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Electrifying learning

At Stacks&Joules, an engagement with a project-based computer programming


"Snap once if you’re ready!” called Diana Vargas, during a recent session of the Stacks+Joules workforce development technical class, held at the Dale Jones Burch Neighborhood Center on the Lower East Side.

Vargas is the program facilitator at Stacks+Joules, a 501c3 nonprofit geared to helping low-income youth from disadvantaged backgrounds gain hands-on experience in computer programming and wireless network management. Its 14-week learning program is premised on the idea that young people can acquire core competencies in the technical fields when they are sufficiently engaged. 

“At Stacks+Joules, we like to share our knowledge and that tends to become contagious in our classrooms,” explained Vargas.

The roughly 35 class members playfully snap their fingers signaling they are back from lunch break and ready for their pop quiz on what they learn. The students, 18-24 years of age were thrilled to explore and learn. 

The classes, at the Henry Street Settlement on Henry Street, once the home of FDNY’s Engine Company 6’s firehouse, have a narrow focus on technical skill training in electrical lighting, heating and cooling systems. The goal is to get students familiar with the structure and operation of computer-based electronics and acquaint them with a working knowledge of programming concepts. 

Building knowledge and a portfolio

The students use the Python coding language, a program with a simple syntax that is easy to learn, to create increasingly complex activities as they progress toward a capstone in which they program a light show choreographed to a song of their choosing

“Everyone loves the first part, Python code programming,” Vargas said. “ I think it’s because they are so surprised with themselves, after typing the code, troubleshooting errors [to] finally get their LED light bulbs to turn on. It reassures them of their capabilities and helps erase self-doubt to build up self-esteem and drive within.”

The program also has a strong practical component, focusing on professional and work-readiness skills for potential employers in a sector with strong job growth. Mentorship from professionals covers workplace expectations, networking and personal value. The goal is for students to learn accountability to the basic expectations of a working professional. 

Besides building a strong portfolio, they practice writing cover letters and resumes and preparing for an interview. “I think my goal for the program is to help get jobs by building up, giving confidence and knowledge to our students,” said Vargas.

Stack+Joules was created in 2021 by educators J. Michael Conway and Jonathan Spooner. Conway has 20 years of teaching experience as a high school math teacher. Spooner is a high-tech innovative entrepreneur who has been featured in The New York Times, Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal. 

Stacks are a combination of software products and programming languages used to create an application while Joules are units of electrical energy equal to the work done when a current of one ampere is passed through a second.

During one April class, Antuan Cannon, the director of talent development and innovation with Willdan, an engineering and energy solutions consulting services company, came to speak to the students. 

“Most colleges and universities don’t offer this type of training,” Cannon said of the program, portions of which could land its graduates with, for instance, a gig with ConEd working to ensure that most buildings over 25,000 square feet comply with a 2019 city law requiring that they don’t exceed energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions caps. The stipulations go into effect this year.

“With this training academy, upon graduation, Stacks+Joule's students can gain an electrical permit,” Cannon said, which is required for residential and commercial electrical work. He also discussed the importance of an “elevator pitch,” and what he’s looking for in a possible candidate. “You need to know what you are looking for and to be direct,” he said. 

Spooner said Stacks+Joules program is planning to expand. “Some of the goals for the program include adding stipends for trainees as they take the course,” he said. “Additionally, we look forward to continuing to offer our all-women’s training program this summer.” 

Stacks+Joules’ Women Only Building Automation Systems Program is a new and free summer program open to all women, including transgender women and femme-identifying women. The program requires a high school diploma or GED but no computer skills. 

Stack+Joules is also looking to expand diversity in the industrial field by offering ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) classes and a program for NYCHA residents. 

As the class came to an end, students prepared to leave and follow up with Associate Facilitator David Sepulveda, a Bronx native and a 2023 graduate of Stack+Joules. 

After completing the program, Sepulveda completed an internship with Henry Street Settlement and after the internship, he was offered employment with them as a program associate. 

“My favorite part about being involved with Stacks+Joules is being able to help them like they helped me. I found the program during a time in my life where I felt lost with no real path in life,” explained Sepulveda. “I’m grateful to Stacks and Joules for that and I wish to share my experience with the young adults who attend our program and may also be experiencing something similar.”

Students, educators or donors can find more information about Stacks+Joules at https://stacksandjoules.org/get-involved


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