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From Robots to Android Apps, Berkeley Lab Invests in the Community

At first Roby Berninzoni wasn’t sure she wanted to give up her Saturdays to work with high school kids. As a program manager at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), her weekdays were busy enough. But after several weeks of helping the teens at Richmond High School get organized as they worked together to build a robot for a national competition, she started to feel like she was actually getting more out of it than they were.

“I know I’ve helped with building their confidence and writing and project management, but I still feel like I’m getting a bigger thrill out of it,” she said. “I forgot how much fun it is to be with 16, 17, 18 year olds. Remembering being that age, how much optimism for the future and the dreams they have—what they want to do is just inspiring for me.”

In hopes of igniting a passion for science among both young and old, Berkeley Lab has initiated a number of new outreach activities in the community in the past year. Building on its successful science events for the public, the new activities aim to make an impact on individuals by enabling science education, mentoring or workforce training opportunities they may not otherwise have had.

Berninzoni and a handful of other Berkeley Lab administrative professionals and engineers are working with two local high schools to build robots through a program called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which culminates in a national championship at the end of April. Separately, 20 women scientists from Berkeley Lab have volunteered to mentor more than 60 high school girls to develop science education apps for Android smart phones. Called the Technovation Challenge, the program aims to get girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

“Often, just one small factor—one teacher, one mentor, one microscope—can make a big difference in a kid’s life, and one opportunity can mean a world of difference for an adult,” said Berkeley Lab Director Paul Alivisatos, who has made community relations one of his top priorities since becoming director in 2009. “We want to engage in local science education, including environmental education and workforce training. We are all part of the same ecosystem—the students of today are the scientists of tomorrow—so having our scientists and our professionals go out into the community benefits everyone.”

Mentors Teach More than Science

At Oakland Technical High School, the rookie robot-building team has benefited immensely from having Berkeley Lab mentors guide them not only in engineering and programming challenges but also in areas such as fundraising, website design, budgeting and basic project management. “The natural thing for the them to want to do is pull parts and tools out of boxes and just start building,” said Ken Fletcher, deputy director of the Lab’s Facilities Division. “We had to stop and say, we need to design, make a prototype, then start the build.”

Once they did get to pull everything out of the boxes, the students needed help putting it together. “Nowadays they’re all on the computer, so they know video games and programming and joysticks, but they’re not physically building things with their hands,” said Fletcher. “They didn’t have the skills to physically build the robot, how to use tools, use a drill, how to make prototypes. They didn’t even know the names of the different tools, how to use PPE (personal protective equipment) and—very important— keep the tools and materials organized so you can find them the next time you need them!”

The game is played between two Alliances of three teams each. Each Alliance competes by trying to score as many of the basketballs in the hoops as possible during the 2-minute and 15-second match. Balls scored in higher hoops score Alliances more points. Alliances are awarded bonus points if they are balanced on bridges at the end of the match. Oakland Tech

Like Berninzoni, Fletcher has found the experience very rewarding. “This really gets kids turned onto science and technology,” he said. “We’re also teaching them three important skills—problem-solving, team collaboration and critical thinking—which I believe are three key aspects to succeeding in the business world.”

Still, in some cases, the mentors had to do things the students’ way: “They all use Facebook to communicate, so that’s what we used,” said John Braithwaite, another Berkeley Lab volunteer. “I had to figure out an application we could use to share documents.”

The Technovation Challenge takes the business component of technology one step further: the five-member teams will develop not only an app but also a business plan that they will pitch to a panel of judges. “We teach them how to do public speaking, how to organize their thoughts and present it in a persuasive way,” said Corie Ralston, a Berkeley Lab scientist at the Advanced Light Source and volunteer. “For the kids, it’s mini version of the projects they’ll be doing when they go out into the real world and have jobs.”

[Technovation caption]

Michele Dunleavy (green shirt) of the Information Technologies Division is one of 20 female scientists and engineers at Berkeley Lab who have volunteered to mentor high school girls in the Technovation Challenge. (Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

Another Berkeley Lab volunteer, Kristen Parrish, who is mentoring a team from Oakland High School, said the most gratifying part of the program was getting the girls to think about life outside of their everyday range of experiences.

“We did a career opportunity day where all the mentors presented what we do,” Parrish said. “Many girls said things like, ‘Oh I didn’t know people use biology in their career,’ or ‘I didn’t know building energy was anything beyond turning off the lights when you leave the room.’ They don’t realize how things they learn in high school translate into eventual career paths.”

More Outreach: Workforce Training and Energy Retrofits

Lab staff have also worked with adults in workforce training. Last year, several volunteers from the Human Resources Department held a resume-writing workshop for veterans and conducted mock interviews to help individuals with disabilities in their job search. The Department worked with the nonprofit Swords to Plowshares and the California Department of Rehabilitation for these two activities.

Besides human capital, Berkeley Lab has invested other types of resources in the community. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, for example, was able to purchase 20 microscopes for students thanks to a sponsorship of the Berkeley Public Education Foundation by Berkeley Lab. The Lab’s support will also enable the purchase of 20 graphing calculators for Berkeley High School and software to help elementary students practice math problems.

Berkeley Lab has also sponsored Richmond BUILD, a job-training program of the City of Richmond which works with underrepresented groups. Many of the program graduates have found jobs installing solar panels. “Richmond BUILD has a nationally recognized green workforce training program,” said Armando Viramontes, the Lab’s state and community relations representative. “We wanted to partner with a program that is developing the workforce which will construct the scientific facilities or install the products that science will invent in the future.”

To support local environmental restoration, Berkeley Lab partnered with Save the Bay for a project at the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline Park. Lab volunteers spent a day planting more than 350 native plants supporting the broader effort to restore East Bay shoreline to native habitat. The restoration area—located between the Oakland Coliseum and airport—is some of the last remaining wetland habitat in the East Bay.

“Berkeley Lab has developed a successful community relations program from the ground up,” said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. “I really appreciate these new efforts by Director Paul Alivisatos to make community relations an important part of his vision for Berkeley Lab.”

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit


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