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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

Inspired at Overfelt

By Gary Singh

SINCE I couldn't remember the last time I navigated the suburban topography of Overfelt High School in east San Jose, the time was right for some exploration of that school's busy sidewalks—holiday style. Last month, for the seventh year in a row, the folks at NVIDIA—the Santa Clara–based visual computing overlords—decided to do forego their annual company holiday party and commit themselves to a knock-down, drag-out community service effort called Project Inspire. One thousand employees, along with students, friends and family, volunteered and made their way out to Cunningham Avenue for the shindig on Dec. 13. They repainted blacktop markings, created three murals, installed multimedia labs, rebuilt a greenhouse and relandscaped significant parts of the school. Decrepit basketball backboards were touched up. Seventy-five computers were donated. Wheelbarrows full of sand were hauled in for a brand new volleyball court. So, you had employees usually known for designing fast N-body simulations with CUDA™ technology out there on their hands and knees painting the half courts. Last year, NVIDIA did their thing at East Palo Alto Charter School, but this time the students actually joined in the process.

"This is the first year we've worked side-by-side with high school kids, which was especially satisfying as we had an opportunity to teach them how to create change in their communities," said Tonie Hansen, director of the NVIDIA Foundation.

Hansen, along with Overfelt Principal Vito Chiala, escorted me through the newly revamped campus to see the results firsthand. What used to be a hideous faded-peach-colored monstrosity is now a vibrant mural featuring multiethnic dancers and a wailing Bob Marley doing his thing in concert. Overfelt students, along with folks from the Mural, Music & Arts Project, designed the mural, while everyone involved helped paint the thing. Two of the artists, still in the process of applying the final touches, stood on ladders above us, as we breezed by. All didn't go well at the start, they said, as during the initial stages, some nefarious types were attacking the wall with graffiti as soon as the initial layer of white primer went up. But once the preliminary silhouettes of Marley et al. emerged, nada.

"As soon as we started painting it, and they saw what it was going to be, they stopped tagging it," one of the artists said, brush in hand.

Next, we infiltrated the school library to gush over some of the computer labs, and as soon as we crossed the threshold, gray-haired librarian Sandy Swirsky appeared from nowhere—like John Madden busting through the paper wall in those old Lite Beer commercials—and pilloried us with detailed rapid-fire complaints about malfunctioning computer networks in the library and the lack of adequate power for some of the machines. But that's another story.

Outside on the playground, we glided our way along the back wall facing the baseball fields, with Ocala Street in the background. What used to be an unsightly faded olive green eyesore has now been rechristened with the Overfelt logo and nickname, the Royals, in illustrious shades of blue, complete with a quote from Malcolm X: "The future belongs to those who prepare for it today."

At least 1,000 exist from this project. They can be viewed on photographer Chris Pedersen's website ( Especially eye-popping are the photo-ops of NVIDIA head honcho Jen-Hsun Huang, along with San Jo's Mayor Chuck Reed, both with brushes, adding their own shades of blue to the back wall. There's nothing like the CEO of NVIDIA—the world leader in visual computing technologies—decked out in a Windows Vista™ jacket and painting the tattered walls of an east San Jose high school, with the mayor of San Jose right beside him. Now that's true collaboration between the public and private sectors, dag nabbit. I just hope those computers in the library get fixed. Support your high school librarian!

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