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Q&A: James Wang reflects on teaching design thinking at East Palo Alto Academy

Courtesy of James Wang

In partnership with local tech-training nonprofit StreetCode, James Wang ’20 is pioneering an effort to bring engineering and design principles developed at Stanford to students at East Palo Alto Academy (EPAA), a charter school in the historically low-income Silicon Valley suburb.

In an after-school EPAA class, Wang and other volunteers from Stanford and StreetCode — which focuses its work in communities of color — teach the students design thinking and practical engineering skills. As the class’s ongoing project, they take the students through the ideation process developed in the to develop technology that makes life easier and more accessible for individuals in their community with physical disabilities.

The students then develop a prototype of their technology and present it to venture capitalists in an at the end of the school year. The class won the competition last year, earning more than $2,000 for their invention of a cane with high-visibility lights to assist individuals with impaired vision in walking safely at night.

This year, course volunteers and participants are working with Abigayil Tamara, a local community member who uses a wheelchair, to design a sensor to make navigating parking lots easier for her and others who use wheelchairs.

In conversation with The Daily, Wang discussed his experience teaching the class and shared some insights into the burgeoning design education field in East Palo Alto.


The Stanford Daily (TSD): So what exactly did you guys invent?

James Wang (JW): Basically, the device the students are working on is a sensor that you can attach to the side of a disability van that notifies people if they’ve parked in front of an access ramp. These vans have an eight-foot ramp so that someone using a mobility chair can get in and out of [the van]. So, even if you park in a handicap spot, if someone parks next to you, you can’t get in or out of your car.

We’re working with a community partner named Abigayil, and she has faced this problem for a while. We took the students through the whole ideation process, and they figured out that this is one big problem that she faces in her life. So they’re building this sensor that you can slap on the side of a car, and if another car blocks it, it’ll beep and flash, saying “warning, you’re blocking a disability access ramp.”

TSD: What has the ideation process been like? What sorts of other ideas did the group come up with before settling on the sensor?

JW: It is inspiring and hilarious. It reminds me of how I was when I was in high school, and it warms my heart. I remember in the ideation process when we were first figuring out what kind of problem we wanted to tackle in Abigayil’s life, and the problem of parking came up. The students recalled that she said that people blocked her parking space. Their initial ideas were so funny — “oh, let’s build a giant robot arm that deploys out of the top of the car and picks the other one up and tosses it away,” or “we’ll put a V-12, 600 horsepower engine in her wheelchair so that she doesn’t even need a car; she can just drive around at 80 miles per hour in her wheelchair.”

TSD: How do you think that East Palo Alto’s location, as a low-income community, factors into StreetCode’s work?

JW: One of the overarching missions of StreetCode is to carve out a niche in the Silicon Valley for the residents of East Palo Alto. Not only do they deserve to take a slice of the pie here; they’re also being pushed out at an unprecedented by gentrification. It’s horribly unjust for Amazon and Facebook to go into East Palo Alto — and even for Stanford — and to have its members completely displace people in the community.

I see this class, StreetCode and EPAA working to prepare students to participate in the tech ecosystem here so that they can have a voice and they can get what rightfully partially belongs to them.

East Palo Alto is traditionally seen as an underprivileged community that is at some sort of deficit when it comes to education and technology. However, every single middle school in East Palo Alto has a makerspace, which, as far as I know, is pretty unprecedented. I had never seen it. The students who are coming into my makerspace at the high school [level] are familiar with the tools already; they know what 3D printing is; they know what laser cutting is. I went to Palo Alto High School, and I didn’t know how to do that.

In a way, East Palo Alto is more willing to make more bold educational decisions. I don’t know why, but if I were to make a guess, it would be because they don’t have the helicopter parents of Palo Alto that impart so much inertia into the education system. The amount of innovation that I’ve seen in the East Palo Alto education system and the amount of care that I’ve seen the administrators and teachers give to their students in some ways far exceeds what I saw when I went to Paly [(Palo Alto High School)].

TSD: Do you think this class has made the students more interested in pursuing engineering in the future?

JW: They’re definitely enjoying it, and I think a lot of them want to be engineers. We’ve had some students move on to research internships doing database engineering; a lot of our students want to do entrepreneurship and start their own small companies. We have students doing super advanced projects, [like] designing electric scooters and drones.

But the point of my program is not to create engineers — that’s not the sole purpose. I see socio-emotional development and being able to to persistently tackle an issue without losing focus or losing motivation as the most important trait that you can instill in a student. And I facilitate that through project-based learning and STEM, just because it’s hands-on and gratifying. But I sort of see this whole technology thing as a Trojan horse to bring in these other skills that I think are more important.

TSD: How did you get inspired to pursue engineering education in the nonprofit space?

JW: [Going to Palo Alto High School] was a big influence for me…  I hated Paly so much. I had the worst experience there. I had friends who committed suicide there, and I struggled with a lot of mental health issues. I was miserable. To this day, I don’t think I’ve experienced the chronic dread and disillusionment as I felt at Paly.

When I was in high school, I thought a big portion of it was how dysfunctional I saw the education system to be. My opinion on this has changed slightly, but in high school I would have told you that we are learning skills that are not used in industry; we are learning skills that are sometimes heuristics that have since been proved wrong … and I really hated that.

So, I felt like if I was going to complain so much about education in high school, I had better do something about it afterward. I joined StreetCode my freshman year and started the design program, and we’ve been teaching at EPAA for a while now.

I don’t want to get too futuristic and romantic about the importance of education, but to me, updating and improving the education system is one of the most important challenges that we have to face in the next 20 years. I think what that requires is students to have a more deliberate education where they’re not just getting math and science crammed down their throats, but they’re [learning] to appreciate what there is in life and to be able to creatively and emotionally express themselves. I think our education system is not really preparing students for that now, and I think that’s really important.


Contact Katie Keller at ktkeller ‘at’

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