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Minority Middle School Boys Showcase Tech Savvy at STEM Camp

Jul 29, 2018

More than 80 minority middle school boys from 24 area schools immersed themselves in the digital world for three weeks as part of the Verizon Innovative Learning program at New Mexico State University.

Verizon awarded NMSU with a 2-year, $300,000 grant to host the free summer camps and continues into the academic year with monthly workshops. The company launched the program in 2015 to encourage more minority boys to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math and runs a similar program for rural middle school girls.

13-year-old Matthew Montalvo is heading into eighth grade at Picacho Middle School. Montalvo said he was first introduced to STEM education as a second grader through his elementary school’s LEGO robotics program. He said he’s continued taking math and engineering classes ever since and plans to make it his career.

“I want to be a structural engineer and I want to work my way up to an architect. I like working with historic buildings and stuff and I’m a big history geek. So, a structural engineer I think would be good for me,” Montalvo said.

Nationwide, 24 historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving schools took part in the program this year. Students learn programming skills and gain experience with virtual and augmented reality, robotics and 3D printing.

The boys are tasked with developing “smart cities” to solve everyday problems. They work in teams to build dioramas and use Tinkercad, a 3D modeling and printing software program to make their designs reality.

“I picked the park because I love going to the park, I like going outdoors and I find that parks are a lot of times dirty, messy. You know, there’s people there that are trashing it or not friendly at all and I’ve developed a robot that will clean up the trash and it kind of acts like a security guard,” Montalvo said.

Camino Real Middle School eighth grader Irak Rodriguez said a computer applications class he took in sixth grade ignited his passion for learning about STEM. His group’s smart city idea focused on ways to make cleanup easier in restaurants. Rodriguez said the knowledge he’s gained in camp has opened a whole new world for him.

“I’ve learned about like the whole process of how people make designs and the prototypes, the ideas and all that because we’ve made like two big design projects and I’ve enjoyed them,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve also learned more about the VR world, the designing and the 3D printing and the whole process of that.

Irak Rodriguez, an eighth grade student at Camino Real Middle School, plays with virtual reality at New Mexico State University's STEM Outreach Center.
Credit Michael Hernandez

NMSU graduate and undergraduate students as well as local middle school teachers help guide the boys with their creations. Hector Rodriguez, an NMSU computer science senior, said the students can sometimes get discouraged when they run into problems operating technology, but he encourages them to stick with it.

“So the stuff that we show them is very basic things and easy to learn things and in general gets them involved with it and they enjoy it. You know they have a good time doing it but I think the overall thing is that we’re trying to show them that computer science and you know engineering and all those things are not as hard as they make it seem,” Rodriguez said.

Students showcase what they’ve learned at the end of camp by designing colony projects for living in extreme conditions like on Mars or underwater. Rodriguez said the way to get more kids interested in tech careers is to relate it to their interests and create bonds early with others.

It seems like a lot of the boys here have friends that are here already, they were friends before coming,” Rodriguez said. “So, they both can get involved and then they can continue in this transition into college and if they want to pursue STEM, any STEM related job, they already have friends that are involved in that.”

Montalvo, whose group won the grand prize for their Mars colony project, said he thinks it’s important for public schools to teach students more about technology to spark future careers in STEM.

“The future is technology. I can tell you that right now,” Montalvo said. “Without technology the human race won’t survive. You know everyone has a phone in their pocket nowadays. They have ear buds, they like watching TV and it’s a big part of society. But as society progresses, I think it’s really going to be big because we’re going to need help with things, especially as things get harder and more advanced and technology is going to be a big part of that for us.”

Technology also looks to play a big part in improving academic performance. A 2017 report from research agency Westat stated after two years, Verizon Innovative Learning Schools students improved on standardized tests at rates three times higher in math and twice as high in reading than their peers.