Do the Robot!

The traditional view of a kids’ summer camp is steeped in a nostalgic woodsy setting. There’s always a lake for swimming and canoeing and a nightly campfire with singing, swapping spooky stories and roasting various treats-on-a-stick.

This classic design was the “forest” ushering in a growing acceptance of “trees” — or the rising tide of specialty camps, which cater to a broader range of specific interests. Worldwide, camps and clubs are gaining attendance with participants eager to try various activities such as fencing, playing in a rock band, dramatic arts, or even explosives (it’s an engineering science, don’t ya know?).

For some parents and educators, electronic media has garnered a taboo reputation — its encroachment is feared as limiting, passive or dangerously violating. But even for kids who are raised without television, the inevitable desire for an iPhone moves in as naturally as osmosis. More positively, today’s savvy “elders” raised in the Atari age have utilized their digital roots to pursue engineering, computer programming, graphic designing and film or video editing; now in leadership roles, they’ve created engaging tech programs which may provide a threshold of interest for the newest generation.

Sara Sanders, who teaches the budding Robotics Club at Odyssey Community School in Asheville, will earn her Bachelors of Science in Engineering with a Mechatronics concentration from both UNCA and North Carolina State University this spring. The club was started by Odyssey Executive Director Dr. John Johnson, who runs the private Pre-K through 12th-grade campus on a foundation of experiential learning.

He also keeps a keen eye on the trends of the future. “I want kids to have exposure to engineering skills, to gain an interest as early as possible,” he tells Xpress.

Johnson initiated a collaboration with the NCSU Office at UNCA to offer Odyssey grade-school students the after-school program (the local college supplied all model kits and materials to minimize student cost).

Sanders teaches Robotics Club members related computer-programming skills and electronic-circuitry know-how. The seven enrolled students, boys age 8 to 13, work in teams of two to build and program their own “Sumobot” Robot Kit (manufactured by Parallax). Their autonomous creations will be able to follow a line, navigate a maze and “ultimately duke it out in a Sumo competition,” promises a line in the program’s curriculum.

The club meets biweekly after school in Odyssey’s hushed, cozy computer lab. “In this case, the computer is not a medium for social alienation or isolation. It is a tool that the kids have to cooperatively use to develop their robots,” explains Sanders as the boys barely glance up from their screens.

At the program’s halfway point, Sanders offers some intriguing observations: “I think initially they tend to have a very imaginative idea of what building robots looks like. Most kids want to make these huge, Transformer-style robots that will blow things up.

“When they see that the robots we are working with are quite small, they are a little disappointed,” she says. “But as they learn to program and use the sensors to control the ’bots, they get an understanding – the possibilities become much more exciting.”

Not just a boy’s club

Even in 2011, male engineers still significantly outnumber their female counterparts. Accordingly, there’s been a groundswell in recent years to coax preteen girls back into typically male-dominated school subjects.

Around third grade, some studies say, girls begin to lose interest in math and science. Among other groups endeavoring to correct this, North Carolina’s “Peaks to Piedmont” chapter of the Girl Scouts is taking part in a new initiative: The STEM program uses girls’ existing connection to their peers to foster a collective interest in the fields represented by the acronym: science, technology, electronics and math.

The group is continuing to work on grants and funding to strengthen its development, says Carrie Myers, director of programs for Peaks to Piedmont.

“It is our goal to nurture this interest so that more girls build a strong STEM foundation.” The ultimate hope, explains Myers, is to create “future female leaders who will meet the increasing need for science and technology professionals.”

This camp season, the STEM Summer Academy is an opportunity for girls to build and program LEGO Mindstorm robots, participate in sessions of digital photography and computer programs, and bond with girls of similar interest. But it’s not just a summer stint. The girl who may have discovered a particular interest, “can potentially continue this activity during the school year, such as joining a First Lego League robotics team,” says Myers.

While the community ethic is an underlying tenet of woodsy camp life, the more specialized youth clubs and camps seem to celebrate the uniqueness of the individual, a developmentally appropriate tool in any adolescent or tween’s quest for identity.

— Freelance writer Cara Ciliberto lives in West Asheville, where she enjoys playing records, drinking strong coffee, and searching for images in cloud formations with her twin 4-year-old boys.

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