Soboba students enjoy STEM robotics lesson

Stacy Smith Ledford, PK-12 student success program officer for American Indian Science and Engineering Society, explains to Soboba Tribal Preschool kindergartners how to set up a “track” for the car-shaped robot to follow during a recent STEM lesson. Valley News/Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians photo

Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians

Special to the Valley News

A recent robotics lesson at Soboba Tribal Preschool proved that even the youngest children can learn to enjoy science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Thanks to an education program through the nonprofit organization AISES, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, kindergarten students are being taught the basics of coding and having fun doing so.

Kindergarten teacher Sierra Vivanco had a training session this past summer with Stacy Smith Ledford, who is the PK-12 Student Success Program Officer for AISES. It enabled Vivanco to be able to introduce the STEM program to her students when the new school year began.

Ledford, who lives in Colorado, previously taught kindergarten, first, third and fifth grades before joining the nonprofit in January. She was in her element when she brought robotic cars to the Soboba classroom, Thursday, Sept. 22, and worked directly with the students.

“As an educator, I was able to impact a small group of students on an annual basis,” she said. “In this position I have been able to give back to my Native community and reach hundreds of students and help them discover pathways to STEM.”

Ledford is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Through AISES’ SPRK-ing Interest in Computer Science program, she works with preschool through high school age students. There are additional programs that work with age groups from preschool to graduate students and workforce professionals.

“We do our best to communicate with the teachers and plan to differentiate accordingly,” she said. “Sierra has been a dream to work with at Soboba and provides the necessary information I need to facilitate my lesson. We were able to ‘launch’ the new indi robot with the Soboba preschool because of Sierra’s AISES partnership. We are so fortunate to have educators that are passionate about STEM and bringing these resources to their students.”

Vivanco is very impressed with the organization and its mission to introduce STEM to Indigenous schools throughout the country, providing all of the funding and tools needed for the students to learn. Her own class was introduced to the Sphero Indycar robots, the first school to experience them. Ledford said the great thing about the Sphero Indi is that it comes with everything needed in a class pack.

“After I leave, the teachers have the curriculum in hand and resources they need to continue the building blocks to coding. I offer virtual Zoom meetings to support educators if they need additional training,” Ledford said.

Vivanco said the car-shaped robots were embraced right away by her students.

“They were so excited about using robots; they thought it was the coolest thing ever,” she said. “It is also a bonus that Ms. Stacy was a teacher before she started working with AISES, so she works well with younger students.”

The concepts utilized to “program” the robots are things that this age group is regularly reviewing and learning about such as colors, directions, problem-solving skills, following rules and decision making. To make the cars react, colored tiles are laid out in a certain pattern. Green means go, yellow is slow and several different colors indicate directional turns. The students took turns starting the car at one end of a line of tiles to see how it would behave. They learned that multiple green tiles at the beginning would increase its speed and that the car’s trajectory could be changed by introducing a different color tile. They seemed most excited to have it land on the purple tile, which made it “dance” by spinning in circles.

After working together as an entire class to determine a path for the car, students were divided into teams to work with a car robot and their own set of tiles to make it perform the way they wanted. After much trial and error and negotiations on what to try next, the teams cheered when they successfully programmed their robot to complete the desired path. When it was time to go to the playground for recess, a few students asked if they could take the cars outside to play with them.

Vivanco said she loves that all of the AISES instructors are of Indigenous descent or Tribal affiliations. She is looking forward to attending the organization’s national conference in Palm Springs, Oct. 6-8, to meet with other Indigenous educators who are involved with AISES and receive more professional development on how she can incorporate additional STEM within her own classroom.

“We don’t often see other role models who come from the same ethnicity and work/educational background,” she said. “At the kindergarten level, the standards embrace a lot of STEM work and building concepts. The indi robots are great at capturing the coding and pattern-making skills for STEM.”

Vivanco is using the robots as an incentive to work towards each day, setting aside a certain amount of time at the end of the day for them to pair up and work with the robots. She hopes to be receiving more kits so that each student will be able to have one of their own to work with independently.

Preschool Director Donovan Post also serves as principal at Noli Indian School on the Soboba Indian Reservation, where some of his 6-12 grade students are already familiar with AISES and robotics.

“We were introduced to the program through Soboba Tribal TANF. We knew this would be a great program for the middle school students at Noli. We had a quick trial run during our summer school session and the high school students loved it,” he said. “Sierra came and we tried using the robots for the kinder class. We knew at the time that those robots (Sphero Bolt) were a little too evolved for that age level. We found out that they had different robots in the shape of cars that are geared for the lower grade levels.”

Post said he loves it when students do not even realize that they are learning math and other subjects and are just having fun in the classroom.

Soboba Tribal Council Chair Isaiah Vivanco recently accepted an offer to be the chair of AISES’ Tribal Nations Advisory Council, whose primary role is to advise the organization on issues of relevance and importance to Tribal Nations and assist AISES in creating opportunities for Tribal nations and their citizens. He was sent a letter from AISES CEO Sarah Echohawk asking for his participation on the voluntary board. After discussion with Soboba Tribal Council members, he accepted the offer to join. Ultimately, the offer turned into an offer to be the TNAC chair.

“I got involved with AISES because of the opportunity it can deliver to our Native youth,” he said. “At home here at Soboba, our youth have now participated in AISES programs for a couple of years and the excitement I see in their participation makes me want to do what I can to see that AISES reaches out to more Native youth.”

Chairman Vivanco, who is also Sierra’s father, added that he knows how important it is to get the youth involved early with STEM because now and in the future, technology is going to be at the forefront of the way we live. Introducing youth and getting them involved early helps to keep the interest there. He said that when Soboba youth began participating in AISES programs, he got to know some of the advocates and staff and that Soboba has helped support the nonprofit’s efforts.

“My role as chairman of the Tribal Nations Advisory Council is to assist AISES in addressing the growing needs for Tribal STEM workforce development needs. We also help AISES shape and guide STEM programming for Native youth,” Vivanco said. “I hope our youth here at Soboba can benefit from STEM education. This robotic car program is just a start in what I hope to be a more involved effort to bring STEM awareness to our youth. This will help prepare them for their futures.”

Ledford said the ultimate goal for AISES is to get students excited about STEM and see themselves as a scientist, computer programmer, engineer and similar careers and further develop Indigenous representation in these fields.

“By bringing resources to schools and introducing them to students in the preschool, elementary and middle school ages, we have the opportunity to help students find their strengths and a pathway to STEM where they are supported by an extensive community of Indigenous STEM professionals,” she said. “I would love to visit as often as possible, however our grant projects have limitations on travel. We are hoping that Tribes who appreciate and foster a love for STEM would invite us to future events so we can help them expand their resources and training for their students.”

Sierra Vivanco said she has high hopes that her students will soon be able to code and memorize the meaning of each of the color tiles and how they can utilize them to create paths for their car robots.

“I also hope that they will see STEM differently and use it more in their everyday lives, because STEM can be fun, too!” she said.

For more information, visit