Nonprofit program builds bridges to industry, other countries


During a recent lesson at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, a girl stood up in front of her classroom full of fellow seniors and gave an update on the project for the semester: How to provide a reliable source of energy for a school in Africa that often experiences blackouts.

Over spring break, she said, the team had made significant progress and brought up important questions. They were trying to decide where their 28 solar panels should be best placed for optimal energy production and had discussed the cost of shipping those panels to the school in Senegal, and how to prevent them from being stolen once they were installed on the campus.

“We’re on a good roll right now,” she concluded.

The girl was one of 20 students at the Ann Richards School working on a project organized by Skillpoint Alliance, a nonprofit that builds partnerships between industry, education and the community to steer people into higher education and career success. The program at the school is part of the group’s “Velocity” program, which aims to expose high school students to hands-on experiences in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

This year’s program, which is a collaboration with the nonprofit Helping Other People Everywhere (HOPE) Campaign, is the first time Skillpoint Alliance has tried an international project.

Since the beginning of the winter semester, the students, who are part of a capstone program at the school, have been hard at work trying to devise an alternative and affordable energy source for a co-ed school of 4,000 in Thies, the third-largest city in Senegal. And the task is not taken lightly. The class is considered a “startup consulting firm” and the Senegalese school is considered a “client” to whom they’ll present their project at the end of the semester.

It’s a good way to expose students to the opportunities and challenges of fields that are in high demand in Austin’s growing tech hub, said Leah Grossman, who is in charge of the program.

“There’s basically a huge gap between the jobs that are going to be available now and into the future, and the folks that are interested in studying and getting the skills to fill those jobs,” she said. “We see it from a workforce development and economic development standpoint and say, ‘Can we fill those jobs with folks who live here already and may not know those jobs exist?’”

Not all the girls want to go into those fields, but they see the project as a valuable experience to learn about science and how people live in other countries.

“I’ve learned that I took a lot of my schooling for granted,” said Andrea Gomez, 18. “Not everyone has what you have.”

It’s also a good resumé booster that may help her later in life, said Gomez, who is interested in studying forensic sciences. And it’s something she doesn’t think would be available to her without the program.

“The unique thing about coming to this school for me is that I know other schools don’t do this, and if they do it’s not part of their curriculum,” she said. “It’s a big opportunity me because I can help someone from across the world and have that on my resumé. … Then, maybe if I change my mind for what I want to study in college, I could probably move into what I did with this project … and that’s a little seed planted and I could go from there.”


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