Join the Santa Barbara Independent for a discussion with the Goleta Union School District Board of Education candidates on Wednesday, September 30, at 5:15 p.m. live on Zoom. Register at independent.com/forum.
Vicki Chen Ben-Yaacov — engineer, mother of two, and Goleta Union school board candidate — says that her passion for building and solving complex problems flourished into a love of teaching children the same passion.
After leading several science and engineering programs mostly geared toward college-aged students, she started her nonprofit, the Youth Innovation Club, in 2019. The nonprofit aims to get younger children attracted to the STEAM fields and to “open up opportunities and resources to students from low-income households or other circumstances that have traditionally held them back.”
The Independent sat down with Chen Ben-Yaacov to discuss her campaign and some of her top issues. The following is a condensed version of the conversation.
This year has to be the craziest time to run for school board. What is motivating you to try and break in now as someone with no prior experience running for office?
I’m really passionate about education, and that’s really the main reason. I’ve been working and trying to help public school be more equitable, and it just feels like the time is right. And I didn’t expect it to be this crazy, but I think with the pandemic, it’s also a lot more needed. I really feel I can help.
I’m an engineer. I came to UCSB and got my PhD there, and then I worked locally in the tech industry for 16 years and 12 years being at Sonos. I used to work downtown, and that’s almost a part of my identity, working at a company for so long. I also have two kids. They went to Isla Vista School; one just started Goleta Valley this year. I volunteer a lot with their classes. I like to work with their friends, and I found that I enjoy working with kids.
You’ve said that you brought a program to the district using your engineering background. Can you describe it?
When I was still working at Sonos, I started leading a lot of outreach programs. I just feel like it’s a local company in Santa Barbara, and we can give back more. We brought the program to universities, starting with UCSB, but I also worked with a university in Boston to bring industrial-style engineering projects to university students.
You see a huge growth in the students. They get to apply what they learned in the classroom to a real-life project. You see that when they start off, they don’t know how to work with each other, and after, like, six months, they become this team that they get to work together. And I think that’s really great, but I was like, why do we start this in the senior year of college? Why can’t we start that younger?
So I started to try to reach down younger and younger…. I started to do a lot of elementary school science-night outreach…. And I partnered with [the school] to do [an audio] speaker building workshop, and that really was like a beginning for me. The kids were building with their little cup and a wire and a magnet to build speakers, and seeing their face when the music comes out [of their speakers], they were like, “Whoa, how does it work?” They were curious; they were engaged….
So two years ago, I just decided, okay, I have to do this. I left Sonos and started trying to work on my own nonprofit…. I’ve tried to stay really focused, so I focus mostly on junior high school…. But the more you work with educators, you learn that, like, elementary school is so important. A lot of time, the learning gap just gets wider and wider by the time junior high school comes. You can still do it, but it just takes so much more work than starting out in elementary school and really trying hard to bridge that gap and lift up the bottom.
How else have you been involved in the district?
Another focus I really bring to the table is that I’m an environmentalist, and I think it’s something that we really need to strengthen in schools. I went to the board meetings a few times, and that’s why three of the current boardmembers endorsed me. They saw me and support me not because I go there and agree with them. I go there because I don’t agree with them. I have an issue with the fact that we teach environmental topics in our classroom and then the kids go to lunch and everything is disposable and plastic when they just learned about how plastic is flooding the ocean and killing marine animals. You have to do what you say to teach the children.
So last year, I worked with one of our teachers at the Isla Vista School and with Santa Barbara County’s waste-management department. We worked together to bring the compost club to school…. We do assembly, we get kids to volunteer, and we stay in the lunch line for like a year and bring in volunteers and our parents and UCSB students to mentor the children and talk about why you need to divert organic from landfill. But on top of that, it’s the amount of food waste that we are seeing.
It’s hard for me to watch kids come and then just dump out their whole lunch. And that happens so much. I’m pretty sure 30 percent of the food we serve goes in the trash. It’s a behavior thing that we need to address, and it’s not just behavior; it’s an environmental issue. It’s an economy issue. Right now we’re also trying to support kids that don’t have food security. You know, 38 percent of our student count at our school qualifies for free or reduced-price meals. That’s a huge percentage. And right now with the district trying so hard to provide free meals, how do we address the food waste at the same time?
As someone with kids in the district, you are familiar with the standard curricula. If elected, what is your stance on choosing curricula?
For me it’s all about, like, the future. I work in the industry, and if you think about it, 13 years ago is when the first iPhone came out. It was not that long ago, but before that, if you told me that there’s a whole category of jobs that are about building apps, I would be like, “What is an app?” That was only 13 years ago. So imagine this group of elementary school kids by the time they graduate from high school and college. You don’t know what jobs are out there. So how do you prepare them for that? You prepare them for the right skills. So they get into a depth of learning, and they can build on that because that’s all you can do because you don’t know what job is really there.
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