This is one of a series of stories about Times of E’s reporting trip to Miami, Fla. Read others here: A Request Went Out to the Tech Community for a Principal for the Day. Only One Person Responded, here: A Historically Black Community Helped a Small Business Survive, and here: Miami is Mostly Talk When it Comes to Diversity
It was the last day of school before winter break at South Dade Senior High, and students were filtering out. But some stayed behind, buzzing with a different kind of energy.
Overnight, they would transform the gym into a field for a robotics competition the next day. The students had been working on the robots since August, said one student, excitedly. One of the school’s classrooms had been given over to space for a huge table where the robots practiced.
That the competition and the equipment are here at all is thanks to the students’ teacher, Mark Godinez. A teacher for the past 16 years, Godinez has become increasingly aware that if he doesn’t expose his students to STEM careers, it’s not going to happen at all.
Homestead is tantalizingly close to Miami, which is buzzing with new tech energy. But in other ways, it’s an entire universe away. Many of the students in this robotics competition are children of migrants from El Salvador and Mexico who work in agriculture. Some are likely undocumented.
So many students never come across tech classes. Without exposure, students wouldn’t be likely to enter a tech field. “They just see whatever they see,” said Godinez.
“I want to make sure that they have those options. That’s important for us.”
Four years ago, Godinez, who teaches game design and digital information during the day, volunteered to learn coding so he could teach it to his students. Now, the program he leads after school and over the summer focuses on reading, writing and coding. Over the last four years, he’s also advocated with the school district for students to get access to technology – now his classroom is filled with dual monitors, 3D printers and VR headsets.
The school system has come through with some funding, but that’s only a part of what it takes — the students also raise funds, and “they need somebody like me that networks around the community outside of the school,” he said. “…That’s what keeps me going.”
Connections in the community that have been key, he said. A group called Deaf Kids Code is visiting the district soon to try to get more students with disabilities interested. Some of his high schoolers will enroll in a cybersecurity course at Miami college this semester, thanks to a partnership with the school, Godinez said.
“He has really made a lot with nothing,” said Carlos Vazquez, the founder of Miami Edtech and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools STEM vice-chair. “He moves mountains for his kids over there.”
Vazquez noted that Godinez has been able to avoid one trap that talented teachers of color sometimes face within public school systems. “If they’re really good at classroom management, they get pigeonholed.” In other words, they’re asked to work with troubled students, without getting access to advanced skills training that make any job more satisfying and rewarding. “It’s a vicious cycle on that front.”
Overcoming the Fear
Godinez, who’s also a single dad of two, said he realized the importance of his own presence as a role model. If he could show students that people of color can code, they might be able to picture themselves in those jobs. His fellow teacher, Shawn Waring, who used to teach woodworking at the high school before he shifted to robotics, decided to learn coding so he could teach his students, too.
It felt like a leap to both of them. The greatest barrier to learning the language was fear, he said. “I was scared,” Godinez said. “I couldn’t do it alone. So I made networking partnerships within the computer science teacher association in Miami. And that’s why I’m here now.”
The two learned as they were teaching their students. In the early days, before Godinez had the classroom full of screens and monitors, he used plants to teach coding – starting with a seed and watching it grow.
The technology changes every few years, so the fundraising needs are constant. Godinez and other teachers have worked to build a circular program. His robotics students do a lot of outreach, talking to nearby elementary and middle school students about why they joined robotics and how to get involved.
He’s especially focused on getting more girls and people with disabilities involved, he said. He’s already seen some impact. When he started the program, he had no girls involved. Now, there’s 22. Not enough, he admits, but still a larger number than most coding competitions.
He’s seen the impact it can have. One student, whom Godinez didn’t name for privacy reasons, got into college thanks to her robotics accomplishments. She began the program at the start of high school. Now she’s encouraging other girls to get involved.
“Even though she’s leaving, she’s already mentoring other female students,” Godinez said. “So it continues.”