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Hopes, Dreams and STEM Education: The National Science Foundation Helps Us Make It Happen

Hopes, Dreams and STEM Education: The National Science Foundation Helps Us Make It Happen

By Jacob Martinez, MIST | September 30, 2015
Founder and Executive Director, Digital NEST

Here’s something that always strikes me about kids and teens. They all have dreams, hopes and wishes for the future. They also have some incredibly creative ideas about making this world better.

That’s true whether we’re talking about kids in our rural, low-income community in Watsonville, California, or the kids up in Silicon Valley, less than 45 minutes away, where some of the most privileged families live. But there is one really important difference between these sets of young people. That difference is opportunity.

ETR and my organization, Digital NEST, have just been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation that’s going to allow us to learn more about how to create opportunity for underrepresented youth. We are thrilled about the ways this grant is going to advance our work and our mission.

In Watsonville

The youth in my community are more likely than youth in general to have parents who’ve never gone to college. They’re less likely to have a computer at home, or access to the Internet. A lot of them have never had exposure to people working in technology or science fields. They may not know anyone who’s gone to college. I’ve worked with middle school students who don’t know how to do an Internet search or operate a computer mouse.

I see these kids and I believe in them. I want to give them the same tools and skills other kids have. I want to see them carry out their visions.

That’s what motivated me to start up Digital NEST. Our goal is nothing less than shifting the economy, locally and nationally, by creating a diverse workforce that is trained, experienced and ready to be the technology leaders of the future. We are preparing members of Digital NEST to compete for the most influential, vital and high-paying jobs in the market.

How to Create a Workforce

We’re doing this by creating a resource community for 12–24 year olds interested in computer science and technology. We offer a physical space where youth have free access to state-of-the-art software and hardware in graphics, video, animation and programming. We give them access to online courses. We offer on-site classes and trainings. We facilitate professional mentorships. We offer professional development support so our members can master the technology skills they need to pursue higher education, launch careers and join businesses in our community.

And it’s working! We’re getting wonderful backing from our local community, local and national foundations, and a range of technology companies (Facebook, and Adobe, to name a few). We’ve got an impressive number of youth involved. Over the summer, we had as many as 70 kids at the NEST in a single day.

Members are getting involved in the local business community, too. Businesses can use our Business Services Program, for example, to get a professionally designed website at low cost. Our students, with the help of their mentors, work on client relations, basic coding and website design.

Just today, I had a 19-year-old college student here at 8:15 a.m. He’s working on an animation project and is learning how to use a sophisticated software product—one that costs hundreds of dollars, but was donated to us by the software company.

Welcome, ETR and National Science Foundation

Digital NEST is less than a year old. One of the biggest events that’s happened for us in a very full year is this just-announced National Science Foundation award. With NSF’s support, we’ll be collaborating with ETR on a 3-year project that will help us build some infrastructure around assessment and mentoring, and also take a look at how well our approach is working.

This is amazing. In fact, it’s unheard of. A brand new organization is being given the opportunity to engage in a formal design and development study that will allow us to measure our impact and improve what we’re doing. We’re also going to be able to share that data with foundations and other funders, so they can see some of their return on investment.

We’ll be looking at the effectiveness of an environment such as the NEST in building pathways for underrepresented youth to explore computer science and tech. We’ll measure member engagement—how often are youth here? What are they doing when they’re here? What are their perceptions of the NEST?

We’re also going to explore more about the impact of badges—digital tokens that represent tasks completed and levels of achievement. How well do these motivate and reinforce participation and learning?

We’re going to measure advancement in technical skills and knowledge. What do members know when they come into the program? What do they learn while they’re here? How advanced are their skills after three years? What activities are most influential in promoting their advancement?

Wow. Thanks. Wow!

I can’t say enough about the value of a grant like this. Honestly, as a community start-up, we’re still struggling to make sure we effectively capture simple attendance data—Who’s showing up? Why? How often? How long do they stay? What are they doing when they’re here? What makes people come back?

We’d love to have a staff researcher gathering some of the valuable and more complex data our program can produce about what parts of the program are working best and how we can improve what we do. But this early in our history, there is no way we could fund that. With this NSF grant and ETR’s partnership, that’s basically what we’re getting.

We’re embracing this opportunity with enthusiasm and gratitude. Thanks, NSF and ETR. Thanks to our community partners and supporters. Mostly, thanks to our student members for working hard, taking risks and believing in your dreams and visions. You are going to make the world a much better place.

Jacob Martinez, MIST, is the Founder and Executive Director of Digital NEST. He can be reached at


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