Celso Batalha gets low-income San Jose students excited about science
Evergreen Valley College Professor Celso Batalha takes a look at the telescope at the campus observatory on Tuesday. Photo by Carina Woudenberg

When he’s not instructing students at Evergreen Valley College, physics and astronomy professor Celso Batalha is working with a much younger set — teaching children as young as elementary school-aged that no matter what their background, they, too, can reach for the stars.

Batalha came to the Evergreen campus in 2003 just as the San Jose community college opened its observatory. The professor hails from Brazil, where he worked as a professional astronomer. He moved to this country to better accommodate his wife, and well-known astronomer, Natalie Batalha, who was working in the United States.

Once at Evergreen, Batalha was full of ideas. One was getting his students involved with research. Research projects outside of course curricula are typically unheard of at the community college level, but the professor managed to recruit a few students. He noted, however, that the students who did take an interest were not the type that truly needed him or the college to succeed.

Batalha was interested in tapping into a population not often seen in science, technology, engineering and math classes. In particular, he wanted to bring a STEM-based education to the African-American and Latino populations who, he says, represent only a respective 6 and 7 percent of the total population earning PhDs in physics and astronomy in this country.

Batalha said lower-income students need to be introduced to the sciences at a younger age in order to be comfortable with the concepts.

“(Students) think science is too hard, and physics has a math language they can’t control,” Batalha said. “There are more immediate, urgent needs in the family, and the kids are not aware of the opportunities out there.”

From there, a new program was born.

In 2018, with the help of community activist Daniel Reyes, Batalha was able to recruit eight low-income students from San Jose schools and secure enough funding to provide each of the students with a $500 scholarship. Now, at the end of his second year, Batalha is up to 18 students who are divided over three courses.

The weekly classes run online to help accommodate the different schedules and locations of its participants. In a pre-COVID-19 world, the students and their families also got together once a month with the instructors for pizza and to discuss projects. With more funding, Batalha says he would love to take the students on field trips.

Batalha has help teaching the classes in the program. The professor’s adult daughter, Natasha Batalha, and her fiance, Adam Raveret, teach a section on coding, and former Evergreen student and UC Santa Cruz graduate Andres Duarte teaches a course on astrophotography, a discipline devoted to photographic images of celestial bodies. Duarte makes use of a NASA program that allows the user to take pictures of different celestial bodies and manipulate the images to highlight the object’s features.

Batalha is teaching the elementary school students about the different phases of the moon.

The $500 scholarship is awarded at the end of the year in exchange for 80 percent attendance. The money is devoted to the students’ education.

“Some of (the students) haven’t seen that much money yet,” Batalha said. “It’s a good thing. And they get motivated and (so do) their parents. The engagement of the parents is remarkable.”

Batalha is eager to see the program grow. The ultimate goal is to create a pipeline beginning in elementary school and ending at the community college. The professor says they need to raise $1 million over a five-year period to provide up to $10,000 scholarships to low-income, first-generation students. The goal is to graduate and transfer 34 students over this period.

In the meantime, the program needs to raise $100,000 this year for next year’s scholarships and to hire a fundraiser and a data analyst. Batalha says he hopes to see the program grow to incorporate 70 children in the K-12 program.

Herbert Hoover Middle School student Emmanuel Lopez, who has been with the program since it began in 2018, says he has really enjoyed learning a more specialized science. The 13-year-old wants to study engineering in college and says he is fortunate to have the opportunity to study something outside the realm of his regular education.

“When I got home, I could also study more about advanced science and astronomy,” Lopez said. “I can learn about different stuff that I have not learned before.”

Antoinette Herrera, dean of math, science and engineering at Evergreen, describes Batalha as a dynamic teacher who likes to collaborate with other faculty and is always putting students first.

“He is constantly looking for opportunities for students to be supported,” Herrera said. “His support for the students has been one of the most dedicated I’ve seen in our team at the college.”

Donations to the program can be made by going here and selecting “EVC, Astronomy, Physics, Earth Science Departments” in the drop down menu under “Designation.” The kindergarten through 12th grade segment, which is known as the EVC – Citizen Science Initiatives, is in the process of recruiting 10 to 20 students for its third year.  Interested parents or kids can email Batalha at [email protected].

Contact Carina Woudenberg at [email protected] or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

This story has been updated to include information on where to donate to the program and how to sign up. 

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