Joselyn Guaman is a senior at St. Joseph’s College studying computer science and mathematics. While working two part-time jobs this year, she has recently also bagged a unique fellowship at Sunset Spark, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that educates students about science, engineering and technology.
Guaman says she came to Sunset Spark a year and a half ago to participate in a robotics workshop, “in need of hands-on experience beyond what is taught in college.” Now, she will be working with the organization’s founders learning to teach and work with them this year.
Sunset Spark is the brainchild of Gaelen and Yadira Hadlett, who began the initiative with a few sessions to introduce fun engineering projects to elementary school students back in 2008. “We wanted kids to have [a] learning environment, where they were doing new and unexplored things. It was exciting and unpredictable.” says Hadlett, who used to work for a healthcare tech company before he started pursuing Sunset Spark full-time.
Today, they operate in 10 schools in the Sunset Park area of west Brooklyn, teaching over 2,500 children in the past year. They also hold after-school classes and specialized workshops, on the basis of what they call “noloco,” where they are not attached to a particular physical location, and hold sessions in public locations. Previously they’ve held workshops at parks, food courts, the riverfront and even inside the Greenwood Cemetery, which helped serve as backdrop and material during those specific classes on learning about Brooklyn inventors. All of these classes are free and cover a wide range of subjects, including robotics, coding, neuroscience and biotechnology.
Kaliyah Parada, a 5th grade student at PS 131 who attended the summer camp this year, said she loved using her creativity. “I really enjoyed making the Pinball machine,” she added. “You have to really design it yourself and make it your own.” Her mom, Felixia Parada, says that many parents like herself acknowledge and appreciate the robots, motherboards, micro circuits, LCD lights, car batteries and other tools and gadgets provided through Sunset Spark. Those things aren’t otherwise available to them in a typical class at school.
Hadlett says, “The magic is that when kids get this opportunity to run wild, we do not have to be behind them to reprimand them.”
The Hadletts say their vision has been crystal clear all along, and they wish to maintain their grassroots approach. Their focus is to reach immigrant families in the neighborhood to build a strong sense of community. By this they say they have high impact on those with limited exposure and resources.
Yadira says they hold weekend family programs to engage parents, and mothers specifically, to attend sessions and even participate in building or soldering projects together, so that children in turn get immersed and inspired by the subject.
They also try and work with students with physical disabilities or special needs and have a long-term goal to create a robotic garden at one of their partner schools that is barrier free, meaning that students with physical impairments can be enrolled. Gaelen says this garden will give those students, “A new way to experience gardening: to control and program the robot to do all usual gardening activities.”
The fellowship that Guaman received is a new program the nonprofit added this year. Besides Gauman, three other young adults have the opportunity to get mentored, learn and work with the Hadletts on different projects. The fellowship is funded by the Siegel Endowment.
Gaelen Hadlett says that in talking with young adults studying or working with technology, he increasingly felt that they weren’t finding value beyond pay. “They didn’t study computer science to only increase shareholder value for the gig economy or ad tech startup. They value community,” he says. “So we came up with a way for them to pursue their own interests in STEM while working in their own neighborhood.”
For those like Joselyn Guaman, who aims to have a career in cyber security or forensic analysis, and establish herself in such a male-dominated field, being a fellow is a golden opportunity. “I am really excited,” she says of the prospect of learning, teaching younger children and working on her own project ideas. “I haven’t really gotten this kind of chance before.”