Interview: Gerald Solomon, Founder and Executive Director of NASEF

Gerald Solomon joins us today as part of our WWSEF leadership team interviews. He was the Executive Director of the Samueli Foundation, a philanthropic non-profit that champions creativity, sustainability, and entrepreneurial vision.

Now, he serves as the Executive Director of NASEF.

Gerald shares with us his own motivations for championing STEM education, scholastic esports, and what he hopes for the future of NASEF.

You've been around STEM and STEAM for quite a long time, now advocating for it and founding a lot of organizations around STEM and schools, so the first question is why?

That's a great question. I guess my answer would be, first and foremost, it fits within the thinking and the passion and the construct of how I've always thought: How do you help kids grow and thrive? Which in turn helps communities reach their potential.

When I went to the Samueli Foundation 13 years ago, STEM was the core component of my whole life, and that of my principal, Dr. Henry Samueli, being an engineer and the founder of Broadcom. So there was a natural connection between what he [Henry Samueli] wanted, what his interest was, and what my overall thinking and interests and passions were.

So for all of NASEF, the Samueli Foundation was the underpinnings of all this. Can you tell me a little bit about the foundation and its work and what you did there?

For 12 and 1/2 years I served as the executive director overseeing all of their philanthropy around the world. A lot of our work was focused on youth development, whether it be in the health and wellness space or in the education and learning and workforce skill development space—what people often call STEM or STEAM pathways.

We funded lots of programs. My job was to implement the passion and interests of the Samuelis, which is what I did, and our first project in STEM was in 2010. Wow, that’s a long time ago (laughs). I did a project in partnership with the National Academy of Engineering to do the first National STEM symposium where we invited 154 leaders from in school out of school early learning high school workforce universities altogether for 3 1/2 days of brainstorming. Out of that came a lot of initiatives; the biggest one was the development of what we called the STEM Ecosystem Project. We built the first one in Orange County, California, and now, years later, there are 89 of them around the United States. I chaired the STEM Funders Network for seven years: brought together 22 funders all interested in STEM, and basically recreated platforms and frameworks on how students acquire the STEM skills and attributes they need, how the educational system teaches STEM through an immersive experiential learning process, and how you create this articulated pathway for a workforce to make sure that the employers locally, regionally, and nationally have a pool of candidates who have the skills that they need in order for the organizations to thrive.

I imagine that turned into the Orange County High School Esports League and then NASEF; do you want to talk about that?

So what happened was we were doing all this work. We were putting in north of $10 million into this initiative. It was unfortunately clear that we were meeting the needs of those people who saw STEM as an opportunity. But for those who didn't, who didn't know it or understand it—those that would typically be considered disenfranchised or unengaged or just kind of checked out of the educational learning environment—how do you reach them? We weren't. We were particularly not doing well reaching brown and black kids and girls. So how could we change that?

Well, it so happened that we had an opportunity because the Samuelis owned a hockey team. They were asked to look at supporting an NHL 18-19 esports team. I had to do my due diligence to give them some advice on it. I came back and said, "I have no clue what to tell you, but I think that this concept of esports and gaming is the best Trojan horse for learning I've ever seen." I told them that if you can give me a little bit of money, let me create a little club in Orange County to test it and see if we can't build out some learning and pathways where kids can connect their fun and play and passion for gaming and esports with some learning opportunities.

That's where we started with the Orange County High School Esports League: 28 schools, 35 teams, and now look where we are today.

I talked with Kevin Brown last week and he used the term chocolate broccoli for it.

It's a great term that he uses. Basically, what we do is we get kids together and we don't talk about learning. We talk about gaming. We talk about play. And they play the games, but while they're doing it they have to go ahead and build their logos, do their graphic design, build their computers, do their event management, do data analytics, do shoutcasting, and do marketing and marketing analysis. So all of this is what we call the ecosystem around esports, or all of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) and other skills that transcend the esports platform and that Boeing, Intel, Broadcom, and all the big companies around the world want from their future employees.

You mentioned a lot of various jobs right there: data analysis, IT, and graphic design. That’s esports in general. It has all of these various roles to it and that’s what makes it such a great Trojan horse. Do you think there are other hobbies/fields of interest of students that could deliver these same sorts of results?

