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Tech Art Summit gives local underserved middle school students opportunity to showcase creativity, engineering skills

Middle school students who attend Aspire Capitol Heights Academy, a local charter school, showed off their projects that integrated coding, construction, art and engineering Thursday, Dec. 1, during the first Tech Art Summit at Sacramento State. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

As a small Christmas tree spun atop a gift-wrapped package, across the crowded room, a hand-crafted cutout of a palm and five fingers attached to a box swayed from side to side.

A sixth-grader admires his carousel project at the first Tech Art Summit at Sacramento State.
Sixth-grader Messiah Patterson admires the carousel he helped build and decorate, along with seventh-graders Janiyah Harris and Rayna Charleswell, Thursday, Dec. 1, during the Tech Art Summit at Sacramento State. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

On another table, a quick swipe near a motion sensor caused the “front door” of a cardboard building decorated as a gas station to slide open to reveal a plastic monkey.

These were some of the projects on display during the Tech Art Summit at Sacramento State on Thursday, Dec. 1, in the University Union Orchard Suite.

The event allowed middle school students to show off their projects integrating coding, construction, art and engineering. It was the culmination of a 15-week pilot program to build a pipeline to college for underserved sixth- and seventh-graders who attend Aspire Capitol Heights Academy, a local charter school.

“They are learning circuits, learning how to assemble and then put them together and work in a team. It’s all new for them,” said Mariappan “Jawa” Jawaharlal, associate dean for Faculty Affairs and professor of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS), who oversaw the program. “It’s a pretty neat program because there is a technical side, but there is an artistic element here.”

Teams of two or three students each had about 10 total hours to complete their projects, Jawaharlal said.

“This is a true community service, and this is the true mission of (an) anchor university,” said Jawaharlal, who explained: “We go to the community, we help the community, and the community has great potential.”

The goal is to keep participating students interested and engaged throughout middle and high school to help them realize their opportunities for attending college, he said.

“Oftentimes, we disassociate creativity from science and engineering. Without creativity, we really don’t have any of the technological advances that we have now.” -- Azizi Penn, Computer Science lecturer and Tech Art program lead

ECS Dean Kevan Shafizadeh said he hopes to collaborate with other Sac State colleges as the program expands, including the College of Education and College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

“This is a great first step – obviously we want to do more,” Shafizadeh said. “As we are able to build our capacity within the college, we can do more in serving as an anchor institution as well as some of the campus (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts, and that’s particularly important in STEM disciplines.” STEM refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

After touring the tables and talking to the students about their projects, Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen, Jawaharlal, Shafizadeh, and Aspire’s vice principal, Madison Chaplin, addressed the students.

“From what I can see, you guys are really, really talented,” Nelsen said. “You can become engineers, you can go to Sac State, you can go to UC Davis, you can go to Berkeley, you can go wherever you want to go, but you can go because you already proved it today. I want you to know that Sac State will always be your home, and you will always be Hornets.”

Students received medals recognizing their work. The children cheered and shouted praise to their classmates as Nelsen presented the awards.

“They’ve done a really good job of being creative, and it’s just been so much fun,” Chaplin said. “It also taught them learning can be fun, learning should be fun.”

Other projects included a working skateboard game and a self-driving car.

“I had a lot of fun; the experience was great,” said seventh-grader David Luna, who along with sixth-grader Ontario Holmes crafted the self-driving car. “I used rotation servo motors and LED lights to make my car.”

Nearby, seventh-graders Janiyah Harris and Rayna Charleswell as well as sixth-grader Messiah Patterson showed off their mechanical carousel that had a USPS shipping box as a base, bright-colored cotton balls, and wooden poles to hold up its plastic horses.

“We used a rotation motor to make it spin in a certain direction,” Charleswell said.

Seventh-grader Zachary Glenn displayed his “Spring Field Garden” project, a green cardboard structure featuring plastic lady bugs and bees and other decorations. It included LED lights and rotating spiders made from pipe cleaners – one turning clockwise, the other counterclockwise.

“So basically, it’s mostly about like a bug Utopia,” Glenn said. “It was fun. I learned about a ton of stuff.”

A student works on a cardboard-crafted working gas station model during the Tech Art Summit at Sacramento State.
An Aspire Capitol Heights Academy middle school student puts the finishing touches on the "Monkey Gas Station," a cardboard-crafted service center that featured a working motion-activated front door and a plastic monkey standing inside, at Sacramento State Thursday, Dec. 1, during the first Tech Art Summit. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Derek Cuffe, an ECS operating system analyst, said he stopped by to see the kids’ projects as a way to encourage the students.

“It’s been pretty good,” Cuffe said. “They’re getting some presentation skills, and a lot of them, you can tell they haven’t done this before, so it’s awesome.”

The program also gave Sac State students Michael Wooley and Aissatou Fall an opportunity to volunteer and learn mentoring skills.

“A lot of what I was doing was helping students figure out how to put what they wanted to do into an actual program and actually execute it,” said Wooley, a Math major who plans to begin a teaching credential program next year.

“I really hope that even if they don’t end up being an engineer, at least they got some touch of engineering or to explore other opportunities,” said Fall, a fourth-year Civil Engineering student and president of the Sac State chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

The next steps for the program include expanding to more middle and high schools and training teachers so Sac State’s professors can be less hands-on.

The goal is to expand the Tech Art Summit and include projects from students across all campuses involved in the program, said Azizi Penn, Computer Science lecturer and project lead for the program.

As opposed to events such as hackathons or robotics-building contests, events like the Tech Art Summit are important because they give students who may not want to compete an opportunity to show their skills, Penn said.

“Oftentimes, we disassociate creativity from science and engineering,” Penn said. “Without creativity, we really don’t have any of the technological advances that we have now.”

Though details of the program’s future are being worked out, Jawaharlal said it will continue.

“The purpose of the Tech Art program is to empower young students with real skills early on and inspire them to pursue a career in engineering,” Jawaharlal said. “This event is an important milestone, and this is just the beginning. We want to expand this program to reach thousands of students in Sacramento and the surrounding area in the next few years.”

Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen greets middle school kids during the Tech Art Summit.
Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen was among the visitors who stopped by the first Tech Art Summit, which showcased projects by local middle school students integrating coding, construction, art and engineering, as the kids demonstrated their speaking skills and explained how their creations worked Thursday, Dec. 1. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price) 


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About Daniel Wilson

Daniel Wilson joined the Sac State communications team in 2022 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at the Sacramento Bee as an audience engagement producer and reporter. He graduated from Sac State with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism in 2018. He plays video games, watches pro wrestling, and loves spending time with his wife and cat.

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