Mini-camp aims to spark interest in robotics




A chorus of "oohs" and "ahhs" followed a remote controlled quad-copter as it shot 900 feet into the hot summer sky Wednesday afternoon at Garden City High School during a mini-robotics camp, presented by a group of educators from Emporia State University.

"It looks like a toy, but it's an RC autonomous robot that's really difficult to crash. If you shut the remote off, it lands itself by satellite," Matt Seimears, associate professor and associate chair of the elementary education/early childhood special education department at ESU, said.

The remote controlled, four-propeller copter, which includes a GPS system that allows it to automatically land itself when it loses contact with the controller and can hone in on — and fly to — the last location of the controller, was one of the highlights for about 35 local students during the mini-camp. Students also received instruction on how robotics are used in various industries and got to build robotic vehicles themselves.

Drew Marwaha, 11, who will be a sixth-grader, made a couple of robots this week, including one with his mom. He said the small one took about 15 minutes, while a larger one took about three days.

"I really like robotics, and I wanted to learn more. What I've been learning this week has been really fun. When you're making it, it's hard. But when you're done, it gets exciting," he said.

Ruben Villatoro, who will be a seventh-grader, said he finds electronics and robotics interesting, particularly artificial intelligence. He said he looked forward to the chance to actually build a robot during the camp. Villatoro said he plans on going to college and studying forensic science.

Alex Carrillo, 13, who will start eighth grade in the fall, said he came to camp because he's interested in robots, and even has attempted to make one out of parts of broken cars.

"I just wanted to learn what robotics is and how to build them," he said. "I like learning how they work with humans."

Carrillo said he plans to go to a college like ITT Tech when he finishes high school, but hasn't decided exactly what he wants to study.

The camp, which continues this afternoon, was designed for students in sixth through 12th grades to learn more about robotics, and was actually part of a two-week summer institute for local science and math teachers. At the end of the mini-camp, students took home a free solar-powered robotic vehicle that could fit in someone's palm.

"We had this vision and idea of connecting to not only teachers in western Kansas about robotics, but helping students understand physics or STEM, which is science, technology, engineering and mathematics, using a robotics platform to turn them on to careers," Seimears said.

Since July 22, teachers have gone through intensive, in-depth training in robotics, physics, force and different applications of the technology that they can teach to students in their various disciplines, as well as to other teachers, Seimears said.

The in-service included 15 teachers from Garden City schools and one each from the Liberal and Scott City school districts.

"When Emporia State University leaves, we've left behind highly-trained teachers who can not only teach the content, but they can weave it into their classrooms," he said.

Beth Atchley, a math teacher at GCHS, said the training and camp were both beneficial.

"I think this gives students a chance to explore, pique their interest in something that may not be normally used in a standard classroom. It gives the teachers a chance to experiment and try things that they might be able to more effectively use within the classroom," she said.

Atchley agreed the camp could help students think about future careers, and also could be useful across multiple academies at the high school, showing students how robotics are used across many different careers.

Seimears said the U.S. has lagged behind other countries in robotics programs, but has been trying to catch up.

"You see a proliferation of robotics everywhere. Farmers are using it now with drone helicopters to study irrigation platforms on their land. Instead of getting into a plane, they can send a GoPro camera into the air and look over their property," he said.

Seimears said the Kansas Board of Regents supplied a two-year, $264,112 teacher quality grant titled Western Kansas-STEM Experiences for All, allowing ESU to bring the program to Garden City. The goal is to create a partnership with the university, USD 457, and Pittsburg-based company DEPCO, which manufactures some of the robotics used, that will improve teachers' and students' knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math, and also spark an interest in future careers in those areas.

The reason Garden City was chosen was due to a suggestion from a former student of Seimears at ESU who suggested bringing something to western Kansas the next time a grant was approved.

Because it is a two-year grant, Seimears and ESU will offer another training session and mini-camp next summer. Sometime this fall, the ESU group will return to Garden City for a robotics competition, but a date hasn't yet been determined.

During the competition, the teachers who went through the in-service this summer as a group will compete against fellow teachers to see how well their students applied what they learned in classes this fall.

Every year, ESU has a similar competition on campus. This past spring, 16 teams competed, and sixth-graders beat college and high school kids, Seimears said, which exemplifies the enthusiasm robotics can bring.

"We're seeing a high interest in students into this cool, Erector set-style toy, because we've sort of changed from a generation where kids used to build their toys to one where toys are built and you just put batteries in them. We used to have to construct, design and build them," he said.

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