When you think about South LA, opportunities in robotics might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But one organization, South LA Robotics, is committed to closing the technology gap for hundreds of students in and around the region.
What is South LA Robotics
When I ran across South LA Robotics a few months ago, I didn’t know what to expect. I know a bit about robotics, but I never thought much about the pathway that knowledge can create. So, I spoke with Jennifer Lashley, the founder and executive director of South LA Robotics, to learn more about the importance of building access to a program like this in the region.
Lashley, who has worked in education for over 20 years, has unmatched enthusiasm for building pathways for all students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—STEM. But the origin of South LA Robotics goes back to 2016, when Ashley served as a STEM coordinator for a school in Watts.
“Part of the reason why I started South LA Robotics is because we didn’t have this type of technology in our school, we didn’t have these options for students at the school where I was working,” Lashley said. “Every student who joins our club, one of the first questions we ask parents is, do you have an option for robotics at your school or somewhere in your community? And 99 percent of the time. The answer is definitely no,” she added. However, she and her robotic instructors are looking for ways to close that gap.
Like Lashley said, despite Los Angeles being a big city, access to supplementary STEM and coding-based programming is limited. A simple Google search reveals that West LA and its neighboring cities offer several more options for supplementary robotic courses than South LA.
Even over the past decade, schools across Los Angeles have invested more into rigorous Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum, yet the neighborhood resources to support those investments haven’t kept up at the same pace in South LA.
In the summer of 2018, Lashley experimented with the idea of expanding robotic opportunities in South LA, after building and maintaining a successful robotics course as a STEM coordinator. She started with a series of recurring community booths, pop-up courses, and a small competitive robotics team. Each of these opportunities, she said, were meant to address the technology gap in South Los Angeles and gauge the interest and necessity that a program like this could have in the region.
In the summer of 2019, with resounding support from dozens of families and students, South LA Robotics became a full-fledged nonprofit organization.
How South LA Robotics Works
South LA Robotics provides several avenues for small group robotics instruction. For starters, it hosts a weekly, in-person robotic enrichment course for homeschool students. On Saturdays, its competitive robotics teams meet in person to troubleshoot robots, exchange ideas, and perfect code for upcoming competitions. Online, South LA Robotics offers a coding course, where students can learn the basics of programming in virtual environments.
Even in her off time, you’ll find Jennifer in a teacher’s state of mind, tinkering with curriculum to ensure students are learning efficiently and effectively.
“I think there is one aspect of our curriculum that we have really worked on incorporating over the past year, and that is teaching the students about engineering concepts,” Lashley said. “So if you look at any of our lessons from all of our classes, every student is learning about the engineering design process. And they are going through the steps, if they’re building a virtual game, if they’re building a robot physically, no matter what their goal is, they’re going through the engineering design steps to reach their goal.”
Yet, one of the most impactful pathways for South LA residents are the partnerships South LA Robotics has built with community centers in Southeast and Southwest Los Angeles. Two of which are the SoLA Tech and Entrepreneurship Center, which is located at The Beehive campus near Central and Slauson, and the new Best Buy Teen Tech Center, which opened in 2022 near Slauson and Western.
At the Best Buy Teen Tech Center, program director Thai Buckman is grateful for the level of programming South LA Robotics has offered its students.
“The Best Buy Teen Center is a community organization, we actually are in South LA. And we serve as youth between the ages of 10 to 18. And we also serve young adults 18 plus,” Buckman said. “And we’re also just a space that is open to the community, open to youth and young adults to come drop in and basically find their passion.”
The Best Buy Teen Tech Center offers courses like South LA Robotics’ at no cost to the community. In return, Buckman said, the teen tech center’s partnership with South LA Robotics has led to youth discovering new pathways and interest in engineering. “So whether they’ve been exposed to it or not, they’re able to learn the basics of engineering and putting something together.”
Competitions, Reflections, and Horizons
One of the most exciting opportunities for students in South LA Robotics is the robotic competitions. Here, students build robots to solve specific problems from custom kits.
“The way we run our teams is just like a lot of our programs: small and tight knit,” Lashley said. “Each team is maybe four to five students working together. And we train our teams over a course of five or six months for each year. And then we go to a competition. And competition is a big deal for families, for communities, for most of our students is something that they’ve never experienced before.” But the most rewarding part of the process, Lashley said, is seeing the look on her students faces once they learn what is possible, and telling them, “Yes. And now we get to be a part of it.”
These competitions have expanded the horizon for students in South LA Robotics. In fact, in August of 2019, the South LA Robotics team placed in the 2019 World Educational Robot Contest U.S. Open. After that achievement, the South LA Robotics team was invited to compete in an international competition.
“So at the time, we ended up taking three of our high school students over to China in October of 2019, and had this whole cultural experience, the kids got to experience getting their passports and visas for the first time, some of them flying for the first time on a very long haul flight. But, you know, it was it was just it was the best thing ever,” Lashley said.
While the pandemic has pushed competitions virtual, the team is gearing up for its first in-person competition in 2023.
Without a doubt, Los Angeles has a long way to go to ensure all classrooms are equitable, but organizations like South LA Robotics are shrinking the gap by localizing opportunities for students to find pathways in engineering. In fact, since its inception, the organization has served over 350 students through its coding and robotics instruction courses, and is looking forward to learning new ways to expand its reach.