At-risk youth inspired to dream, pursue higher ed

By Erik Gomez, intern, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture

dare to dream banner PULLMAN, Wash. – Do robots dream?

Maybe not, but with the assistance of two Washington State University students, robots are helping disadvantaged students make dreams a little more real.

This summer, Arturo Orta and Laily Santacruz, junior mechanical engineering majors in WSU’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, helped teach high school juniors and seniors basic programming with interactive robots as part of WSU’s annual Dare to Dream Academy for math and science.

The WSU Dare to Dream Academy provides more than 150 at-risk migrant students a five-day on-campus experience with access to professional staff that will help them build their skills and abilities in math and science, as well as develop student awareness of the requirements to graduate from high school and plan for post-secondary education.

Frank’s Innovation Zone

Laily Santacruz, Arturo Orta, WSU Dare to Dream Academy
Laily Santacruz, Arturo Orta, l-r, inspire at-risk students to pursue a college education and dare to dream

For a week, Orta and Santacruz connected and bonded with the students as they ran a robotics workshop in WSU’s Frank Innovation Zone. The Dare to Dream students applied the math skills they were learning in other workshops and fused them with the programming skills that Orta and Santacruz were teaching to successfully maneuver a robot through an obstacle course.

“This was a great hands-on experience for the students to apply what they were learning,” said Orta.

Orta said he saw himself in his students, and that guided his teaching methods.

Passing inspiration along

“In high school, pursuing a higher education didn’t cross my mind,” said Orta. “But then I was inspired by the passion of an instructor to push myself and achieve greater things, so I tried to connect with the kids to let them know someone cares and wants to help them.”

“Some of these students were coming from small-town areas where they don’t get to see the full educational experience,” said Santacruz. “Some of them had never been to a university campus, but they came here and were able to see that there are people that truly want to help and teach them.”

“There were some students who said they were only here because their moms signed them up,” said Orta. “But by the end of the week, those same students were some of the ones who really wanted to succeed and complete the course with their robots.”

Transformation, understanding, applying

“Seeing the transformation the kids went through from day one to the end of the week was one of the most rewarding things from the academy,” said Santacruz.  “It was exciting seeing students understanding and applying the material.”

When their workshop ended, Orta knew he had made a connection with the students when they asked him to sign the baseballs they received from their visit to WSU’s Sports Science Lab.

“I wasn’t only signing my name, I also was writing things I wish I would have heard at their age,” said Orta. “I let them know that they have what it takes to succeed at a university. That was an emotional moment for us.  It reminded me of why I pursued a higher education.”

Both Orta and Santacruz agreed they would gladly return and help again next year.

“I really enjoyed the experience,” said Santacruz.  “I was pushed out of my comfort zone and I was surprised and impressed by how much the students were able to learn in just a week.”

The Dare to Dream Academy is sponsored by the Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction’s Migrant Education Program in partnership with WSU’s College of Assistance Migrant Program and the Association of Washington School Principals (AWSP).