Robotics program opens doors for underserved students

The STEM course captures the imagination—and dreams—of teens in Oxnard, California.

By Jackie Gutierrez-Jones | Photography by Ilana Panich-Linsman

Zaide Pasion, 17, holds a Sphero BOLT Coding Robot.

“Hold on, let me show you something,” says Dr. Maria Elena Cruz. A small sphere encased in clear plastic comes into view, revealing whirring gears, sensors and a glowing LED matrix inside. “This was the inspiration behind our summer program.”

In early 2021, Cruz stumbled upon Nucleus Robotics’ Sphero BOLT Coding Robot. The Sphero BOLT is a robotic ball that can be programmed using codes developed through drawings, Scratch blocks (puzzle-piece shapes used to create code) or by writing JavaScript text with Sphero Edu, an application that teaches users how to code the Sphero robot. That was when the idea for a summer robotics program at Oxnard blossomed.

As one of five siblings growing up in Texas, Cruz’s Mexican heritage inspired her to pursue Chicano studies in college, where she found a passion not only for Chicano culture but also for teaching. After volunteering with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) for 35 years, she found an opportunity to work with the agricultural community as the director of LULAC National Educational Service Centers (LNESC) Oxnard in California. There, she prepares low-income Latino youth for higher education and career success through a variety of educational classes, development courses, and career and networking opportunities.

The program is both incredibly important and deeply personal to Cruz.

Bringing STEM to Oxnard students

Oxnard is a seaside town about 60 miles west of Los Angeles that’s in close proximity to several large migrant communities. Many of the students who attend school in the area go home to caregivers who may not speak English or who may not be home due to hours spent working in the neighboring agricultural fields.

“This is an opportunity for their children to go in a different direction. A lot of times, kids want to succeed so that they can take care of their families. And that’s a load in the Latino culture,” adds Cruz. “With these kids, you find that motivation. We just have to guide them. We have to be able to let them know that there are opportunities out there that they may not even know of.”

Students learn about coding basics, coding blocks and writing JavaScript.

The six-week summer robotics program—which launched in June 2021—came at no cost for its 10 participants, thanks to funding from government grants. Each participant was sent a Dell computer and a Sphero ball prior to the start of the program and was asked to meet remotely four times a week for a little over an hour.

Zaide Pasion, 17, and Emanuel Valdivieso, 15, both local high school students, enrolled in LNESC Oxnard’s summer robotics program in 2021. Each student discovered the program through the Upward Bound Channel Island (UBCI) website and email updates. UBCI is a pre-college preparatory program administered by LNESC Oxnard and funded by the U.S. Department of Education. “I’ve always been interested in STEM and anything that relates to coding and engineering,” says Pasion. “As a girl, I think this was a very good opportunity. The robots were given to us, so everyone had the same resources. I felt there was nothing to lose if I joined.”

Throughout the program, the students learned about coding basics, coding blocks and writing JavaScript. At the end, students were asked to program their Sphero ball to deliver a “pizza” from their school to Cruz’s home. Several students took the opportunity to get a bit creative with their programming and even coded an image of a pizza to appear on the ball’s LED matrix. But, most of all, the project came with important lessons.

I’ve always been interested in STEM and anything that relates to coding and engineering. As a girl, I think this was a very good opportunity. The robots were given to us, so everyone had the same resources. I felt there was nothing to lose if I joined.

—Zaide Pasion, student enrolled in LNESC Oxnard’s summer program in 2021

“We found out that there are different ways to get to the right answer—there’s not one definite answer. Also, it helped me build confidence,” says Pasion. “If others don’t have my answer, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It could also be the right answer, just a different answer. I’ll definitely be applying that every day.”

“It also helped me learn how to listen for other ideas,” adds Valdivieso.

A bright future

“If you have a great mentality where you say you can do it, anything is possible,” says Emanuel  Valdivieso, 15.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, Hispanic people accounted for nearly one in five people in the U.S. in 2020 (19%), up from 16% in 2010 and just 5% in 1970. They’ve become the largest racial or ethnic group in California and are projected to make up 28% of the U.S. population by 2060, a percentage that will be impossible to ignore. Cruz feels the growing Latino population presents an opportunity for tech companies to source new talent. Meanwhile, she believes it’s essential to offer Latino students the chance to continue their STEM studies throughout their schooling.

“The opportunity is there. The jobs will be there. We—teachers and folks like me—need to find a way so that they have the opportunity to be involved as well. Because these are kids that are low income, and schools are struggling just to teach them core subjects,” says Cruz. “The community needs to come together with the school, which is part of what we do at LNESC Oxnard, so that we’re able to prepare these students for the jobs of the future.”

Pasion and Valdivieso also noted some of the challenges in finding a STEM curriculum during the school year. Both expressed a desire to see more robotics and coding classes at their school and hope to recruit their friends to experience the different programs at LNESC Oxnard, which will again include robotics in its summer 2022 lineup.

“I would definitely encourage them to go to the program. It’s not difficult—it’s just your mentality,” says Valdivieso. “If you have a great mentality where you say you can do it, then anything is possible.”

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