At Woolslair Elementary in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, building robots is a popular after school activity.

On this particular day, students gather around a long, rectangular whiteboard spread across the floor. Some tinker with last minute adjustments to their 4-wheeled bots. Others practice driving, using the remote control to steer and spin the bots around.

All this is in preparation for the upcoming VEX Robotics Competition later in the week at the Sarah Heinz House. The tourney will bring students and bots together from around the region to compete in a test of robotic prowess. Teams of two work together in one minute lightning rounds to move plastic colored blocks from one end of the playing field to the other. Points are awarded for placement and stacking with a robotic claw, which is way harder than it looks.

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Photo by Rob Larson

Welcome to Tech Warriors, a new afterschool program piloted this fall by the Neighborhood Learning Alliance, a nonprofit that offers educational opportunities to students and families in underserved neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

The program is a spinoff of another successful NLA program called Reading Warriors, which matches high school teens with elementary students to work on reading skills. The only difference is the subject matter. Tech Warriors help younger students with scientific literacy, otherwise known as STEM skills—science, technology, engineering and math.

Tech Warriors meet with students after school, usually twice a week. The teens and teachers assist students, grades three through five, in learning coding, visual logic and the creation of animation and games. The second part of the class involves building robots using kits developed by CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center.

Karen Jueng, Woolslair site coordinator, admits she initially had her doubts. Students who struggle with math concepts are not always able to engage successfully in a program like this, she says. Those very students, however, proved her wrong.

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Giordan Dixon mentoring elementary students. Photo by Rob Larson.

“I’ve seen a change in them,” Jueng says. “It’s been a really great way to reach these kids and help them develop these skills outside the classroom. These kids need role models.”

One of those role models is Giordan Dixon of Highland Park, a 14-year-old junior at Pittsburgh Online Academy. An exceedingly bright student with warm eyes and a gentle smile—he shyly admits to testing out of two grades in school—Dixon enjoys working with younger students. He found his way to the program through Assemble, the art and tech incubator in Garfield that is helping to train Tech Warrior teens.

“I like to tinker around on my computer with coding but I’m no whiz,” he says. “But I like helping the students. I think it helps that we’re closer in age (than the teachers) and we’ve grown up and gone through many of the same things.”

The VEX robotics competition is a serious undertaking for many of the teams who will attend–something they’ve been working on for months. Woolslair students will be winners just by being there, says Cole Hoyer Winfield, program coordinator for the NLA.

“Tech Warriors is pretty ambitious,” he explains. “We’re giving inner city youth exposure to the technology education field and leadership skills in the classroom by having them be role models to younger students. It provides them with opportunities and exposures they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

The undertaking is multifaceted, involving several strategic partners who are working with the NLA including Assemble Pittsburgh, Magee Women’s Hospital, Google Pittsburgh, the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation and Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC).

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Photo by Rob Larson.

“The goal is to try and change the orientation of these students to the world so they can move forward and see themselves in a different way in terms of technology and science and producing content,” says Stephen MacIssac, executive director of NLA.

“A natural bond exists between high school and elementary kids,” he adds. “Our hope is that these after school sessions will light a spark within both the teens and the students to excel. It’s an amazing development opportunity for both.”

Beginning this January, Tech Warriors will expand to include five Pittsburgh public high schools that will send up to 40 teens to mentor students in after school elementary programs at Lincoln, Weil, Arsenal and Woolslair. Assemble in Garfield is training the teens who will receive a stipend for their time.

“The main idea is to get kids to not just be consumers of technology but producers,” says Nina Barbuto of Assemble. “What will be interesting is to see what happens when the kids who are being taught are in high school. The youth mentorship program will build future mentors for the program.”