Four seventh-grade boys rocked back and forth on their feet in a Dorchester gymnasium Saturday morning, rubbing their hands together as they awaited the start of a competition they had spent nearly a year preparing for.
It wasn’t a sporting event they were so anxiously anticipating. It was a science fair designed to provide hands-on robotics experience for youth from communities of color — young people who otherwise might not have access to robotics.
“You get anxious to see where it’s going because you don’t know if you’re going to make it,” said 13-year-old Taylor Garcia, a member of the four-person team who worked together on Thursday afternoons with their science teacher to build their robot “Robosquad.” The robots had to maneuver around obstacles on a table and push wooden blocks into color-coded areas, as spectators took selfies and videos.
On Saturday, the Kroc Corps Community Center hosted the fourth annual Robotics Competition and Family Science Fair, organized by the Boston-based Latino STEM Alliance. The science, technology, engineering, and mathematics event focuses on middle schoolers with the goal of expanding the program to include kindergarten through 12th grade.
Hands-on engineering education is basically nonexistent for youth from communities of color, Latino STEM Alliance cofounder Reinier Moquete said.
“The research clearly shows that if you want to get kids excited about science, it’s gotta be hands-on,” which requires expensive equipment and trained instructors, Moquete said.
It’s also critical that minority youth have STEM mentors who are minorities themselves, he said.
“It’s not a guy who looks like Albert Einstein that you can’t relate to,” he said. “It’s a guy who looks just like you, who enjoys the same kinds of the things that you do, who has the same cultural affinities that you do, that eats mangú and dances merengue.”
Despite being the managing partner and chief executive of Advoqt Technology Group, an IT consulting firm in Cambridge that works with Fortune 1000 companies on cybersecurity and cloud computing, Moquete was not involved in the sciences during his own youth.
Away from the festivities, Moquete, now 37 with three children, pulled down the collar on his orange shirt to show a thick scar several inches long, running along the back of his neck.
It was a razor wound from a gang fight back when he lived in New York City, he said — back when he thought he would probably only live a few more months.
But after his near-death experience and at the urging of his family, Moquete got on a bus in 1999 with a one-way ticket to Boston, where his mother’s cousin was gave him a place to sleep for a month. He “stumbled” into the technology field only after he arrived, completing associate degrees in finance and business at Bunker Hill Community College and then a bachelor’s degree in telecommunications at Pace University.
“You’re in a position where you can make hundreds of thousands of dollars and be able to have that for your family and not be having to worry that somebody’s looking to kill you,” he said. “And guess what? This is going to be half the work, twice the reward.”
Especially for cybersecurity, there aren’t enough workers to meet demand, Moquete said.
Therefore, corporations should back this untapped market of young talent from communities of color by providing equipment and trained professionals to underfunded schools as an investment in the supply of tech workers, he said.
“If you look at most of the activities happening in corporate America related to these types of programs, they’re ‘corporate and social responsibility,’ ” Moquete said. “I think it is ridiculous to consider this a CSR issue. It’s a supply chain problem.”
Garcia and his 13-year-old friend Nelfie Morales, both in the seventh grade at Martin Luther King Jr. K-8 School, became involved with robotics for last year’s competition at the urging of their science teacher, Peter Kovach.
Their passion for robotics comes from “the thrill of it,” Garcia said.
“There is this hyped element that you usually only find in sports,” said Kovach, 32, who has been teaching science at the school in grades six through eight for the past three years. “The whole idea of competing for points and going up against other teams in a live competition — it’s so attractive to them.”
Garcia and Morales’s team didn’t win Saturday’s competition, but the four boys are hoping to continue learning about robotics going forward and into high school. The Latino STEM Alliance hopes to expand robotics programs in schools accordingly.
Middle school is the ideal age range to expose youth to science, Moquete said, reiterating that the schools need the help of corporate America just like corporate America needs these kids.
“This is where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “Anything else is just talk.”
Nicole Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.