In a competitive, but friendly competition on Saturday, March 9, more than 250 fourth through eighth-graders from citywide Department of Youth and Community Development funded afterschool programs rivaled each other in the “Leggo My Lego” qualifier youth robotics contest.

Students were vying for one of the six spots to advance to the NYC First Lego league semifinals. The event fostered a day of learning, engagement and a chance to make new friends.

It was a day for students to display their understanding of computational thinking, programming, mechanical engineering and the engineering design lifecycle. It served as a first step in planting a seed for the next generation of innovators from primarily Black and Hispanic communities.

There was a growth of stem jobs in New York City from 2010 to 2015 according to data from the state Department of Labor, but for Black workers there was a decrease in the Black workforce from 7 percent to 6.5 percent in the entire state.

“This program helps the kids to build skills like problem-solving, project management, helps with learning development, teamwork, communication,” said Norm Sutaria, director of community engagement for FIRST—For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. “All this serves as an outlet for kids that might not have access to this in schools and it increases an awareness of STEM.”

The various programs researched and developed solutions for real-world problems such as food safety, recycling and energy. The teams also designed, built and programmed a robot using Lego Mindstorms technology to answer the question of if they could develop innovations for human survival in outer space.

Robeson Edouard, a visual arts teacher at New Heights Middle School in Brooklyn, said that he is delighted by the interest that the children at his school displayed and he is proud to see that they are so motivated to be the best.

“I love to see that they are so engaged, they strive for perfection more than the adults do. They strive to get it right, they support each,” he said. “More so, I’m happy to see that they are taking an interest in innovations, science and math fields. This will show them that they can be the next STEM innovators, leaders and project managers.”

Anthony Rhem, director of the afterschool program at the Harriet Tubman Charter School, Claremont Neighborhood Center in the Bronx, said that he was pleased with the engagement of his students in their STEAM program and following through with their research. They did not build a robot, being that it was their first year at the competition, but they presented research of rover landings on Mars. They showcased a rover that came equipped with 12 durable drones fully capable of producing high definition pictures and could detect various gases in the air. They were also given a chance by other teams at the competition to learn the software and to tinker with their robots.

According to Rhem, they add architecture to their program to give students a wider variety of programs for them to explore.

“Taking an interest in science, technology, architecture, engineering and math can only be beneficial for students in the long run,” he said. “We are preparing students for futures that they could only dream of, it’s a field that needs representation by people of color and I’m sure it pays well.”

STEM jobs are on the rise and the average starting salary shows that pay is higher for STEM than for regular non-STEM jobs. In data released by the state Department of Labor, the 2015 median hourly wage for job titles classified as “STEM Core” was $41.74, which is almost 60 percent higher than the comparable wage of $24.60 for non-STEM job titles.

Miriam Arana, assistant coordinator of the team Bronx Works representing the South Bronx Preparatory Middle School, said their program also adds an “a” to the STEM acronym. She said its stands for art. They allow students to explore fashion, support them in song writing and learning about anime design. Their program even has their own YouTube channel all run by the students.

“This is fun for them, you get to build robots with Legos that move and turn and respond to their computed commands,” she said. “They might not see the lasting impact that taking part in STEM or a contest like this might have on them, but the core values are being instilled within them for now.”