests to the IDEA Center but also to expand the space with even more equipment. The organization is currently raising funds for a Tormach CNC Mill, which they believe will benefit the community by offering even more training in computer-aided design and manufacturing. A milling machine is often used to alter the surface of a material and applies to a variety of engineering projects.
With all the excitement and expansion surrounding the center, the organization is hoping to grow into the neighboring storefront, granting more space for new technologies and services.
“We’ve become a very lean facility, packing a lot of diverse equipment into an increasingly tight space,” said Hsu. “Our goal with the additional room is to create space for quieter, cleaner equipment including those used for electronic and software development, as well as areas for students and members of the community to manage the non-technical or manufacturing-related aspects of building business.”
SPARK OF INSPIRATION
The organization is not solely focusing on the student base; it is also involved with educators, providing training on cutting-edge theory, technology and practices. Through professional development seminars, STEMbassadors is bridging the gap between owning the equipment and knowing how to utilize it to its full potential.
“I’ve been teaching for 25 years and should be becoming obsolete. There should be all these new young teachers coming through credentialing programs, with skills on how to integrate these technologies — not because that’s what I want, but because that’s what the kids want,” said Wulff. “As far as I know, there are not very many credentialing programs, if any, that integrate, to this degree, 3D printing, CNC and design work. It’s just not happening.”
The “Spark Cart” is the organization’s flagship service for educators. The cart is equipped with an X-carve CNC router, an Acer laptop, a vacuum dust collector and direct support from STEMbassadors members on how to implement and maintain the equipment. Since launching in 2017, STEMbassadors has now implemented over 20 Spark Carts in classrooms in Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Barbara. In addition to the equipment, the organization has also trained 30 teachers from five different school districts.
PATH TO THE FUTURE
The work of STEMbassadors is constantly being lauded by the students who credit the organization as a driving force of assistance through their studies. For Carys Garvey, one of the founding members of STEMbassadors and a current student at California Lutheran University, coming to the IDEA Center is a refreshing way of applying her knowledge after reviewing tons of theory at school.
“I think the main advantage of this place is to inspire passion in students so they actually care what they’re learning about,” said Garvey. “I’m a physics major and I feel like I’ve learned more physics here. And I love the program I’m in, but you don’t get that hands-on approach. It’s putting [students] ahead in terms of engineering and biology. [STEMbassadors] are really setting them up to be able to go in any direction and be extra prepared.”
Moving forward, the mission remains the same for STEMbassadors and its director: facilitating a future where everyone with interests has a means of creating their ideas. For Wulff, it all starts by letting the youth play with equipment while offering guidance but never holding them back.
“There is always a pretty strict hierarchy [in school], right? ‘Don’t touch that,’ ‘you’re not ready for that,’ ‘you’re not qualified,’” explained Wulff. “If we make it about guiding kids to resources, there’s no limit to how far they can take it. We have kids in sixth, seventh and eighth grade who are doing things that they normally wouldn’t be doing until their junior or senior year of college; and they’re doing it super well.”