By Karen Shumway
Every year, Nova Labs Robotics hosts summer day camps to boost STEM skills. This year, in addition to the two programs that have been running for years, we are premiering a new workshop aimed at an older set of kids. To that end, we are running RobotMakers in August, a camp designed to teach EV3 Mindstorm programming skills to rising 6th-8th graders, SuGOBots in July, a camp which aims to develop robot design skills to rising 4th-6th graders, and Pushbot Phantasm in June, a camp designed to ease the transition between FIRST LEGO League (FLL) and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) by teaching basic Tetrix build and Android/Java programming skills to rising 7th-10th graders.
Spencer Allain, a veteran key member, worked with Nick Swayne at James Madison University and the Smithsonian Institution to develop the RobotMakers curriculum years ago. Then, when they could no longer support it, Spencer brought it to Nova Labs and has taken vacation time from his day job every year to offer valuable mentorship and ensure it continues. Mentors build the robots ahead of camp every summer according to the basic build instructions provided in the box, so campers do very little building other than to attach sensors as needed. Instead they focus on programming their robots to navigate obstacle courses designed by Spencer and the mentors out of colored electrical tape, buckets, and whatever scrap they think looks interesting. As the week progresses, the obstacle courses get more complicated and require more sophisticated sensor use for successful navigation. I love watching Spencer engage with kids. I don’t know if it’s because he’s been mentoring with FIRST for 15 years, or because he’s just a genuinely great educator, but he is very good at encouraging students so that they generate their own solutions—Spencer never just tells them how to build or program something! And since he trains the mentors to follow his example, he’s also generated some great mentors along the way.
Marybeth Haneline, President of the Board, introduced our young makers to the world of SuGOBots several years ago after she went to Maryland and watched a SuGO session (http://www.sugobot.com) in action. SuGOBots are robots built to battle each other on a circular arena and they are made of LEGO Technic pieces and the EV3 Mindstorm brick, plus a special SuGoEyes sensor. There is no student programming in SuGOBots, the battle code was developed by Phil Malone and GEARS (Garrett Engineering and Robotics Society). Instead, students spend their time honing their design and build skills to create the baddest—but still legal!—robot they can, in hopes of being the last bot standing in the arena after pushing out all competition. The secret sauce to the this camp, as well as all other Nova Labs Robotics workshops, seems to be that the young engineers are primarily mentored by high school and college students. There is always an adult chaperone on site, and we do jump in with Socratic questioning where necessary, but the grown-ups mostly let the mentors guide the students through their day. The engineering process is iterative, it seldom works on the first try, and kids seem to respond to those challenges best when guided by mentors not terribly older than they are themselves.
New this year is a camp designed by Michael Kim, another key member and volunteer on the Nova Labs Robotics Council. Michael’s son participated in FLL with his team, achieving great success and going to Globals in 2018. Rather than resting on their laurels and returning for perhaps another championship FLL season, the entire team chose to become a rookie FTC team, even though they were quite young, all rising seventh graders. They formed the Nova Knights and worked alongside other Nova Labs Robotics FTC teams, performing admirably in their competitions. But Michael, their coach, says it was a huge transition because the skillsets necessary for 3D printing, sensor integration, Android phone programming, and even screwdriver assembly of a basic pushbot are so much more demanding than those required to build and program a successful LEGO-based robot. He therefore created Pushbot Phantasm to fill that gap, a half-day camp designed for middle and high schoolers, probably rookie FTC members, to learn the basic skills necessary to build with Tetrix pieces, hubs, gearboxes, and servos and to program phones using Java in Android Studio.
If you live with a young STEM enthusiast and would like them to spend a week learning valuable hands-on skills instead of playing Fortnite, please send them our way! Registration needs to happen in two places because of the vagaries of Meetup.