The Tech Interactive introduced Katrina Stevens as its new president and CEO on Tuesday morning, ushering in what promises to be a new era for the downtown San Jose science and learning center. And she says that the Tech as a vital role to play even with its doors closed because of the pandemic.
“Oftentimes, the spark that ignites young people happens outside the classrooms,” said Stevens, 49, who is currently the Director of Learning Science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “Informal learning spaces have always had a key role, and, in the time of COVID, I think the Tech has an even more important role. Educators and parents right now are scrambling to find really high-quality resources they can do with minimal tools at home and the Tech is perfectly positioned to be able to do that.”
She says she was impressed by the Tech’s ability to take its in-person experiences and transform them into at-home and online materials through programs like The Tech Interactive at Home. But she also knows that it may be some time after she officially starts in November that the Tech can start welcoming visitors back to the mango-and-azure facility on Market Street.
“I think all of us are excited for the day when we can open our doors fully. But COVID obviously presents some really strong challenges, and we have a responsibility to not be part of the spread,” said Stevens, who made a quiet visit to the Tech recently. “Right now, our experiences are so interactive and hands-on, that I want us to get to the point where students and young people can have that full experience.”
Even for a place that prides itself on its innovative spirit, there’s no doubt that Stevens is an unconventional choice. She’s an educator who hasn’t run an institution like this before, an early technology holdout who was the last among her friends to get a cell phone, and, yes, she’s the first woman to lead The Tech in its three-decade history.
A former English teacher, Stevens concedes she was more traditional when it came to classroom technology — think whiteboards instead of tablets — but changed her mind when she was teaching in Bermuda and saw how technology could bring education that had been previously inaccessible to poorer or less connected communities. Technology became a more important part of her life later when she served for two years as deputy director of the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Educational Technology under President Barack Obama.
“Tech is a tool to be able to close opportunity gaps, in a sense,” she said. “It’s an important journey to share with young people and with teachers that anyone — even if you consider yourself a novice or a newbie — can master some of the technology to better help our kids.”
Stevens says she’s very much on board with the new direction the Tech announced in 2019 to leverage partnerships to expand its work beyond Silicon Valley, but that starts with making sure the Tech Interactive is serving its local community first, she said.
“One of my biggest goals is to really double down on deep local impact. For me that means building with the community. How do we work more closely with community members to make sure those experiences resonate and reflect them?” she said. “And then to being able to take that to many, many more students around the world.”
Chris DiGiorgio, the retired Accenture executive who led the search committee and served as interim CEO following the departure of Tim Ritchie in January, said the Tech’s board of directors felt the institution’s leadership team was solid enough to allow an outside-the-box hire following Ritchie, Peter Friess and founding president Peter Giles.
“With the new strategy and where we’re going and a very strong team internally, we felt we were able to look beyond the museum world,” said DiGiorgio, who has served on the Tech’s board for more than a decade. “Katrina was a perfect fit, we thought, from being an educator, having national presence and visibility through her past work and her current research work, and the culture.”
She didn’t set out to be a role model for women in tech, but Stevens says diversity equity and inclusion is something else she wants to focus on at the Tech — both in terms of its staff and making sure the experiences visitors have reflect the communities the Tech wants to serve.
“If we were able to bring in more voices — more women for example, or black and brown voices — then the products and solutions to some of our toughest challenges are more likely to be successful,” she said. “It’s really important for me to make sure we’re igniting that spark in our young people so they can be part of that problem-solving down the line.”
TEACHERS OF SUBSTANCE: You can’t say too much about good teachers, and I was sad to learn about the recent loss of two that had a big impact on our community.
Charlotte Powers, who died Sept. 28 at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease for many years, swapped her career in a Cupertino classroom for a seat on the San Jose City Council in the 1990s. But she continued to be a strong voice and presence in the community for two decades after she left office.
And there’s no denying the impact that Jacqueline Wright had on her students. The former Dartmouth junior high teacher, who died Sept. 22 at age 103, engaged her eighth-grade students in American history during the 1960s and ’70s — a fairly historic time in itself. She retired as the Union School District’s Teacher of the Year in 1977, and when she turned 100 in 2017, she was again honored by the district’s staff and students at a board meeting and at a school visit.