Puerto Rican Engineers Mentor Area Youth

Apr 23, 2015

At El Puente Tutoring Center in the Twin Towers district in Dayton, students are preparing balloons for an experiment. Their instructor, Edgardo Santiago, is a chemical engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He says the experiment was inspired by a recent post he saw on Facebook that claimed gas from mixing vinegar and baking soda could be used to float birthday balloons.

“A lot of my friends were, ‘Oh yeah, this is such a great idea. I’m going to try it,’ and I’m like, I’m gonna educate you guys,” he said.

Santiago and a young TAFSS student mix small amounts of baking soda and vinegar for their experiment.
Credit Jerry Kenney

The students carefully follow Santiago’s step-by-step instructions, mixing vinegar and baking soda into plastic bottles that they attach to balloons. The gas it creates fills up the balloons, and the kids tie them off and throw them into the air. They don’t float; lesson learned.

Santiago is one of three men who started a program at El Puente to to get kids interested in science and technology. The Academy For STEM and Sports, or TAFSS, uses sports and games to teach STEM subjects. And, Santiago's part of a large group of Puerto Rican engineers and scientists in the Dayton area.

"I'd probably be selling drugs"

Santiago grew up in Puerto Rico, where he learned the importance of getting a college education.

“I remember my dad saying, ‘I wanna push you so you can do better than I did.’”

Joselito Gracia, who heads the program, grew up in New York City—he says he never expected to go to college.

“My dad was an alcoholic, my family was all either on drugs or doing the bad things, so my life was already heading to the wrong direction," he said. "If I were to predict what my life was to be I would have said, ‘Yeah, I’d probably be selling drugs, using drugs, in jail."

Now Gracia works at Northrop Grumman in Dayton. He founded TAFSS with Santiago and another Wright-Patt engineer about two years ago to help low-income minority kids get on track to higher education. 

Credit TAFSS

All three founders loved playing played baseball growing up, so they had the idea to use sports to teach science, technology, engineering and math. Gracia says the students learn about the speed and trajectory of a baseball pitch, the aerodynamics of airplane flight and the science of soccer.

“And we wanted the youth to understand ... although it’s fun but there’s still math behind it, science behind it all. Let’s tie it all together.”

Puerto Ricans Recruited To Dayton

The founders of TAFSS took the idea for the program to Wright State University, which agreed to partner with them. Grace Ramos, a Wright State trustee, says a lot of kids see sports as a way out of poverty.

“Yeah, it’s great to do sports, but you know what, you need an education and a career,” she said.

Ramos says the TAFSS founders are part of a long history of educated, professional Puerto Ricans in the area. In the mid-70s, her late husband was the Hispanic program manager at Wright-Patt, where he recruited technology and engineering graduates from Puerto Rico. That program continues.

“So the benefit has been bringing in the brain power here and also diversifying the workforce so that people have a better way of working with each other," Ramos said. 

Juan Santana demonstrates electrical current to TAFSS students.
Credit Jerry Kenney

Co-founder Juan Santana says TAFSS's success comes partly from the three men's shared heritage.

“We have a very good chemistry between each other," Santana said. "We have a different point of view, and I think we have the connections to bring all the people together in here.”

In its first year, the program had thirty students. The three founders hope to eventually expand the academy into a national program.

Graduating Latino is WYSO's series on education for Latinos in the Miami Valley, produced in partnership with Think TV. It's part of the public media initiative American Graduate, which is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.