JENNIFER LASHLEY, 44, GARDENA, AFRICAN-AMERICAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND FOUNDER OF SOUTH LA ROBOTICS
It all started in 2019 when Jennifer Lashley, 44, of Gardena, California, founded the South LA Robotics program. Lashley was a coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for 17 years before venturing to make her dream come true.
The idea behind South LA Robotics came from Lashley serving her community of Watts. Lashley said that through her teaching, she came across what she called, “gifted, capable, bright-minded young kids,” who didn’t know anything about technology because of a lack of resources or non-exposure.
The youth and their potential inspired Lashley, founder and director of South LA Robotics, to create a space “to educate the youth of color to develop a technological portfolio and guide them towards a STEM career,” as stated in their mission statement. “Their knowledge of technology was limited, and it came down to what they know about their parent’s cell phones at home, but there wasn’t a significant presence of technology in their homes,” Lashley said.
With the ever-changing world of technology and our society constantly needing to adapt, there was also a need for more technology in the youth perspective schools, many of which were located in underserved communities. Paying close attention to the news and trends, Lashley realized that she needed to help those in lower-income communities break out of generational poverty with the power of technology. “I always felt that it was bizarre that nobody directly was talking to our students about that or making these kinds of resources available to them,” she said.
South LA Robotics is designed for low-income communities heavily populated by Latino and Black youth. “New technology needs to ensure representation,” Lashley said. “The Latino community has to have representation, so somebody has to be in those meetings to ask the right questions and give the perspective. That’s why the new generations need to be educated on technology.”
In the LAUSD, there are currently 150 schools that contain STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) or STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) programs as their curriculum, along with 21 Magnet schools in which the primary curriculum is solely STEM. Lashley mentions that when she was a coordinator for the LAUSD, she taught two STEM labs. “I always had parents asking me how to get their child more involved in STEM. I would have to tell them that they would have to go to the school to use their facility, but it was never opened enough for the students outside of lab hours,” Lashley said. “I told myself that when I open my organization, it will be open to the general public.”
That is just what she has done. Lashley’s STEM program is open to all youth interested in robotics, starting at age nine. Their oldest student is currently 15. South LA Robotics is not affiliated with LAUSD and is not an after-school program. They are run through and contracted with the local community centers, which allows more people to experience the world of STEM.
South LA Robotics has competitive teams for robotics. Two teams competed and went overseas for the World Championship in Shanghai in 2019. They competed against 30 countries and came home with the Best Team Award. They also attended and competed in the United States Open of Robotics Competition and won first and second place in the high school awards. “Those competitions were most of the kid’s first times ever being in an airplane,” Lashley said. “You must remember these kids come from Watts, Inglewood, Compton and South LA. We do more than just robotics and STEM; we create opportunities and experiences for them to thrive in a field that can benefit them tremendously.”
How to get involved
Anyone looking to join the fun of robotics and STEM can enroll in workshops and classes that best suit the student. You can contact South LA Robotics to learn more about their courses and opportunities, or sign up for their mailing list to be the first to know when their classes are open for enrollment.
CALÓ NEWS spoke with Lashley to learn more about her STEM and robotics program.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
JENNIFER LASHLEY, 44, GARDENA, AFRICAN-AMERICAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND FOUNDER OF SOUTH LA ROBOTICS
WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR SOUTH LA ROBOTICS, AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE THIS WAS A NECESSARY PROGRAM?
