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.


“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.go­, 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. ••

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