Written By: Ronald Sklar
Ever try to put a computer together from scratch? Ava Mason has created a company that teaches and provides the tools and opportunity for just that — but this venture also encourages girls and underrepresented kids to pursue STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and math).
Her nonprofit computer company, Treobytes, guides kids to build and understand their own computers, and become certified in computer hardware. Through collaboration and teamwork — and by making it fun and stress-free — the program empowers kids to learn, create and develop the next great app, website, logo, or computer code.
“Why is this important?” Ava asks. “It’s important because there are over 250,000 open IT positions right now. Within that 250,000, about 30-40% of them have to do with network and hardware engineering, so when you think of [issues like malware and viruses], it’s the hardware and network engineers who are going in and figuring that out.”
All courses are designed for appropriate age and grade-level learning, with a highlighted focus on peer-to-peer collaboration. Programs run from 6-8 weeks for 90 minutes within grades TK-12, as an after-school program. The courses are developed by industry professionals, educators, and computer scientists, while college students and graduates facilitate and serve as mentors, identifying areas of interest and “real-life” experiences.
“As we were pushing out some of our coding courses and computer-specific type of curriculum,” Ava says, “I noticed there were some kids who were still very challenged with just literacy issues. That didn’t mean that they could not figure out the curriculum; they just needed a little bit more hand holding.”
Another one of Ava’s companies in the same effort, Two:35, offers a step-by-step curriculum kit that helps students understand and build a computer’s hardware components.
“With our kit, we’ve created a curriculum that is aligned with industry standards,” Ava says. “Why is that important? With those 250,000 open positions right now, a lot of employers aren’t able to fill them with the U.S. workforce that we have. Students in other countries are actually taught a very rigorous curriculum along the path of science, technology, engineering and math, and that’s where the workforce has been built. We’re about 15-20 years behind, to be quite honest.”
A native of Indianapolis and now based in San Diego, Ava earned her degree in supervision management technology and biochemistry from Purdue University. As a young student, she participated in science fairs and enrichment programs, including the Minority Engineering Advancement Program. In her career, she’s worked with the pharma, biotech and life sciences industry, which range from startups to Fortune 500 companies.
“When I worked for Merck,” she says, “one of my responsibilities was to call on all the military installations in California. I was able to jump in with both feet and really see how the military was run; how families were impacted by being here and there for six months and how it impacted their kids. It really resonated with me.”
That’s why Ava feels it’s most important to provide real-world learning and guidance that most effectively resonates with the student’s life situation.
“Think about military families and the dynamics they are faced with, on a year-to-year and sometimes month-to-month basis,” she says. “They are moved around and their kids are adjusting to a new environment. Sometimes, the continuity in education is interrupted. The school systems are not set up today to be able to provide this type of focus that we are providing. We use our Two:35 computer kit and we teach a semester-long curriculum, so that kids can still learn. So it doesn’t really matter where that kid is — whether it’s a school, or whether they want to buy the kit and access it online in a community forum — we’ll still be able to facilitate and get the kids through the curriculum so that they can develop that skill set. And then they take a certain certification, and once they pass, and once they are sixteen and are able to work legally, they can actually apply for entry-level hardware jobs. It’s usually a $25,000-$30,000 entry-level position.”
Another prohibitive factor standing in the way of creating this workforce: the cost of education.
“It’s not that we don’t have kids who can be accepted into college,” Ava says, “it’s just that they can’t afford it. Now we have kids who are trying to apply to college and get student loans. Even if they graduate with an engineering degree, think about the numbers. They come out of college and may make about $60-70,000, but they may have $50,000 worth of loans, so they’re trying to live off of $10,000. [Treobytes and Two:35] enable the student and the employee to be able to learn on the job and also get their education paid for. A company can look at this kit as an opportunity to really establish a 21st century workforce. This is really the new vocational training.”
A priority for Ava is providing a learning environment that promotes creative problem solving, ultimately allowing kids to become more comfortable around technology. The emphasis is on team building, in after-school and local neighborhood environments.
“There are kids who come to our schools who are hungry,” she says. “There are kids who come to our schools who are homeless. There are kids in the foster system. There are a lot of variables that affect that kid sitting down in that seat and learning. What we are trying to do is where the school system is set up, our outside facilitators come in. The mentoring that takes place is phenomenal.”
The goal: to increase student achievement, encourage continuous learning, and close the academic, social and economic gap. Ava sees a huge roadblock in this goal: lack of consistency.
“My dad was a mailman, and my mom worked at a finance center,” she says. “They didn’t go to college. I have two older brothers. My oldest brother is a chemical engineer and a patent attorney, and my middle brother is a journeyman; he climbs utility poles. But you know what we had? We had consistency. My parents are still alive and they’ve been married for 63 years. They still live in the house that we’ve lived in. I walked five houses up to our elementary school. We try to provide that consistency.”
Timing seems to be the key here, both in students being able to learn at their own speed and getting the education and experience they need in time for job searching.
“As lifelong learners, we can learn so much from kids if we just sit back and listen,” Ava says. “I’m a big proponent of that. Everybody needs their own space to learn in the way that they need to learn. If we can continue to adapt to those types of fundamental skills, there is no limit to learning. But if we force that square peg into that round hole, there is resistance. So if we continue to provide an opportunity for kids to just flourish within their timeline, we see more success. That’s what we try to provide. We provide that opportunity for free-flow learning. If you go back to traditional schooling, that’s stifled. We try to provide an environment for continuous learning and continuous expression.”
Ava acknowledges that the days of graduating high school and landing a fundamental job for life are over. When we think about 21st century jobs, we think about the skills that her projects are teaching.
“It’s a solution that can happen right now,” she says. “If we continue on the path we are on, and we can continue to collaborate — not just with school systems, but also corporations — we’ll be able to give access to all students.”
Written By: Ronald Sklar