My inspiration for it came out from my serving as a public school teacher in the community of Watts in South Los Angeles and being there and teaching gifted, capable, bright-minded young kids who don’t know a thing about technology. Maybe they knew a little bit, but it was constrained. That comes down to maybe their parent’s cell phones at home, but there wasn’t a significant presence of technology in their homes, and there wasn’t in our school. On the outside, just paying attention, I knew long ago that technology was in their homes, and there wasn’t in our school. On the outside, just pay attention to news and trends. I knew a long time ago technology was a game changer. That’s a way for people to break out of generational poverty and change their lives. I always felt that it was bizarre that nobody was directly talking to our students about that or making these kinds of resources available. That was my inspiration. I took a step back and looked at the situation and said, ‘Ok, well, I guess I’m going to have to be the one who brings tech to this class.’ It was just one class then, but I felt it was unfair. They didn’t have exposure to it and I thought they were being skipped over. For something obvious, you need to learn something about technology. This is going to be a considerable part of your adult life and really, you can learn a lot of it for free, but they didn’t know that and no one was telling them. I kind of took it into my own hands. I started writing small grants just to get equipment into our class. We started with one iPad, one robot and things like that. I got into coding using many free resources, and that’s where my story began.
IS THE PROGRAM AN AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAM, OR IS IT A CLASS WITHIN A CURRICULUM?
It is entirely separate from schools. We contract with local community centers and offer a Saturday competitive team. They’re competing soon. This will be their first post-pandemic competition with other groups, and they like that whole thing. We haven’t had the opportunity since 2019. This Saturday is a big deal for our teams, but we are not affiliated with schools. We affiliate with community centers. I initially did that because I wanted the program accessible to the public. When I was working for the school district, I was a STEM coordinator and I ran two STEM labs at a school and I would get a lot of questions about, ‘how can I get my kid involved?” and “can I bring my child over?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, you know, you have to go to the school to use the facility.’ It just wasn’t open enough. So I said, ‘Well, when I start my organization, I will ensure it is open to the general public.’ Anybody who wants to can sign up and enroll for classes. They’re primarily after school too, but we offer homeschool classes for our homeschoolers and “unschoolers” provided during the day. We start at nine years old. After doing this for a few years, I realized that was a good starting spot. I do get inquiries from parents of students who are younger, and the way I address that is to give them resources to both things that they can purchase and free resources online if they want their kids to start getting into that kind of curriculum that we do or that we provide. But we are nine and up, and our oldest kids are 15.
HOW DO STUDENTS BECOME A PART OF THE PROGRAM?
So, for the most part, people can just sign up. They just go to our website and can sign up for a class. When the local community centers start offering classes, they are like during specific semesters and everybody has a different schedule. However, when they offer classes, we also post that on our website. You can find South LA robotics classes and events on our website. Once students take a class or two, they realize they’re really into this. They want to go further. Then, around August, we open the application for our competitive team each fall. That’s the thing that kids have to apply for. All the rest of our classes are just; they sign up. Fees depend. Our community centers do not charge. The types are entirely free of charge. The kids are using brand-new facilities, state-of-the-art equipment, everything is high-end, really, really, excellent facilities that we contract with, and they don’t have to pay.
We charge and keep our fees as low as possible for our classes at South LA Robotics Studio. Our lowest price, for example, is $39 a month for our online coding class and our competitors. Team classes go up to $225 a month for residents, not residents of South LA. There’s a sliding scale. We have a wide range of prices for students who want to participate. We often find sponsorships and scholarships for kids who wish to participate, but we still can’t. We always try to make way for them. I also have kids on our robotics teams on full scholarships.
HOW DOES THE PROGRAM HELP COMMUNITIES OF COLOR AND THE LATINX COMMUNITY?
It helps because it exposes the kids to several STEM sciences, technology, engineering and math concepts. We also teach a lot of engineering concepts during building robots. We also are teaching them how to program the robots, so all the kids learn how to build and all the kids learn how to code. As we’re teaching them through all of our programs, whether an after-school class or a Saturday team or an online coding, no matter what type they’re taking, they’re all learning about the engineering design process and how you can use the skills that you’re learning here for any field. It’s not just for robotics or coding; we’re teaching kids how to be critical thinkers. We’re teaching them how to solve problems; you can do that in any situation, it doesn’t have to be about technology, but we also discuss STEM careers. We highlight many people of color, women and people you don’t typically see in the mainstream media as far as leaders are concerned. STEM technology, engineering, and fields like that.
