Robotics program opens doors for first-generation college students

Dr. Maria Elena Cruz's pilot exposes underserved teenagers in Oxnard, California, to the world of STEM.

By Jackie Gutierrez Jones

“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.”

Earlier this year, Dr. Cruz stumbled upon Nucleus Robotics’ Sphero BOLT Coding Robot. The robotic ball 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.

A lot of times, these children want to succeed so that they can take care of their families. And that’s a load in the Latino culture. We have to be able to let them know that there are opportunities out there that they may not even know of.

—Dr. Maria Elena Cruz, director of LNESC Oxnard

As one of five siblings growing up in Texas, Dr. Cruz’s Mexican heritage inspired her to pursue Chicano studies in college, where she found a passion for not only the Chicano culture but 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 Dr. Cruz.

Bringing STEM to underserved 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.

“Programs like these are an opportunity for their children to go in a different direction,” says Dr. Cruz. “A lot of times, these children want to succeed so that they can take care of their families. And that’s a load in the Latino culture. 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.”

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, high school student

The inaugural six-week summer robotics program came at no cost for its 10 participants thanks to funding from government grants. Each participant was sent a Dell Technologies computer and a Nucleus robotics 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, a junior at a local high school, and Emanuel Valdivieso, a freshman, both enrolled in LNESC Oxnard’s robotics program. 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.”

It also helped me learn how to listen for other ideas.

—Emanuel  Valdivieso, high school student

Throughout the program, the students learned about coding basics, coding blocks and writing JavaScript. At the end, students were asked to program their Sphere to deliver a pizza from their school to Dr. 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.

“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

According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanic people account 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 population by 2060, a fact that resonates with Dr. Cruz. She feels the growing Latino population presents an opportunity for these students’ future—especially in tech. But the key, in her opinion, is to offer Latino students the chance to continue their STEM throughout their education.

“The opportunity is there,” she says. “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 there are kids that are low income, and schools are struggling just to teach them core subjects. The community needs to come together with the school, which is what we [LNESC Oxnard] do, so that we’re able to prepare them for those jobs for the future, because those jobs for the future are here already.”

As for the students, both Pasion and Valdivieso also noted some of the challenges in finding STEM curriculum during the school year. Both expressed a desire to see more robotics and coding classes offered at their school, and they hope to recruit their friends to experience the different programs LNESC Oxnard offers.

“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.”

Photo by MD Duran/Unsplash