In the apartment building behind the First Presbyterian Church of Inglewood, a group of elementary schoolers are gawking at round robots on wheels. At the same time, a trio of middle schoolers, the oldest kids present, are tinkering with a white car-like droid and a long track of black tape on a board. All the while, an energetic woman oversees them, offering help and critiques throughout the morning.
This is the South L.A. Robotics Club, a technology education group for students in South Los Angeles. Jennifer Lashley founded the club last summer for students whose schools could not afford a robotics program.
In the beginning of August, the group’s three oldest members won the 2019 World Educational Robot Contest U.S. Open, which will continue at the next level in China, something members said could not have been done through their schools’ regular curriculum. To fund the trip, Lashley set up a GoFundMe page, which has received $300 more than its initial $7,000 goal.
Donald Beatty, Erick Arias and Edgar Elias — the three competition winners — said that both they and their parents jumped at the chance to participate as soon as the club officially opened last summer.
“Our counselor called our parents about this program and they signed us up,” Elias said.
Beatty, 13, said he and his family were members of the First Presbyterian Church, which led him to meet with Elias, 12, and Arias, 13.
“I started in this facility working with a program called Scratch and I really enjoyed it,” Beatty said. “And then afterward I had [my reverend] introduce me to Ms. [Lashley] and she wanted me to participate in this.”
All three said they were interested in robotics but could not explore that interest due to the lack of resources and connections at their respective middle schools. All three said they now hope to build the skills they have developed into careers in engineering and programming.
“I want to be a video game programmer,” Arias said. “The thing about robotics is that you program a computer into what you want it to do. Robotics are my backup plan. They are similar.”
Juan Arias, Erick’s father, said he is especially proud of his son. He and his wife sell plastic containers as a career.
“I’m speechless,” his father said. “This is an opportunity I didn’t have growing up and I am so proud of him actually doing it all by himself. It is really joyful.”
Lashley was a teacher for 13 years before she started running the club full time this summer. She cited a lack of robotics programs in South L.A. schools as a reason for creating the program.
“While I was in the classroom, I had lots of talented, gifted students who were capable of so many things, but they did not have direct access because it wasn’t offered or available,” Lashley said.
She applied for grants and purchased equipment, like iPads and beginner robot models, to instruct the 25 students enrolled so far. Since the club is still new, Lashley said she pushes her students to participate in as many local events and competitions as possible in order to build the group’s reputation. She said this is what helped the group’s GoFundMe page succeed.
The club meets every Saturday and aims to educate children by exposing them to opportunities in STEM. Lashley and her two instructors give students small robots to experiment with and they build codes for them to follow specific commands. For each robot rolling around, there is a happy child marveling at its success.
She said she is proud of the work she’s done so far, addressing a problem she’s seen throughout her career.
“Teaching in Watts, I know there are families who want the best for their kids, no different from those in more affluent areas,” Lashley said. “I saw that but I also saw that the resources weren’t there.”
Ravi Mazin, one of the club’s instructors, worked with Lashley back when she was a teacher and she brought him onboard to help the younger kids code and teach the older kids how to compete. For him, this club is his way of helping the community.
“I went to underfunded schools as a child,” Mazin said. “For me, never having this and being able to offer it means a lot to me. It’s my way of giving back to the community.”
Looking forward, South LA Robotics is focused on building a larger network and expanding to allow more enrollments. Lashley said she wants to make the club available to everyone, even bringing up the possibility of video-streaming club meetings so that absent members can participate. The recent profile boost the club has received from media outlets, such as KTLA and Univision, has been a boon for them, she said.
“One of my first goals is to expand,” Lashley said. “I would like to see 10 of [these] clubs all over South L.A., in case kids can’t make it all the way to Inglewood.”