Around Piner High School, Brandon Zavala is known for wearing sharp suits. On a field trip to a local tech company, Zavala wore a suit and tie and got several of his friends to dress up, too.
As a junior, he was voted best dressed in his class, not what one might expect from a young man who aspires to be a computer programmer, a career in which suits and ties aren’t exactly the common uniform.
But the 17-year-old senior is intent on carving his own niche in the worlds of science and technology, beginning with his commitment not only to his own schoolwork but in sharing his love of his favorite subjects with area elementary students.
Zavala attends classes at Piner in the STEM program, a curriculum involving subjects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics that seeks to involve more students in those fields.
“The STEM classes are challenging, but they’re also enjoyable,” he said. “I’m fascinated with sharing, and I enjoy teaching.”
Through an outreach program called First Light, Zavala helped design a class that taught the fifth-graders basic physics . In one, students construct a “roller-coaster” from different lengths of pipe. They then send marbles along the track trying to keep them rolling through, over and around different obstacles all the way to the end.
This year, he’s been helping the STEM students and teachers develop a new program called Future STEMS, where current students develop and teach classes over the course of a whole semester in various science, math, technology and engineering disciplines.
Zavala would have liked such a program when he was younger.
“We would have the high school kids come in and teach us Spanish,” he said. “But we didn’t have anything in science or math. I think it’s a great idea to expose kids as early as possible to those subjects.”
Born and raised in Santa Rosa, Zavala got his first exposure to the sciences from his sister Jessica, who is now a nurse.
“I would always look through her textbooks,” he said. “I didn’t even really understand what I was looking at but I was definitely fascinated by them.”
His parents — Maritza, who works at Kaiser Permanente, and Luis, a UPS driver — came to Santa Rosa from Central America and Mexico.
Despite Zavala’s early interest in science, he excelled in the humanities as a youngster.
“I thought my passion was for English and I found writing came pretty easy to me,” he said. “Science and math are harder for me but I really, really love them more.”
He has begun on his own to study Apple Xcode, which is the programming language of Apple’s operating system. He hopes one day to develop his own applications. Through his outreach teaching programs, he has earned credits to Sonoma State University, one of the schools, along with UC Davis, that he is considering attending after he graduates in the spring.
When he doesn’t have his head in books, Zavala can usually be found with a camera, taking photos and videos. He’s a go-to guy at Piner as the image chronicler of school events as well as his own online video projects.
“I almost always have a camera with me,” he says. “People know me by it.”