The NCLR Innovation Lab: Inspiring Entrepreneurship in Latino Youth

Latino students make up 25 percent of the student population but only about 7 percent of the STEM workforce. One way we’re working to increase that 7 percent figure is through our Innovation Lab.

Earlier this month, STEM educators from ten different program sites traveled to our headquarters in Washington to participate in Innovation Lab, a two-day training on the new STEM curriculum inspired by the film Underwater Dreams.

Underwater Dreams

Underwater Dreams tells the story of a group of low-income Latino high school students and how they won a prestigious robotics competition. The goal of the NCLR Innovation Lab is for Latino students to identify a genuine need in their community and to develop a tech-based solution to address that gap or that challenge.

Juliana Ospina Cano, NCLR STEM Manager, and Jose Rodriguez, NCLR Regional Director of Education for Texas and the Southwest Region, organized and led the NCLR Innovation Lab training.

“We can see that there is a significant gap in STEM education. As a result, NCLR has developed a series of K–12 programs to encourage more Latino students to consider pursuing a STEM career,” said Juliana Ospina Cano.

The educators

The first day of the Innovation Lab was dedicated to introducing the educators to the curriculum and STEM mindset. By using Underwater Dreams as inspiration, our Affiliates will tap into the resilient Latino spirit to problem-solve and develop solutions for challenges faced in the community.

“I work in K–5 classrooms teaching engineering and 95 percent of our students are Hispanic. I am very excited to be here to bring more opportunities to them,” said Lauren Levy, STEM Specialist at Synergy Charter Elementary School. “I think Underwater Dreams will inspire our students by motivating them and it could lead to grassroots movements in our community.”

On the second day, the teachers presented the lesson plans they created for the curriculum the day before. They were evaluated on their delivery and received collective feedback, which participants found to be especially valuable.

“I serve grades 9–12. The mock lessons have been very helpful because I am able to see how other people interpret the same curriculum and how it is flexible,” said Martin Barrera, Instructor at Los Angeles Leadership Academy High School. “The educators in the room have been very supportive.”

Next steps: our students and comunidad

The educators will return to their communities and begin implementing the NCLR Innovation Lab program. Ospina Cano and Rodriguez will follow up with regular communication and professional development.

“Our primary focus is for these educators to experience success in the implementation of the NCLR Innovation Lab,” said Rodriguez.

Empowering Students and Educators through Service Learning

By Cindy Zavala, Education Programs Associate, NCLR 

Our service-learning education program, Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción (CASA), is tackling serious issues. The goal of the fifth annual CASA Institute this year focused on how to equip middle school youth with the appropriate skills to identify a need in the Latino community and then develop an academic service plan to address that need.

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Students from seven states gathered at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles earlier this month to take on this challenge. And, thanks to the generous support and investment of State Farm, the Institute was able to host attendees from 12 different educational programs in Colorado, Texas, Oregon, Tennessee, Maryland, California, and Florida. Among them were students and teachers from East Austin College Prep, Bert Corona Leadership Institute, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, and Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School, to name a few.

The Cultural Bag

A major part of the CASA Institute included lessons on the service-learning cycle as well as an array of cultural activities. One such activity included the Cultural Bag. To highlight cultural awareness, students were tasked with creating a bag filled with phrases and drawings that displayed their interpretations of their own identity and culture.

“A cultural bag is something that each of us carries around all the time. The content of our bag defines who we are,” said Magdalena Mireles, NCLR California Regional Office Manager.

“Your race, ethnicity, age, gender, physical characteristics, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, level of education, or religion are all traits that can go in your bag.” Mireles led the youth track in this year’s Institute.

As students filled their bags with their identity traits, they began to think about how their culture shaped their personality and life experiences.

Fun and Robotics

 Los Angeles made a perfect setting for a movie screening. Attendees were treated to a private viewing of the highly acclaimed documentary Underwater Dreams, written and directed by Mary Mazzio and narrated by Michael Peña.

Underwater Dreams tells the story of sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants and how they built an underwater robot from Home Depot parts and ended up defeating engineering powerhouse Massachusetts Institute of Technology at their competition. Not only were these boys only in high school when they entered the college competition but they were also living in poverty and faced many struggles to which several CASA attendees could relate.

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Drawing on inspiration from the film, students were guided by DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Girls in building their own robots. DIY Girls works with young girls and focuses on helping them be successful in technology and engineering. One of their founders is also a Latina!

The interactive lesson guided students in using a motor, a battery, and a container to build a motorized robot that they could then take home.

The CASA Institute was a great learning experience for both students and educators. Students appreciated the opportunity to travel and for many it was there first time visiting Los Angeles. The change of setting and the new activities students and teachers participated in left them motivated and inspired.

“Super excited to see all the great ideas we will bring back to school!” said Angelica Lara of East Austin College Prep.

We’re hopeful educators like Lara left Los Angeles ready to take the steps and use the lessons they learned to support their students throughout the year in engaging with the CASA curriculum.