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Young Oakland Students Conquer Coding In New Robotics Program

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) Techno dance music filled the classroom at Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland, but the students weren't dancing. The sixth, seventh, and eighth graders had programmed small robots to move in synch.

The team learned how to code at the school's first-ever programming and robotics course. Retired scientists Mark and Joanne Perra started the pilot project last year.

"Many of these kids have the stuff, the right stuff, to succeed," Mark Perra explained.

The Danville husband and wife wanted to strengthen STEM education for low-income children.

"If they learn how to do something or get good at say math, programming, or whatever, that's not something that can be taken away from them," Joanne Perra added.

The Perras helped launch the programming class at Roosevelt with school and private funding, using an innovative curriculum developed at UC Davis that teaches logical thinking through coding and robotics. The Perras themselves help the instructor mentor students.

"We're in this to see kids succeed and breathe new success based on that," said Mark Perra.

Some students like Jennifer Shen felt confident enough to enter the annual robotics competition at UC Davis in May.

"I was really hyped up," Shen remembered. "I was like, I want to do that!"

Not only were they the first team from Oakland to compete in the annual contest, but they also won third place out of 36 Northern California teams in their division.

"To take 3rd place, we were in shock!" said Joanne Perra.

"It was so delightful!" added her husband.

Shen says learning to code opened her eyes to new possibilities:

"I want to be capable of doing my own thing, by programming."

Zelda Allison taught the coding class and coached Jennifer's team. She says the Perras are the students' role models.

"The chance for them to meet them and hear their stories about what they've done and what they've created... it's a great, great thing for our kids," Allison said.

So for bringing an innovative STEM education program to Oakland's Roosevelt Middle School, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Joanne and Mark Perra.

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