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The simple change one 10th grader says we can make to attract more people to STEM

“True innovation comes from including many perspectives.”

Los Angeles, California (March 24, 2022) – Mariela Cruz-Suarez and her teammates at C5 Youth Foundation of Southern California (C5LA) are pretty excited about competing in the national Kids Tech Summit taking place virtually on April 22.

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The team representing C5LA in the national Kids Tech Summit celebrates being named one of four finalists

“When I told the students they made it to the final round, they were thrilled and cheered,” said Cesar Ortega, CAPS College Counselor, C5LA. “Days later, I was still getting messages from the kids. It was great to see their excitement.”

C5LA was chosen as one of four finalists in the friendly competition that provides students from across the country the opportunity to develop projects designed to help narrow the Digital Divide.

“Our idea is to connect STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to the interests that kids already have,” said Cruz-Suarez, who is a 10th grader at Abraham Lincoln High School. “Before last summer, I didn’t know what STEM was or what to craft with it. But I’ve since learned that, as someone who is an aspiring entrepreneur, I use STEM to actually go from coming up with the idea to creating it myself.”

Cruz-Suarez is one of six Los Angeles students representing C5LA who put together an application to take part in the national competition. The team will present their ideas to a panel of judges in the final round of the summit.   

Supporting first-gen college students

C5LA is a nonprofit with a mission to “change the odds for high-potential teens from under-resourced communities by inspiring them to pursue personal success, while preparing them for leadership roles in school, college, work, and their communities.”

“What that really means is we provide that extra support that many first-generation college students might need,” said Joy Flores, who is a 2011 graduate of the C5LA program and its current Communications and Officer Manager. “They may not be aware of opportunities or scholarships simply because their families have never navigated those resources. So, they’re unsure what’s out there or even how to prepare for college. We guide them through that process.”

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C5LA graudation picture

C5LA recruits 72 students every year, providing them with support and guidance through high school and into their first college years. The program requires a high level of commitment from students — even requiring them to attend summer and weekend programs.

Ortega joined C5LA in 2012 as a mentor and now guides high school students through the process of preparing for and applying to attend college. He says when he asked if the students wanted to take part in the Kids Tech Summit, he was blown away by their awareness of the issues surrounding technology.

“It’s so beautiful. All of them are interested in STEM,” Ortega explained. “But all of the students on this team also talked about and recognized the lack of representation in technology. They believe the issue is a lack of early exposure to STEM among minority populations.”

Connecting students with their interests

Cruz-Suarez says that she and her teammates started brainstorming and came up with the idea for the competition through their own personal experiences.

“Most Latino students face lots of barriers, including a lack of access to quality STEM resources,” she said. “Sebastian, who is on the team, was the first to bring it up. He inspired me to speak out about being a Latina student and how it can be a very isolating experience when no one in STEM looks like you.”

That’s why the C5LA team says it will craft its entry around creating a more diverse STEM system that includes earlier outreach and ways to make it more interesting to students.

“It’s important that we introduce a variety of people to STEM,” said Cruz-Suarez. “We need the diversity because true innovation comes from including many perspectives.

“To do that, we must make it fun and demonstrate to more people how STEM can be connected to their interests,” she continued. “For example, if you’re interested in politics, a coding course can help you build a website where people can learn about politics or law. Interested in fashion? Then take a circuitry class and learn how to make the fabric change colors. The possibilities really are endless.”

WATCH: The above video is the moment the students from the C5LA team learned they were a finalist in the Kids Tech Summit

The Kids Tech Summit is a friendly competition hosted by national nonprofit Connected Nation (CN) and sponsored by AT&T. It provides an opportunity for students to use their digital skills to develop 100% student-led projects that directly benefit their communities and help narrow the Digital Divide.

The four finalists, including C5LA, will compete for cash prizes ranging from $7,500 to $2,000. They will present their projects to a panel of technology experts via a virtual event on Friday, April 22, which can be viewed by the public at this YouTube link.