By David Kligman
OAKLAND — Students at an East Oakland charter school cheered today (May 21) during a surprise announcement that one of their teachers is PG&E’s Bright Ideas Inspirational Teacher of the Year.
Aaron Vanderwerff, known to his students as “Mr. V,” is the fifth teacher to win the honor. He was selected from teachers at 64 schools that received a Bright Ideas grant from the utility this past year. PG&E’s Wendy Fukamaki revealed the big news during Vanderwerff’s robotics class for 11th and 12th graders at Lighthouse Community Charter School.
Eleventh graders Flavio Martinez and Bricia Calderon designed a “party shirt” and “magical tutu” with lights that blink based on noises and motion. Senior Katia Castaneda created a walking cane for the blind that senses objects and calls out warnings. Her invention was so impressive that she received several offers at the Maker Faire to help her develop the product.
“I was pretty amazed because many people were really impressed with my project,” Castenada said. “I got five business cards from people who want to manufacture my product, so I was really proud of what I did.”
Their projects also include a solar-powered scooter and an old Ford truck that students are converting from a gas-powered engine to one that’s battery powered.
The school’s development manager credited Vanderwerff with inspiring his students. She said he couldn’t be more deserving of the PG&E award.
“We’re not at all surprised that Mr. V won the award,” Kim said. “We’re really proud of him and it’s a long time coming. He has dedicated so many years to making at Lighthouse. That kind of showcasing of our work in a public way really shows that there’s value to making and there’s value to science, technology, engineering, arts and math.”
Perhaps the biggest prize will happen June 22 when Vanderwerff will be honored at a San Francisco Giants game. About 40 students will attend and get a behind-the-scenes tour of AT&T Park.
The robotics and chemistry teacher said PG&E’s $10,000 grant helped spur his students’ creativity. He’s thrilled for the recognition but added that his students are the real winners.
“I hope that my students gain some independence,” Vanderwerff said. “I hope that they see that their own interests and passions are important. The big thing is really giving them confidence to do what they want to do.”
The Bright Ideas program began in 2005 to help public schools better understand the energy industry.
The thinking is that the award will inspire other teachers throughout PG&E’s territory.
Email David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.