The purpose of that is to give them exposure. To show them to think, ‘this could be you.’ This was someone who had a beginning similar to your stories. We also position ourselves as a pipeline for our students. Let’s say there’s a student who has never done robotics, and they don’t know about it. They might be curious, but they’re still determined. They can come into our program. Since we start at nine, which is pretty young, we are a feeder program, too, programs for older students. We’re part of a pipeline, trying to make that opportunity available, so kids have somewhere to start. It’s interesting; a kid can say, “Oh, I want to be an architect or an engineer,” but maybe they’re only nine years old, and maybe a program cannot give them that. This is a program that can give them that. Once you’re done with us, you can get into high school. We can refer you to high school programs that also reference college programs. It’s a growing STEM pipeline in Los Angeles, and we’re happy to be a part of that.
WHY IS STEM IMPORTANT FOR THE NEWER GENERATIONS?
I like to talk about this, especially with adults. Mainly older adults, too, because I want people to understand that. STEM is everywhere. If you did a Google search today, guess what? Someone wrote an algorithm to ensure you could find what you were looking for. If you swipe your ATM card, that’s a machine programmed to read your card to get your money right. Only a few people need to start using an aspect of technology worldwide. The reason why it’s essential for our kids is that you are using it. You need to be a part of the people creating it. If all the creation of this fantastic new technology comes from one perspective, then it will never reflect you or your needs. As a group, as a community and as a people. I feel like in the United States, people of color who are using this technology and innovation and whatever it is, all of these things, we need to be the people who are also creating it so that we can make sure that it also fits our needs and that it’s not being designed. I’m a little biased. That’s important for us to be in this STEM program.
HOW DO THE STUDENTS BENEFIT FROM YOUR PROGRAM?
I would say that the long-term result of what we’re doing. One of the short-term results of what we’re doing is building their confidence in this type of material. A recent study was published in a survey of young people new to STEM careers, young STEM professionals. Some of the top things that were concerns or missing from what they needed were confidence. Confidence in themselves. It’s not that they don’t know the material; their confidence level wasn’t as high as some of their counterparts. And also being able to present their work to others, like that aspect of communicating. We focus a lot on that too. You’re here; you can do this; you got this; you’re the creator. Also, ensuring you can communicate your thoughts and ideas to others. That’s a study that was done on young STEM professionals. It’s one of the ways we can start addressing what we already know is a gap because the kids we’re working with right now will be the young STEM professionals in the next 10 years. Let’s ensure we build their confidence and any other gaps already presented themselves. Then, in the more distant future, they will create the technology for our future world.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR THE LATINO COMMUNITY TO TAKE PART IN THE PROGRAM?
The best way to address that is what I mentioned, ensuring that new technology has representation. You’ve probably seen in recent news about a few years ago biases in [Artificial Intelligence], specifically with African Americans, and things like that. I sometimes think about that and say, “No African American person on that team created that. Because I’m part of organizations like that, too, I have to bring the perspective from the Black community because people don’t know, don’t understand, and maybe sometimes don’t know the right questions to ask or the right things to address. The Latino community must have representation, so somebody can be there to ask the right questions and give the needed perspective. You can’t get that perspective from somebody who doesn’t understand it.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE WITH YOUR ROBOTICS PROGRAM? WHAT DO YOU HOPE FOR THE FUTURE OF SOLAR ROBOTICS?
With South LA Robotics, I look forward to a significant, big expansion for us right now; we’re working hard at expanding across LA County, making more connections and being in more places where we can. Have the most access to the most students. One of my goals is when people think about robotics in the LA area. I want them to believe in South LA Robotics. I know them. I’ve been to one of their classes. I remember them. That was so cool. I just want us to be like that robotics, that tech place that people, think of when they want their kids to have some kind of tech class or, you know, learn some new technology or just get into some innovative STEM lessons or workshops. I want us to be known for providing that to the community.