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The coronavirus pandemic has forced myriad businesses and institutions to redefine how and where they provide goods and services, but few have faced challenges more daunting than San Jose’s Tech learning center.

That’s because The Tech Interactive, as the organization is formally known, is at its core a hands-on learning center, offering technology based exhibits, labs and field trips.

Yet, with hands-on in person off the table for now, The Tech is showing itself up to the challenge, having performed a remarkable pivot to remote learning — and to making that learning available to a wide audience, including those without home computers.

In late October, The Tech welcomed a new president and CEO, Katrina Stevens, whose 25 years of experience include stints as a deputy director in the U.S. Department of Education and, most recently, director of learning for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Stevens describes herself as an “educator at heart (who enjoys) seeing the spark in young people.”

In an interview, Stevens stressed her belief that nonprofits like The Tech Interactive have an especially important role to play in providing education during the pandemic.

To fulfill that responsibility, Stevens said, The Tech responded to the pandemic by swiftly converting its in-person education offerings into virtual content. When COVID-19 forced the closure of its Silicon Valley center, all activities, events and programs moved online to The Tech Interactive website. 

“There’s a lot of education material online in general, and it can be difficult to determine what’s quality and what’s not,” Stevens said. “The Tech stands out with its high-quality, hands-on learning for children and training for educators and parents, too.”

Along with continuing to set a high bar for quality, Stevens said, The Tech moved to address the socioeconomic and education inequality known as the digital divide. Notably, The Tech was quick to offer print packets of learning activities to children and families without access to a computer or home Wi-Fi.

Katrina Stevens is the first woman to serve as president and CEO of The Tech. Her background includes an ed-tech journalist, co-founder of an educational startup company and Twitter’s #EdTechChat, and serving as deputy director and senior advisor of the Department of Education under the Obama administration.

In order to reach a wider audience, learning activities on The Tech Interactive’s website are free to access and available in English and Spanish (“At Home” and “En Casa”).

Although learning is now conducted remotely, the process is still very much “hands-on,” and each learning activity promotes children’s focus on certain subjects and the application of particular concepts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). 

For instance, “Algae String” incorporates biodesign, chemistry and materials science, while “Cabbage Inks” involves biology, chemistry and art. Another activity, “Green Pennies,” enables young learners to familiarize themselves with basic chemical reactions, experiments and the scientific process. 

The activities are made to be fun; they might involve learning ninja skills, making string, solving puzzles or building a model zipline or a model roller coaster at home.

And, as Stevens explained, the activities promote the use of at-home materials and upcycling.  

As part of its outreach efforts, The Tech also focuses on those who traditionally have had less of a STEM presence — including girls and racial minorities — seeking to stimulate their interest and participation in the field at an early age. 

In recognition of National STEM Day, The Tech recently held a webinar for girls to learn more about careers in science and technology, an event conducted in partnership with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and IF/THEN initiative. Stevens said partnerships are crucial “to ensure community needs are met and to expand and build.” 

The Tech’s virtual learning content is proving to be wide-reaching and popular. 

More than 500 educators have participated in The Tech Academies, professional development workshops geared toward teaching STEM in Silicon Valley’s underserved communities. Hundrerds of children in the Bay Area and beyond have registered for The Tech Challenge, in which teams address real-word problems by applying engineering design skills. And, as Stevens shared, young learners enthusiastically and routinely post TikTok videos of their completed projects.

But there’s plenty more to be done and, in her new position, Stevens said she will continue to work toward The Tech Interactive’s goals of “nurturing the innovative spirit in young people and developing their problem-solving skills and confidence.”

Visit The Tech’s website for more information, or sign up for the Inside the Tech Interactive newsletter for updates on programs.

Upcoming Tech Interactive virtual events:

Nov. 17, 2020: Tech for Global Good Field Trip (in partnership with Discovery Education)

April 24-25, 2021: The Tech Challenge – Ultimate Upcycle (registration is open)