Northeast alum donates computers to SPARC program

A Northeast High alum has donated computers and other equipment to the school’s Space Research Center, and, meanwhile, fundraising to keep the decades-old after-school science program going are continuing.

Gary Rosenzweig, class of 1987, donated eight new PCs and video equipment to the Space Research Center in the Medical, Engineering and Aerospace Magnet School that’s inside NEHS.

SPARC, which has been sending virtual missions to space since the 1960s, was cut earlier this year when funds for it dried up along with money for all extracurricular activities other than sports. An online “Save SPARC” fundraising push by members of the class of 1977 brought in almost $10,000 in a matter of days, and more money has since been chipped in, according to former SPARC astronaut Burton Dicht, ’77.

So, it looks like SPARC’s students will be going back into space for their annual spring overnight mission. When exactly that will be isn’t certain yet, said student Jeremy Cruz, who said Sunday that the students are getting everything ready. The mission might be in late May, he said. All good news, but the money problems aren’t over, Dicht said in a Feb. 19 phone interview. Alumni are working to keep fundraising going, and a special NEHS Alumni Association SPARC account has been set up to funnel bucks to the program, he said.

Even before school money for SPARC stopped this year, funds were dwindling, Rosenzweig stated in a Feb. 19 email to the Northeast Times. He said he heard SPARC’s computer group was using old PCs, so he decided to provide some new gear.

Rosenzweig said he heard about the SPARC shutdown in December when friends had posted links and articles on Facebook. He was stunned.

“I couldn’t believe the Philadelphia school district would so easily abandon what should be the crown jewel of [the] system,” he stated.

SPARC has a mockup of the space shuttle, an authentic, if dated, mission control and a real Apollo space capsule. Students plan and man virtual space flights in the fall and spring.

“We’d prepare for months, but something would always need fixing or adjusting with minutes to go, or in the middle of the night,” he said. “It was great training for the real world — working in teams, launching products.”

That students control SPARC activities, he said, is what people don’t realize.

“There are no teachers, coaches or camp counselors with instruction sheets or schedules,” he said. “The students do it. It is not often as a teenager that you are told you are in charge of something, that you are responsible for making things happen. And we would teach each other. We would show each other how to program, to create electronic circuits, to monitor health data, to use construction tools, to plan and manage. I can’t think of another educational experience that would compare to SPARC.”

The years in the program, he said, gave him a jump start on thinking like an entrepreneur, on managing a team and developing products. He said working with SPARC computers put him on the career path as a computer programmer. Instead of getting class assignments, he added, he was free to create programs for SPARC missions.

“I then went on to get a computer science degree, and, to this day, I spend most of my time programming to create mobile apps,” he said.

That’s why he can’t understand the school district not coming up with the money to keep SPARC going.

“Our schools need to be cultivating the next generation of thinkers and leaders,” he said. “A high school student’s goal should not be just to finish high school.”

Instead, students should be thinking about getting as much out of the experience that they can while building a foundation for their careers.

“When I heard SPARC was closing, I instantly thought of all the future engineers, scientists and leaders that would fail to reach their potentials because they wouldn’t get to be in SPARC,” Rosenzweig said.

PULLING IN DOLLARS

“Right now, technology startups and startup culture are driving forces in the business world,” he said. “SPARC worked like a startup, even back in the 1980s. Creative minds would get together, come up with ideas, and work to make them happen.”

What’s starting up now, Dicht said, is a formation of a plan to keep SPARC going year after year in the absence of school funding.

Alums, students and school administrators met at the NEHS alumni office to discuss ideas on Feb. 18, Dicht said in a Feb. 19 phone interview.

He said they are setting up a NEHS Project SPARC boosters club whose activities will be governed by an advisory board of the students, alumni, school staff and community members. Right now, participants are discussing what that governing body would look like and how it would operate under the alumni association’s nonprofit status.

“We need to give it structure and we need to abide by all government regulations,” he said, “to keep out of trouble with the IRS.”

Dicht said it’s yet to be settled who will be on the board and how they will be selected.

“We discussed having 12 members who would guide and govern the boosters,” he said.

The next meeting will be March 18 in the alumni office inside the school building, Dicht said.

He said some of the $17,000 or so raised so far is being used to put in a new floor and do some rewiring for SPARC.

Other than the online fundraising, which amounted to more than $12,000, Dicht said another $5,200 was donated directly to the alumni association.

He said web fundraising will continue at www.gofundme.com/5vw6bo, but checks made payable to the “NEHS Alumni Association Foundation” can be sent to:

Joan Scheidecker,

NEHS Alumni Association

1601 Cottman Ave.,

Philadelphia, PA 19111.

Contributors should write, “Project SPARC Fund” in their checks’ memo fields.

Dicht reiterated that there is now a separate account set up for SPARC contributions. ••