Nonprofit opening STEM center for Chandler youth SanTan Sun News

Nonprofit opening STEM center for Chandler youth

August 5th, 2021 SanTan Sun News
Nonprofit opening STEM center for Chandler youth
Community
4

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Si Se Puede, the Chandler nonprofit specializing in science education for local youth, next month is opening a new center for students design and build robots.

After receiving a $50,000-grant from the Rogers Corporation earlier this year, the foundation decided to create a “world-class” science center near Arizona Avenue and Elliot Road for the 2,000 students and young adults who participate in their programming.

The facility includes classrooms and workshops filled with expensive equipment visitors can use to sculpt, cut and mold all the parts needed to make a fully-functional robot.

Once team members finish an invention, they can test it out on a practice course located inside the facility to see how the robot moves around obstacles and picks up objects.

Perhaps the center’s most appealing aspect is that students can use it at no cost to them.

No other facility in the East Valley area currently exists with these types of services, said Alberto Esparza, founder and president of Si Se Puede.

The establishment of a free, full-scale science center will be a monumental step in the nonprofit’s history once it opens next month, Esparza said, and it will better ensure the organization’s ability to continue serving local youth for the years ahead.

“If the program is going to survive, then it was time to get a facility,” the president said.

The science center is intended to serve a wide multitude of functions: an after-school destination for tech enthusiasts, a training center for teachers, or a meeting hub for like-minded teens.

Si Se Puede has already partnered up with a LGBTQ organization that wants to use the center’s conference rooms and recording equipment to produce anti-bullying videos.

Fredi Lajvardi, the nonprofit’s vice president of STEM programming, said anyone will be invited to use the facility for whatever purpose they may have — even it doesn’t involve robotics.

“The sky’s the limit,” Lajvardi said, “If there’s a need in the community we can fill, that’s what this community center is supposed to do.”

Esparza said one of the center’s first scheduled events is a field trip next month with students from Frye Elementary School who will be instructed on how to start robotic-coding clubs.

The goal is to share the technical knowledge with younger students, he added, so they can spread that expertise with their peers and begin forming clubs within their classrooms.

“Robotics is for everybody and we should make it accessible,” Esparza said.

Si Se Puede has earned a positive reputation in recent years for mentoring teenage girls in pursuing careers in science and engineering.

The organization’s Spanish name translates to “Yes you can,” a phrase that serves as an inspirational motto for kids who may feel excluded from opportunities due to economic limitations or societal pressures.

Si Se Puede’s mission is to break down any barriers that prevent local students from reaching their fullest potential by normalizing their presence in areas that haven’t typically welcomed them.

The access to scientific fields for Black and Latina girls has traditionally been limited with statistics showing that women of color earn less than 10 percent of the nation’s college degrees in STEM topics, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

These gender disparities have prompted Si Se Puede to dedicate its resources for creating opportunities that allow local girls to thrive in scientific fields.

The strategy appears to have worked since the nonprofit’s teams of female scientists have earned national awards for their underwater robots and received generous scholarships to further their education.

But the last year has certainly tested the nonprofit’s capabilities after the pandemic restricted their ability to connect with students.

Si Se Puede attempted to shift programming over to virtual formats, but the hands-on experience of building a robot can’t quite be done through a digital platform.

The ongoing pandemic additionally impacted the nonprofit’s finances and constrained its ability to raise funds. Esparza said they received some funding from the federal government, but it was a small amount compared to the thousands of dollars they lost in grants and donations during the pandemic.

“Even though we were hurting for funding,” he said, “the programs kept delivering.”

The Rogers Corporation grant afforded Si Se Puede an opportunity to start 2021 on a more optimistic note by providing the money to sign a lease on a large property that could fit all of the nonprofit’s clubs and programs.

Other businesses started pitching in by donating equipment and services to renovate the large facility. Esparza said the nonprofit hopes to purchase the building in the next few years so that Si Se Puede can have a permanent home in Chandler.

“This is a great opportunity for a grassroots organization to go and continue to meet the demands placed on us by the community,” he said.

Esparza, an Arizona native and Arizona State University graduate, formed the organization at a time in his life when he felt a need to connect with his community.

In 1993, Esparza was asked to come to Scottsdale and bridge together the local Latino community with city officials.

Hispanic families were being taken advantage of by greedy slumlords, he recalled, so Esparza worked to bring more attention to the issue and initiate reforms that could protect vulnerable populations.

His work inspired Esparza to continue finding ways to help underserved, low-income families. He started teaching English classes to Spanish-speakers and noticed a need to provide more educational opportunities to the East Valley.

“That’s where I got the itch to be more involved in community advocacy and that’s where the idea of the foundation came up,” Esparza recalled.

The first few years of the nonprofit’s founding weren’t the easiest to navigate. Esparza knew little about starting a foundation and had to learn as he went.

There were times when Esparza was putting all his financing into keeping the nonprofit afloat and had to spend some nights sleeping in an unheated office.

But a generous grant allowed Si Se Puede to start Lego robotic programs in a number of Chandler schools and the foundation has been gradually growing its footprint in the community ever since.

Over the last decade, the nonprofit has continued to strengthen its partnership with the Chandler Unified School District and the opening of the STEM center will hopefully support the district’s many science clubs in need of more resources.

Most high schools don’t have the type of machinery that will be available at the nonprofit’s STEM center, according to Steven Forbes, one of Si Se Puede’s mentors.

Forbes works at Intel and thinks the science center could serve as a pipeline for all the high-tech jobs that Intel’s planning to bring to Chandler in the coming years through an upcoming expansion of its campus.

There are college-level skills that can be taught at the new facility, he added, and the machinery can introduce students to specific elements of engineering they may not know about yet.

“The way this facility serves the community is it opens the door up for people who might not know that they want to do this kind of stuff,” Forbes said.

Esparza said he wants the new facility to be accessible to anyone in the community needing a space to explore their scientific curiosities.

As long as the community will continue to support Si Se Puede with financial sponsorships, he added, then the nonprofit plans to keep the center open to everybody without charging any fees.

Information on participating in the nonprofit’s programs can be found at sisepuedefoundation.org.

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