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A tale of two robotics camps: middle and high school students are inspired to become future engineers

Through a partnership between the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering (BCOE) and the Redlands Unified School District, dozens of students in 8th through 12th grade explored their love of science and took part in immersive robotics camps.

After summer camps in 2020 were suspended or brought online due to COVID-19, this July hands-on, in-person learning was back in full swing for bright young minds with a passion for STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math.

Through a partnership between the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering (BCOE) and the Redlands Unified School District, dozens of students in 8th through 12th grade explored their love of science and took part in immersive two-week robotics camps, where they learned how to assemble, code and move their own robot.

With women and people who have a lower socioeconomic status being traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, the camps were focused on addressing this gap early on. During the program, students with these backgrounds were introduced to college-level STEM activities in a low-stress, fun environment.

“The problem-solving we do as engineers is done best when people bring unique and diverse life experiences,” said Marko Princevac, associate dean of academic affairs at BCOE. “By engaging these underrepresented students prior to setting foot on a college campus and welcoming them to explore STEM, we show them everyone has a seat at the table while diversifying fields of science.”   

At the Robotics Camp for Middle School Girls, each student was provided with a robot kit. With the guidance of the instructors, the students assembled tracked robots equipped with a manipulator to pick up objects. After assembly, students learned how to move the robot by using and editing simple starter code. Students then learned how to automate processes, improve control of actuators, integrate sensors, and develop basic intelligence to perform tasks such as following a line, avoiding obstacles and picking up objects.

The students’ final mission: have their robot pick up, transport and place an object, while following a lined path and avoiding obstacles as autonomously as possible.  

Robotics Camp for Middle School Girls
A middle schooler adjusts her assembled robot to ensure it stays on the right path.

With missions accomplished, students gave presentations to teachers and parents about what they did during the camp, explained how their robot decides how to move and act, and reflected on what they learned.

“Redlands continues to look for opportunities for our students to excel in the areas of computer science and robotics,” said Dr. Kenneth Wagner, assistant superintendent of RUSD. “We appreciate the team at UCR for partnering with RUSD to provide these opportunities and to focus on traditionally underrepresented students in the STEM fields.”

Organizers plan to monitor how many students later take the Advanced Placement Computer Science course and exam to measure the long-term impact of the camp. The goal is to encourage them to pursue college education and careers in robotics, engineering, computer science and STEM more broadly.

The middle school robotics camp was co-organized by Konstantinos Karydis, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and co-sponsored by Karydis’ recent five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award and RUSD.

“This was an exciting opportunity to inspire young girls to learn more about foundational components in the field of robotics, both electromechanical and algorithmic ones, and to offer them a more hands-on viewpoint of what robotics engineering entails,” said Karydis. “Our goal is to help them eventually make a more educated decision regarding their future academic and professional paths, whether these include robotics, only a component of it, or another STEM-related area.”

Karydis continued, “The camp was also a great opportunity to bring together a diverse instruction team that included a high school graduate, a high school teacher, a doctoral student, and a university professor. We all had a great time, and we look forward to next year’s offering.”

Meanwhile, upperclassmen at RUSD high schools were building their own functioning robots in a second camp, the Engineering Academy, led by Roman Chomko, Associate Professor of Teaching in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Their mission: use a Smart-Phone game controller application and/or PC-based application to interact with the robot and its sensors via Bluetooth or PC serial port. 

students working on robotics project
A pair of high schoolers finetune coding for their robots.

“This is the second time the camp was offered to RUSD high school students. Compared to the 2019’s summer camp, the number of students has almost doubled this year,” said Chomko. “Not only this has showed a continued interest in the program, but also demonstrated the need to possibly expand its content to include other contemporary areas of Electrical and Computer Engineering such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.”

“Both the Engineering Academy for High School students and Robotics Camp for Middle School Girls were just the right opportunity and time to expose, engage, motivate and challenge students coming out of the pandemic and inspire them to pursue a career in STEM,” said Deepika Srivastava, STEAM and innovation coordinator at RUSD, who co-organized both camps.

These robotics camps come on the heels of BCOE’s new Master’s degree in Robotics, the first of its kind in the University of California system. The interdisciplinary program is now accepting domestic applications for Fall 2021 admission through September 1. The international application closed on July 15.

If you would like to explore similar outreach opportunities with BCOE, get in touch with us at news@engr.ucr.edu.

Groups of high school students work on their robotic projects.
Groups of high school students work on their robotic projects.
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