Viasat engineer Sarah Nimroozi didn’t discover her aptitude for engineering until she was in college. Now a Science Olympiad coach, she hopes to expose others to potential STEM careers at a much younger age.
Above photo: Viasat technician Ron Papiska, BACK ROW center in blue POLO, hosted an ice cream social on the Viasat campus for his 2019 Science Olympiad students. Also in this photo are Viasat systems test engineer John Parsons (center, blue T-shirt), and Viasat software engineer Phil Hwang, (far right holding shirt), both Science Olympiad volunteer instructors.
Nimroozi is teaching an 18-week class in experimental design to students in grades 6 through 10, all enrolled in the Carlsbad Unified School District. (Carlsbad, CA is the home of Viasat’s headquarters.)
“I hope it makes them a little more curious and makes them question things,” she said. “That’s what experimental design is about – being curious and wanting to know ‘what if,’ and finding a better way to do something.
“I’m also excited there’s so many people interested in Science Olympiad. There wasn’t the stress on STEM when I was going to school. Before college, I had never spoken to an engineer and didn’t know that there were so many types of engineers. Maybe if I’d had more exposure, I would have considered it sooner. So I thought doing this was a good way to help young people get interested in STEM.”
Founded in 1984, Science Olympiad is a national K-12 program that promotes learning through hands-on, competitive and fun science and math events. The 2020-21 Science Olympiad season began in October 2020 and ends Feb. 27, when students compete in 23 knowledge- and project-based events focused on a variety of scientific disciplines. About 8,000 middle and high school teams from all 50 states compete each year.
Viasat, in partnership with the Carlsbad Educational Foundation, is an eight-year sponsor of Carlsbad Unified Schools’ participation. That includes 230 Carlsbad students participating from two high schools and three middle schools.
To change the way science is perceived and taught, Science Olympiad recruits volunteer coaches from the community, business and industry. Nimroozi is among several Viasat employee coaches, all of whom are conducting this year’s classes virtually.
In the past, Viasat employees have taught the classes on campus after school. Last year, those employees dedicated more than 2,000 hours to coaching Science Olympiad students.
Viasat technician Ron Papiska was among them. This year, he’s returned to teach a course called “Reach for the Stars,” aimed at teaching students about the properties and evolution of stars and galaxies.
Papiska got a taste for volunteering with students several years ago, teaching literacy at a juvenile hall.
“One day I saw the lights go on in somebody’s head; I watched this kid get it,” he said. “It kind of got me hooked.”
Students in each class take a standardized Science Olympiad test at the end, but the matter in which each course is taught is left to the instructors. Last year, Papiska took students on top of the Viasat parking garage to peer at the night sky through a telescope.
This year’s virtual instruction means field trips are off limits, but Papiska said students still seem engaged.
“They’re the same age I was when I first started getting science and discovered I really liked it; that was the beginning of my interest in things technical,” he said. “So I try to show them cool things they may never before have been exposed to, to keep them interested and pique their curiosity.”
Software engineer Phil Hwang is similarly hooked on volunteering. A Science Olympiad coach since 2012, he’s currently teaching a class on coral reefs and issues affecting marine water quality.
“I think community outreach and giving back to the community is always important,” he said. “Not only does it help the local area schools, but a lot of Viasat employees’ kids participate in this. So it’s nice to network, meet other employees and spread the love of engineering.
“Having done it since 2012, it’s been nice to watch the students grow up and go to college, graduate and know they really like the sciences.”
While some students view the Science Olympiad as a competition, Hwang encourages a different approach.
“I tell the kids, don’t worry about winning or losing; it’s just about being exposed to different subjects,” he said. “When you become an engineer, there’s no ranking of you’re the best engineer. It’s the mindset that’s more important, how you approach and solve problems.”
Like Papiska and Hwang, Nimroozi said coaching is a mutually beneficial experience.
“Especially during the pandemic, it’s hard to feel a part of the community,” she said. “This is a good opportunity to give back and feel like you’re part of something bigger, rather than feeling isolated at home.”
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