In Elmira, young engineers, and their robots, prepare for Juneteenth
Juneteenth is Sunday, June 19. The holiday celebrates the liberation of African Americans enslaved in Texas. To remember it, all this week WSKG is looking at the legacies of Black Americans in the Southern Tier.
ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — At the Ernie Davis Community Center in Elmira, students from across the community tested out robots they built.
Fifth grader Rafael Rivera, a member of the LEGO robotics club, tested some code he wrote for his robot, the Candy Bot.
"I was going to put this bucket on here," Rafael said, arranging a variety of snacks in a bowl attached to the top of his robot. "It’ll go around the room and the kids can chase after it or whatever, and they can get the robot candy and everything."
Like all the robots here, Rafael's Candy Bot is made out of special LEGO pieces with everything needed to build a simple robot: motors, axels, gears, sensors and a programmable computer the size of a juice box. There's even a special programming language for the system that uses simple "blocks" of code.
The kids picked up the skills quickly. One pair of students worked on a breakdancing robot, while others programmed robots to complete space exploration-themed "missions" on a big table. Next year, they plan to compete in a national student engineering competition called FIRST Lego League.
Many of the members of the LEGO robotics club joined after last year's Juneteenth festival in Elmira, where founder Eric Biribuze set up a demonstration of the LEGO robotics system. His presentation garnered a lot of interest from families in the area.
This year, the kids will welcome visitors to Elmira's Juneteenth celebration with a demonstration of their own robots.
"Why don't we go and invest in our own neighbors?"
Biribuze said he wanted to give kids an entry point into science and engineering.
"In order to really encourage STEM education, we need to focus and start early," Biribuze said.
Before starting the club at the community center, Biribuze founded two other LEGO robotics programs in Burundi and Rwanda, where he and his wife are from.
During the pandemic, and after the murder of George Floyd, Biribuze wanted to do the same for his community in the Southern Tier.
This robotics club isn't the only one in the Southern Tier, or even in Elmira. Several private schools and some of the larger school districts have robotics teams, though mainly at the high-school level.
The program at the community center is one of the Southern Tier's only elementary-level robotics programs open to almost anyone. Biribuze said one of his biggest priorities was to keep the program as accessible as possible, which is part of the reason why the club meets at the Ernie Davis Community Center.
"[The Ernie Davis Community Center] normally puts on programs in the community, mostly for underprivileged families, mostly people of color," Biribuze said.
Biribuze said as a Black engineer at Corning Inc., he wants to see more diversity in his industry. One of his ultimate hopes is for the members of the robotics club to continue on in STEM education and become engineers themselves — maybe even at his workplace.
"Corning Incorporated is in Corning, and Elmira—it's 25 minutes away," Biribuze said. "But we don't go hire many people from Elmira—why? Why don't we go and invest in our own neighbors?"
National labor statistics show Black scientists and engineers have long been underrepresented compared to their white colleagues.
Biribuze said he had no idea he wanted to be an engineer when he was in elementary school, growing up in his home country of Burundi.
"What if I knew back then, or somebody back then was actually telling me, 'I am going to nurture you when you're 10 years old so you can become an engineer,'" Biribuze said. "How [much] more success could I have had?"
An outlet to try new things
Chalanda Graham is the program manager at the Ernie Davis Community Center. She’s been involved there since she was a kid, back when it was still called the Neighborhood House.
Graham said the community center provides an outlet for kids to try something different. For her, it was camping.
"I finished high school in '87," Graham said. "So you're talking about early 80s, late 70s. For a black student to go camping, that was that was the thing, you know what I mean?"
Now, it’s things like LEGO robotics.
But Graham said the community center has faced a lot of funding challenges, especially after the height of the pandemic. One small example: transportation. The center used to bus kids to and from the community center if their parents had to work late, but that program ended when the community center's van broke down in 2020.
"The kids that are local, they will come back," Graham said. "But those are the kids that are local. What happens to the other kids that live on the other side of the town, or in Horseheads?"
Graham said there's been fewer kids at the community center in the past two years, but the staff has tried to make the programs as accessible as possible for the kids who can participate. That means providing food after school or keeping schedules flexible when a student can't make it every week.
Rebuilding even better
Christina Laskowski is the club’s coach and an engineer at Corning Inc. She said some kids came in with more experience than others, but it’s important to meet everyone where they are.
The end goal, she said, isn't necessarily to have the kids build the best robot or write the best code.
"Even if they make a robot that dies on the table, but they come out and say, 'We had such a great time, we learned so much, we want to make it better next time,'" Laskowski said. "That's what winning looks like."
That willingness to try again is a key part of the engineering process, Laskowski said, and that the kids in the robotics program practice it all the time.
Back at robotics club, Rafael accidentally dropped his robot. One of the attachments broke off.
But the kids worked together to rebuild it. The repaired robot turned out to be even better — and almost ready for the city's Juneteenth celebration.