Q&A Series: Bringing the Community Together with STEM

By Lisa Crewe | Posted on April 24, 2018

Discussion with Acacia’s Chief Human Resources Officer Renee Pianka

Renee Pianka
As part of our ongoing Q&A series we connected with Acacia Communications’ Chief Human Resources Officer Renee Pianka to discuss the Acacia Foundation and its activities with the Maynard Education Foundation (MEF).

Q: Tell us about your background with Acacia and what drew you to the company.

A: In 2015, I joined Acacia Communications as its Chief Human Resources Officer. I brought with me more than 20 years of experience in HR and most recently had held the position of vice president of human resources for the global services division of EMC Corporation. During that time I realized my passion for aligning the people programs to the business strategy and that I wanted the opportunity to help lay the foundation for a company’s HR department. To build it from the ground up. When I arrived at Acacia, there was a small HR team primarily focused on managing benefits and administration. Over the past few years, in addition to establishing best practices for the HR department, I have worked with the team to launch the Acacia Foundation that focuses on STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) public education efforts as well as supporting our employees’ commitment to causes that are important to them.

Q: Tell us about the Acacia Foundation.

A: Given that we are a technology company we thought it was important to lay the foundation through which the company can partner with local non-profit organizations to provide STEM-related scholarships and grants to students attending public schools (from grade school to high school). We wanted it to be a program that would tie into the future of the tech industry. We understand the importance of getting kids involved in STEM initiatives, especially girls, who by middle school are traditionally discouraged from taking math and science classes. The connection to what we do as a company was obvious.

The Acacia Foundation partners with local non-profit organizations, like the Maynard Education Foundation. It also supports the contributions of its employees who make monetary charitable donations and provides paid time off of one day per year for employees who wish to donate their time.

Q: Tell us about the recent activities the Acacia Foundation has been involved in.

A: Over the past several years, we’ve provided grants and sponsorships that support STEM activities. Our grant highlights include:

Grant for VEX IQ Robotics Super Kits

We awarded Mark Sinopoli, a computer science teacher at the Fowler School in Maynard, a grant for 12 VEX IQ Robotics Super Kits. The VEX IQ system is a way to teach block-based coding to write computer programs. At each grade level (fourth through eighth), students can use their existing coding knowledge to write programs to operate the robot. As the students gain experience with the system, they will learn more about the programming aspects of the kits. The computer science students are introduced to the fundamentals of using the kits – first by building a stick figure named “Sammy” to help them become familiar with putting the pieces together. Eighth grade students are using joystick controllers to design and operate “base vehicles.” Students will later have the opportunity to program the vehicle to compare accuracy with hand steering.

The robotics kits are generating excitement in the classroom! Unlike a robotics club with a limited number of students, Acacia’s generous sponsorship has given students in grades four through eight an opportunity to use the Robotics Super Kits. According to Mr. Sinopoli, “Seeing the high interest level and successful participation from students makes me believe that all students should have the opportunity to program and work with robots.”

Grant for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math) Kits


Through the Maynard Education Foundation we also awarded Nate Thomas, a teacher at Green Meadow School, a grant for STEAM kits for his third grade class. For the past two years, Mr. Thomas has been using code.org to teach his students about coding and computer programing. He was looking for new ways to foster excitement about STEAM when he learned about Ozobot Evo Robots and littleBits Droids at the MassCUE Conference this past fall. “I am a firm believer that students do not learn to their full potential if they are not invested in their work and if they are not enjoying their learning,” said Thomas.

Thomas selected the products because they are aligned with the third grade math and science curriculum. In addition, students work on the kits in small groups, thus promoting collaboration, problem solving, and inventing.

The students are excited to experiment with the new materials and are currently using colored markers to program Ozobot Evo to move in a variety of ways. The class also worked together to assemble a littleBits droid, which they drive using a Bluetooth device.

Thomas hopes that using these materials on a regular basis will promote an interest in technology and an eagerness in learning more about programming, coding, and computers.

We love to hear about the impact our activities are having on the students. We look forward to sponsoring more grants and events in 2018.