That's possible. It takes some strategic thinking and some innovation around it. What got me involved in esports versus horseback riding or volleyball or hockey or anything else, in particular, is the magnitude of engagement of kids. When you look at the data, you see that more kids watched the League of Legends World Championship two years ago than the NFL Superbowl, the Major League Baseball playoff series, and the NBA playoff series combined. That is a resource that is so untapped and has such huge potential; there is no other venture that I know of in the world that has that type of attendance and interest base to take advantage of.

I think the other point to add to that is you look at the average viewing age for traditional U.S. sports and it's up in the 40s and then you go to esports and it's down to the 20s and that's a huge part of it.

Yeah, if you were to look at the data now it's north of 50. Those people who are buying the season tickets and are engaged as those fanatical fans, as they say, are north of 50 for football, baseball, and basketball. Basketball cuts a little younger and so does hockey, but those are smaller numbers compared to the other sports.

You take the digital native, the 12, 13, 14-year-olds, they’re playing some type of game on some type of basis every week. It may not be competitive, but it's a great entry point to begin a conversation. And we all know that the way you reach children and kids during formative ages is one, go where they are and two, speak their language.

What have you been most proud to see in the years NASEF has existed?

The impact evidenced by the research. We were fortunate enough with the generosity of the Samuelis to do a grant to Dr. Steinkuehler and her Connected Learning Lab team. They received IRB (independent review board) approval, which in research is really the gold standard. Their findings of how our NASEF scholastic approach impacts students’ uptake of characteristics attributes and skill development around math, science, technology, and social-emotional learning skills is hugely significant. 

The other is our focus on diversity. We are reaching out to the individual who never played on the football team, never played on the basketball team, wasn’t a cheerleader, and wasn't part of the so-called “in crowd” that you normally think of in the school setting. But they wanted to belong. They wanted to be affirmed, and they wanted to feel valued. So our ability to reach those disengaged, disenfranchised, unengaged—whatever terms you want to use—individuals and bring them into a space where they could foresee a future for themselves; that, to me, is the most heartwarming and gratifying of everything we've done.

Now you can represent your school! You can walk around saying, “Wow there's the guy or girl who did all of their graphic design and now has 2000 followers on Instagram.” Value every human being and give every human being an opportunity to demonstrate their own ability to make a difference and they’ll shine.

Last couple of things, what do you hope to see for NASEF in the next couple of years?

We've had a great trajectory so far. We're now in all 50 states. We have 11,000 plus students with over 1,300 clubs in schools and we’ve grown internationally and have Clubs in 11 countries thus far. We have great programs in Mexico thanks to the US State Department. We have partners in Japan, South Africa, we’re developing in Israel and France. There’s our relationship with British Esports in the UK. I think our global expansion will be significant. But what I really am looking at, especially given the challenges that the global society has faced with Covid-19, is how do we close the chasm between the haves and have nots? How do we deal with the digital divide and how do we ensure that not only our students but our educational systems are equipped to provide our students the opportunities to take advantage of the technologies that are not just here today but are being developed for tomorrow? 

As bad as Covid-19 has been, it has been one of the greatest catalysts for our work because when we built it two years ago, it was all in the virtual world. We didn't have to make a transition. We are the natural consequence or sequence of how kids can learn and grow. Basically, if people ask me the elevator pitch for what is NASEF and what is scholastic esports: scholastic esports and NASEF is nothing more than project-based learning in the virtual world.

If you think of project-based learning, it's robotics, it's science fairs, it's LEGO, it’s maker, it’s tinkering. It’s that hands-on immersive experiences, which we know kids love. We have learned how to take project-based learning and put it into a virtual world.

Yeah, I've been talking to educators and so many of the final projects for these programs are the students running an entire esports tournament. Everything from the competitors to the tournament brackets to the graphic design and more.

Yes! In the beginning, everyone laughed at us. They thought we were crazy. But really we were just way ahead at the time. Covid-19 amplified it, unfortunately, or fortunately, even more. What we’ve done is figure out the secret sauce on using the virtual platform.

That’s great. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think the only other thing that I would share about the future of NASEF and where we're going is that we built a non-profit, the entity is called the World Wide Scholastic Esports Foundation, and we did that purposely because we do want to be worldwide and have the impact on students all over the world. I'm just really proud of the board that I've been able to assemble from all facets of industry and education and gaming, and I think that they're going to be a huge piece of the success that students and communities experience. I just think it's the right partnership at the right time, doing the right work for the right reasons.