Robotics program in Watts offers teens technological path to college

Saturday, February 10, 2018
Robotics program in Watts offers teens technological path to college
There's a first-time program in Watts aiming to change the landscape of engineering - diversity-wise.

WATTS, LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- There's a first-time program in Watts aiming to change the landscape of engineering - diversity-wise.

It may also be the spark to ignite drive in students to turn a college dream into reality with the help of outside community mentors.

Watts teenagers spoke with Eyewitness News. These teenagers are trying to find a way to college and are willing to work for it.

A video showed teenagers rapping about who they are and standing in front of their neighborhood's iconic Watts Towers. These kids want to "break" stereotypes and they're doing it at the Animo College Preparatory Academy - one robot at a time.

Erika Aguilar is part of the team, 6-9-0-4 TeraWatts, a robotics competition team. Aguilar lives in what's considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country.

Reporters usually come here to talk to neighbors about the latest gang shooting or murder, but not everyone is part of those statistics.

Aguilar, a high school Junior, said her parents are always encouraging her.

"My brother went to college, he was the first one and I'm second in line. They always say keep on trying no matter what. Your brother did it, you could do it, too," she said.

Fatima Shahnaz Iqbal-Zubair said Aguilar's situation goes deeper when you think about the community the junior is growing up in.

"Actually, 2.9 percent of people in this community have a college degree. When you think of 80 percent of the jobs in the next decade are going to be in STEM fields, or require STEM skills, then you think about the disparity of who's in those fields," she said.

Iqbal-Zubair's husband is an engineer and she's a second-year teacher at the academy. Her passion can't be contained. She speaks so rapidly, you'd think her life depends on it but it's not her life she's worried about - it's the students in the room.

They're part of FIRST, which stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. It's a program to inspire interest in those fields. She lobbied to bring it to Watts after watching her husband mentor with FIRST for eight years.

Keith Regan from Raytheon, a leading aerospace company in El Segundo, just began mentoring the group but he was intrigued when his colleagues explained to him what they do as a mentor.

"They told me it was robotics so being an engineer, we're all into that," he said.

He's working in a field which has one high school senior on the team asking questions.

"We're trying to build a ramp, but we got to learn how high the tip of the ramp can go," high school senior Edwin Algutria said. "I learned a lot from the engineering. I learned which field I really want to go into, which is the manufacturing and designing because of this I was able to show my ideas and find out where I'm best at."

Another mentor said he heard negative things about the Watts community, but the program showed him there is hope for the future. He's hoping someday he gets to work with some of these kids at Raytheon.

"I see this as an avenue to really change the dynamics of a community because if most of the jobs in future are going to be this way we need to get these kids in education and get them jobs," Iqbal-Zubair said.

Just like Erika, who when asked what she wants to do after college, gave a big smile.

"I hope to open up my own business," she said.

She's a young woman who already has been inspired to plan for a very bright future -- on her own terms.

Their robot will compete at the end of March in the Orange County Regional at UC Irvine.