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Teens learn what’s up with technology at RIT

It’s no coincidence that Jim Augustine, chief operating officer of Zuckerberg Media, is working with his company on a project to boost children’s interest in science, technology, engineering, art and math (otherwise known as the STEAM fields).

Or, that Rochester Institute of Technology pretty much does the same thing by hosting the New York GEAR UP Summer Leadership Academy.  (It stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.)

No, it’s more a matter of genetics.

Augustine is the younger brother of Donna Burnette, who leads K-12 programs at RIT. Augustine went to Harvard and New York University. Burnette attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Virginia Tech. Their parents were both math teachers at Greece Athena High School.

And so there was little question whether big sis would be able to bring her little brother to RIT for this year’s GEAR UP camp, as well as get him to waive his usual speaking fee. The program, which operates on campuses around the country, is funded by the participating universities and a matching federal grant program.

Zuckerberg Media, in New York City, focuses on what it calls the intersection of media and technology. CEO Randi Zuckerberg did marketing for her big brother’s project, a little thing called Facebook, for years before she struck out on her own. And she recruited Augustine to come help her with the media company she founded.

Augustine shared with some 80 rising high school juniors at the RIT program one of Zuckerberg Media’s projects in the works: Sue’s Tech Kitchen, a restaurant experience for families with children that melds culinary experiences with technology. He drew in the 16-year-olds by launching them on a hackathon in which they were to come up with projects related to the mission of Sue’s Tech Kitchen – pretty much anything to do with food and technology.

The project, based in Chattanooga, Tenn., is traveling the country now and setting up pop-up cafes, with the idea of developing permanent locations around the country in 2019, Augustine said.

Both the summer program at RIT and Sue’s Tech Kitchen share a goal of exposing youngsters to STEAM fields so they will be open to learning about and working in those fields down the line.

“The jobs of tomorrow don’t really exist today,” Augustine said. “How do we set them on the path they need to be on?” he asked.

While talk of superconductors may not excite students of such a young age, magnets might, he suggested, offering one of his favorite science subjects. Or the dry soda they serve at Sue’s Tech Kitchen, a powdered form of soda that provides effervescence when it mixes with your saliva. When children tried it in Chattanooga, Augustine said, “They just were over the moon with it.”  And parents were marveling about how engaged their children were in creating and manipulating technology instead of being passive users of it in the form of a smartphone or tablet.

“Once you hook them, there’s no end to this,” Augustine said.

He got the students worked up by describing what Sue’s Tech Kitchen is all about and laying out the parameters of the contest. Each group of students—randomly selected—received a box of craft materials and other things in order to build a prototype of what they dreamed up or to use in the presentation process describing it.

Before the end of the day, the winning team of students came up with this idea: gloves containing magnets that help trays of food hover on their way to the tables.

The winners—each team member got an RIT hoodie, courtesy of Zuckerberg Media—came from the cohort of students who have been attending GEAR UP Summer Leadership Academy at RIT for the last four years. The program brings economically disadvantaged students to campus from around the state to encourage them to think about college and particularly STEAM fields. It also focuses on making sure students are ready for the challenges of college, an issue that can be a major stumbling block for low-income students who are the first in their families to go to college.

Burnette said RIT is following the cohort to be able to find out how effective the program is. But she provided one bit of early evidence—a student who attends the RIT program was selected from among 6,000 students nationwide as the 2018 GEAR UP Student of the year. The honor went to Chane’l Giddens, a student at Rochester’s James Monroe High School. She was named for excelling in both academics and athletics and drumming up interest among fellow students to enroll in GEAR UP.

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