Obama Academy

Never-say-no Pittsburgh dad launches new STEAM lab at Obama Academy

Above: Ashish and Arhan Badjatia at the grand opening of the MPowerStudio at Barack Obama Academy of International Studies. Photo by Renee Rosensteel for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Ashish Badjatia is the kind of guy who doesn’t take no for an answer.

“He has a goal, and he just doesn’t give up,” says Jana Patton-Vogt, a professor and the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Biological Sciences at Duquesne University. “He’s not afraid to ask, and he’s not afraid to push.”

Badjatia’s unrelenting approach recently hauled in a $75,000 grant from Google to build a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) lab at Barack Obama Academy of International Studies 6-12. Badjatia’s son, Arhan, is an eighth-grader at the East Liberty school.

As vice president of the Obama Academy parent teacher student association, Badjatia spearheaded the effort to bring the school well into the 21st century and help its students bridge the digital divide facing students of lesser means. The demographics of the Pittsburgh Public Schools magnet include 81 percent black or mixed race, 75 percent of students on free and reduced lunch, and 61 percent girls.

Patton Vogt, whose daughter, Anja, is a sophomore at the school, was Badjatia’s partner in the grant pursuit. Badjatia’s day job as the chief operating officer at Ystrategies Corp., a business development and venture capital firm in East Liberty, set him up to succeed as such efforts, she says.

“He thought more about what equipment we needed, and I’m better at getting it down on paper,” she says. “Together, we just kicked it.”

Obama Academy
Sophomore Piper Walsh (left), Cerena Price-Knight, and Cierra Price-Knight investigate a 3-D laser printer called Glowforge. Photo by Renee Rosensteel for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

In the beginning, then-principal Wayne Walters told him there was money out there, but no one had a contact at Google. Badjatia made it his mission to reel in the grant. He worked his way to Liz Schwab, Google’s head of external affairs, New England and Pennsylvania, and set up a meeting. Once Badjatia explained the school’s population to Schwab, she was all ears.

“It became a conversation about how we want our kids to learn STEAM in the classroom, but also have access to the kind of equipment you need these days to get kids excited about learning those concepts,” Badjatia says.

Schwab was impressed with the amount of homework the grant seekers did. But what put the Obama Academy team over the top was its holistic approach to the school community.

“They had connected with the city, every level of the school district, had in-depth conversations with the teachers, had student buy-in, etc.,” she says. “We knew that if we invested in the project, there would be a lot of other partners lined up to help make the most of it.”

Establishing the need and school community enthusiasm was just the first part of securing the grant, Badjatia says. Google wanted to make sure that any money given to the school was spent on the STEAM lab, and not diverted to administrative matters or swallowed up by the greater Pittsburgh Public Schools bureaucracy. The Obama Academy team opened a special bank account for the grant proceeds and asked Schwab to make the check payable to PTSA, the parent teacher student association.

“We wanted to handle the big tasks from end to end,” Badjatia says. “We told them, ‘We’re going to blue collar this.’ ”

The school district has been a supportive partner through the process, Badjatia says, offering laptops and other equipment and assistance that he figures saved the school $9,000.

Obama Academy
Tenth graders Amber Davis (left) and Keely Brady demonstrate a four-color silkscreen press in the MPowerStudio at Obama Academy. Photo by Renee Rosensteel for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

On Dec. 14, Obama Academy celebrated the lab’s grand opening with a celebration at the school. The 2,200-square-foot lab, called MPowerStudio, was nearly move-in ready, having been equipped with exhaust bays, sinks, and safety equipment as part of an unfinished capital improvement project.

“We’ve not spent a single penny on furniture or to upgrade the space,” Badjatia says. “That’s enabled us to get more equipment.”

Among the equipment are laser engravers, a CNC router, a six-string embroidery machine, a sewing machine, power tools, a four-color silkscreen printing press, and a dual-extrusion 3-D printer.

Before the STEAM lab, Obama Academy was pretty limited on the technology front, according to Principal Yalonda Colbert. Students had to take turns on a handful of computers and iPads. She credited Badjatia and the PTSA for making things happen.

“It all began with the parents coming together,” Colbert says. “They recognized the gap in our students being prepared for 21st-century problem solving, and resolved to create a space that is as good as what other schools have.”

Cecil Price III, a 16-year-old sophomore, says MPowerStudio opens a new world for the kids at the school.

“The space will help me be a greater creator, thinker, and innovator,” he says. “I’m very appreciative that Google has blessed us with this.”

Patrick Williams, the school’s technology education teacher, will preside over the new lab. He was hired at the beginning of this school year to make sure eighth, ninth and tenth graders put the lab to good use. He says the lab is on par with, if not better than, those at more affluent schools in Pittsburgh suburbs.

“I just keep smiling because I’m the one who got chosen,” Williams says.

Google’s role doesn’t necessarily end with the delivery of a check. Schwab says future engagement could include employee volunteers in the space, future donations, and help to advocate with other partners for more funding.