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The Sitdown: Jessie Chavez, software engineer at Google Chicago who coordinates STEM initiatives

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Updated: June 30, 2014 7:56PM



Jessie “Chuy” Chavez, a 40-year-old native of the Little Village neighborhood, who attended Eli Whitney Elementary in Little Village and Morton West High School in Berwyn, was one of the first software engineers in Google’s Chicago office and now coordinates its science, technology, engineering and mathematics education initiatives.

On this day, a group of CPS teachers was next door, participating in a summer professional development program that Google hosts in its efforts to bring computer science to schools in K-12 throughout Chicago. The launch of CS4All, in partnership with code.org and supported by Google, starts this fall in 60 CPS schools to try to bridge the digital divide and prepare students for technology jobs.

Chavez combines his background as a K-12 teacher with his software expertise and Google’s 20 percent policy — employees spend 20 percent of their time working on their own ideas and initiatives — to show students what STEM careers can look like and how to save the world while leading fulfilling professional lives.

At Google, no manager will look at you for spending 20 percent time at a school, a cultural night or a Spanish lunch hour. That empowers me to be a change agent and for all Google employees to be agents of change.

It’s about building a place you want to be successful at and be passionate at. I tell students that whatever their passion— perhaps it’s academia or becoming a medical doctor — the idea is to not settle, and to find ways to make change happen, even if it’s slow.

I encourage students to not give up on this role even if their future employer has a hierarchy in place. No one wants to be brash and destructive, but there is a way to innovate in places that are hierarchical.

In the CS4All initiative, we’re partnering with code.org to train teachers to teach computer science, and that doesn’t mean “screen” time. It’s all about concepts: Troubleshooting, computational thinking, algorithmic thinking and problem-solving, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

We don’t want students to be just consumers of technology. All of us who’ve been invested in promoting computer science in schools want the students to have access to being creators of technology.

It is a sense of mission that anyone who wants to have a voice on the Internet has the ability to use a platform to get it out there — to connect with others. That platform idea is based on the open Internet and the power of having everyone communicate and fulfill that sense of mission, whether that’s to run a campaign, share items on social media or publish a blog. Platforms enable people to do powerful things.

Part of my goal is to tell students about engineers. I didn’t meet an engineer until I got to college and had already chosen my major as civil engineering.

I didn’t know how to ask things like what’s rewarding? What do you want to invest your life in? What does a career look like?

I like to share what a software engineer does — that it’s not the mad scientist or only men — and that we can work on cool things like Google Glass and a self-driving car.

My parents would take me and my brother and sister to spend summers in Mexico, on the farm, with no running water or facilities. It helped us to be humble and to appreciate what we had and to relate to others.

My parents, Virginia and the late Jesus, were a great inspiration in terms of the hard work they put in and the dedication they had to making sure we knew our history, our language and our culture. I have two girls, 8-year-old Xochitl and 14-year-old Noemi, and I try to inspire the same in my children. No matter where we are or what title we have, we can always relate to others.

I like to run and exercise, and I like cooking healthy, particularly giving a healthy twist to foods of my heritage. I shoot for (running) 20 miles a week. I do run three to five times a week, either short or long runs.

This summer, I’ve been making bean salads, with chick peas and garbanzos, and with some lime and cilantro mix thrown in. It’s another important issue for our community: how to be healthy and make good choices around health.

My dad was diabetic, had three heart attacks and died when he was 52. I want to be around for my daughters.

Email: sguy@suntimes.com

Twitter: @sandraguy



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