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Planting The Seeds of Interest

Planting The Seeds of Interest
Northwest Vista College’s robotics program preps children for science careers.

By Angela Timmons

Luciano Torres watched in amazement as the group of 12-year-olds, clutching backpacks and wearing matching T-shirts, built robots that they could command with their voices.

“I come from a family where almost nobody graduated,” says Torres, a second-generation Mexican-American whose daughter, Abigail, was among the children. “I’m just real happy she’s getting
this opportunity.”

Hispanics have long been under-represented in the science fields, comprising less than 2 percent of the computer science doctorates awarded nationwide in 2003. But a pilot program at San Antonio’s Northwest Vista College is trying to change that by introducing Hispanic students to science and technology at a young age. NVC hopes to convince lawmakers and business leaders that the economic future of San Antonio depends on turning the children of immigrants into a highly skilled work force.

This past summer, the college teamed up with businesses, a local school and entrepreneur Jim Brazell to create SpaceTEAMS, an innovative robotics program designed to provide science training to 100 low-income, female and minority children. The goal is to plant the seeds of interest and confidence that, years down the road, may translate
into professions in science, technology, engineering and math.

City leaders are eager to promote San Antonio’s image as a city on the rise, but there are still pockets of disadvantage, especially among Hispanics. In the nearby suburb of Edgewood, home to many of the children participating in SpaceTEAMS, only 39 percent of eighth-graders met state science standards this year. Only 55 percent met state math standards.

It’s areas like Edgewood where Brazell sees the interests of political leaders, business leaders and schools coming together.

“Kids want to learn, regardless of socioeconomic status,” he says. “The biggest discussion between low-income people … is that, for many, education is not accessible. San Antonio is trying to build the
human platform.”

In the fall of 2005, Brazell was hired as a degree program consultant at NVC. Recognizing a gap between industry’s needs and educational training, he came up with the idea for SpaceTEAMS.

The college helped the Edgewood Independent School District find grant money to fund four teams of six middle-school students. Brazell brought in mentors from the U.S. Air Force Intelligence Agency to help teachers and students learn how to program and engineer robots. The teams also traveled to Houston for a regional “Botball” competition and the college hosted a day at the Challenger Center Mission to Mars
flight simulator.

In March of 2006, the group behind SpaceTEAMS presented their summer program idea to the San Antonio City Council, which approved not only its concept and design, but also $90,000 to fund a camp for 100 students and 25 teachers.

The program received about 175 applicants, with finalists selected on a range of criteria, says Colleen Smith Arrey, director of alternative programs at NVC.

Dr. Charles Winton, a professor of computer science at the University of North Florida and one of several scientists imported for the camp, says he has never seen anything quite like SpaceTEAMS, especially considering how far some of the students had to come in terms of scientific knowledge, vocabulary and application.

“I think all in all, they’ve come an amazing distance in a very short time,” Winston says. “They’ve succeeded in doing things I’ve seen college students have difficulty achieving.”

Now, Brazell is planning the next phase of the program: applying for grants he hopes will take SpaceTEAMS through 2030. 

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