In 2004, a “ragtag robotics team” arrived at a collegiate competition held at the University of California, Santa Barbara; just four undocumented teenage boys from a Title 1 high school, where most students live in poverty.
Christian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, Luis Aranda and Oscar Vasquez were attending Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona, and decided to build an underwater robot “just for the hell of it.” When they pulled up to the university, however, touting their “raggedy ass robot,” they “looked like the carnival had arrived.”
The group was up against the likes of MIT, a powerhouse school that’s home to The CSAIL Center for Robotics, a Biomimetic Robotics Lab and Personal Robots Group, among other labs and departments. How could their technology, built from PVC pipe purchased at Home Depot, duct tape and eight super-plus tampons hold up?
Well, “Fast forward to a shocking result. This rag-tag high school team of undocumented Mexican boys did what no one thought was possible.”
They beat MIT and won the competition — a victory that’s captured in a new documentary, written and directed by Mary Mazzio, called Underwater Dreams.
The film follows the group, who were able to inspire and instill into other students the notion that science and technology were career possibilities.
A decade after the competition, MIT professors invited the winning Hayden High School graduates to Cambridge for a reunion with the MIT team they beat. But, according to The Daily Beast, “the losers were now the winning engineers.” Columnist Jonathan Alter writes:
The undocumented winners haven’t done so well. Christian, who had finished second in his high school class, was forced to drop out of community college in 2006 under the harsh terms of Arizona’s Proposition 300, which denies state aid to undocumented students. Lorenzo went to culinary school and started a small catering company, where Luis, a janitorial supervisor, helps out. Oscar, hoping to join the Army and become legal, turned himself in to the authorities, who deported him to Mexico. When their story reached Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), Oscar was allowed to come back to the United States and join the Army, where he served with distinction in Afghanistan. At present, he’s the only one working in a STEM-related business.
Atler added that when Mazzio showed the film to college students, a few requested she cut the reunion scene, “because it made them feel uncomfortable.” Yet, as the filmmaker told them, “Good. That was my intention. Now go do something about it.”
The White House recently announced a new nationwide campaign launched by NBCUniversal’s Hispanic Enterprises and Content. Called Aprender es Triunfar, the campaign is aimed at closing the achievement gap, particularly in STEM education. Underwater Dreams is at the core of the movement, and AMC Theatres has agreed to hosting 100 community screenings across the country to inspire further action. Babson College has also stepped forward in support of the film.
The MA STEM Council will reportedly be hosting a special advance screening of the documentary in Boston on August 7. Congressman Joe Kennedy and Jeb Bush, Jr. are said to be in attendance. For other screening dates, click here.