Si Se Puede Foundation has been organizing robotics programs for East Valley students for nearly 20 years
Update: The Degrees of Freedom team won the Rookie All Star Award at this weekend's FIRSTFor Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology Arizona West Regional 2017 and advance to the FIRST Championship competition in Houston during the weekend of April 22.
A team of high school girls is ready to compete in a robotics competition Saturday in Phoenix thanks to a nonprofit organization founded more than 20 years ago by Arizona State University alumnus Alberto Esparza.
The Si Se Puede Foundation focuses on helping children from low-income families achieve academic success, but they’ll take anyone who wants to join their robotics programs. Esparza said that since 1998, his program has seen about 85 students go on to become engineers.
The group’s work highlights a range of outreach efforts from the ASU community that include Camp Catanese, a tech-heavy college access program for Phoenix students; CompuGirls, a STEM program for minority girls; Conexiones, an academic achievement program for children of migrant workers across Arizona; and the Upward Bound Project, a college prep program serving potential first-generation college students.
The Si Se Puede Foundation’s newest team, Degrees of Freedom, a collection of predominantly Latina East Valley girls, wants to start gathering trophies. This is their story:
It’s spring break and a chilly, dark morning as seven young girls huddle together for a selfie in the Chandler Techshop parking lot.
The Degrees of Freedom high school robotics team is headed to Flagstaff for the FIRST regional robotics competition where they hope to claim the rookie all-star award for first time teams. Alberto Esparza, CEO of Si Se Puede that funds the team, checks everyone is present and snacks are accounted for as they get ready to leave at 5 a.m..
Outside the parents of Valeria and Camila Treviño huddle together as they see both their daughters off. They would go, but they can’t afford to spend time away from their jobs. As the vehicle begins to drive off, Valeria and Camila’s mother walks alongside as she waves goodbye.
Alberto Esparza, with his graying hair and trimmed mustache, towers over children running through the Hartford Elementary cafeteria. Little ones tug at his shirt to show him their Lego robots or run into him for a quick hug. Esparza walks with a gait of authority that would have served him well 23 years ago as a probations and parole officer.
Thinking back to his undergraduate years, Esparza comments, “when I was at Arizona State University, I saw myself going into the FBI; I saw myself becoming an attorney. But I had a passion for the community.”
In 1993, Esparza felt he had reached a crossroads. He left corrections, and a lucrative position, to spend his life savings on creating the Si Se Puede Foundation with no previous non-profit experience and little support from his family — who couldn’t understand why he left a stable career path.
Esparza became the primary teacher of foklorico dance groups, soccer programs and even ESLEnglish as a Second Language classes with the hopes of improving the odds of succeeding in high school and college for the children of his East Valley community. Working in corrections had made him feel he was treating problems rather than preventing them. “It’s not that I’m a tough guy,” he said of his own success in school, “I grew up in that environment, too.”
After four years of work, Esparza found himself broke and sleeping in his unheated office on a cold November night questioning his choices. But that same year Si Se Puede received its first funding grant from United Way for $25,000.
“I don’t mind saying that the application that I filled out was filled out in pencil. I didn’t have a computer, typewriter, if you will, and I felt so uncomfortable when I submitted it.”
With the support of the Chandler Police Department and those who were familiar with his approach he secured the grant that allowed him to start Lego robotics programs in Chandler schools.
“I decided, ‘why don’t I bring robotics to the East Valley to communities deemed at risk,” Esparza said. “Your zip code shouldn’t dictate whether or not these programs are available.”
Today, Esparza’s Si Se Puede foundation partners with schools all over the Valley offering programs for a range of ages. His only rule is that they don’t charge students for participation. He has seen 85 students go on to study engineering at a variety of different universities and considers everything “his kids” go on to do a success.
As a young mother arrives at Hartford elementary and hugs her son, he points out she was once one of his students in elementary school. He remarks that this East Valley community is where his heart is and that his success may be impressive but a result of years of effort, “I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m persistent.”
Before heading to Flagstaff for the FIRST robotics competition, the girls of Degrees of Freedom and the Binary Bots team, a co-ed team sponsored by Si Se Puede, spent every Saturday and sometimes weekday afternoons planning and building their team robots. Students from all over the Valley that participate in either team met at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center, which adjoins the Chandler TechShop. The teams must raise $5,000 to compete and money to purchase tools and equipment. The students work with mentors from General Motors, ASU alumni and ASU students to raise money and build robots.
The theme of this year’s competition is “STEAMWorks.” Robots must pick up gears and balls and then climb a rope.