Despite an abundance of cutting edge technology a stone’s throw away, Silicon Valley youth from low-income families have limited exposure to the inner workings of high-tech companies. Marginalized students lack access to technology learning experiences and exposure to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) career opportunities. The absence of technology in the lives of underprivileged youth hinders exploration of their true potential.

On the other end of the spectrum, youth from high-income Silicon Valley communities are surrounded by STEAM education from a young age. With parents and role models in technology and engineering jobs, students are overloaded with opportunities to learn skills like robotics and coding.

When these two groups of students come together with a shared desire to learn and grow, pure magic happens. For 6 weeks this summer, learning runs rampant every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at Lewis and Joan Platt East Palo Alto Family YMCA, where teens teach teens the fundamentals of robotics and coding as part of the 
Y’s Full STEAM Ahead program.

The collaboration came to life through the initiative of a Los Altos Botball Robotics parent, Li Liu. Coordinating with Y leaders, Liu organized student and parent volunteers from Los Altos Botball Robotics to bring equipment, expertise, and enthusiasm to East Palo Alto teens. Volunteering offers academically driven teens the
chance to slow down, appreciate the opportunities they have, and
pay it forward.

Now in its second year, the peer to peer program engages middle and high school students in a fun and accessible technology experience. The unique learning environment offers participants a safe space to explore technology through robotics and coding, while volunteers develop leadership skills and experience the joy in giving back.

Reluctant participants have changed their minds with heavy doses of peer encouragement. Meera Srinivasan, a volunteer and rising senior at Homestead High School in Cupertino is excited to inspire girls her own age to consider a STEAM career. “Even if they’re not feeling confident in themselves, I’m fortunate to be in the position where I can build them up. I can help them and maybe push them farther into STEAM than they thought they could ever go.”

Whether the teens acknowledge it or not, both participants and volunteers are learning valuable life skills and building self-esteem. Volunteer Andy Wang, a rising junior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, sees so much potential in the teens new to robotics that he’s inspired to push himself in pursuit of his own potential.

“I really enjoy trying to teach someone.” Ashwin Hingwe, rising senior at Mountain View High School says of volunteering. “I feel like this leadership experience is valuable because not only is it helping others, which is a goal for the rest of my life, but it’s also reinforcing for me the concepts that I’m teaching.”

Each week, bonds strengthen and excitement towards coding and robotics grows. “With robotics, it may seem hard at first, but it’s never as hard as they think. I like that we’re able to break down barriers with STEAM,” Srinivasan says of watching her peers start to recognize their own potential. “They realize they can do whatever they set their mind to.”

In addition to gaining technology skills, Full STEAM Ahead participants receive access to a variety of wellness activities, including swim lessons, nutrition counseling, and career exploration field trips.

“Although other programs offer coding or robotics, ours is the only one that offers everything,” Y Staff Loree Watanabe explains. “It’s an outlet for youth during the summer. We’d rather have them here being interactive and engaged versus being home alone or playing video games all day.” Instead of spending summer at home glued to the TV, these teenagers are learning building blocks for a bright future. Wang describes, “It doesn’t matter your background — if you put an equal amount of work into robotics you get the same result. It’s all built on hard work.”