Summer Pre-Engineering Camp Attendance Booms Under New Infrastructure

Wednesday, August 20, 2014
By Shianne Gruss, Iowa NSF EPSCoR

For six weeks, University of Iowa engineering classrooms became robot battlegrounds and obstacle courses for nearly 130 kids participating in the 2014 Summer Pre-Engineering Day Camps. This is the third year Iowa NSF EPSCoR has funded the summer camps at the UI, and—once again—they filled up fast.

Despite an extra five weeks offered this year, all slots were full by early April, said Tracy Peterson, director of diversity programs and K-12 outreach for the UI College of Engineering. This was the first summer Peterson organized the camps, as he recently joined the Iowa NSF EPSCoR team.

“Next year we’re looking to expand it even more,” Peterson said. While utilizing both morning and afternoon sessions increased participation, Peterson is looking to add several levels to each camp, as well as additional pilot camps in December and over spring break. At least 300 participants are anticipated for next summer, and Peterson hopes to offer more scholarships.

Three different camps have formed the base of the summer program, each catering to a certain age group: Lego Learners (grades 1-3), Lego Robotics (grades 4-6), and Tetrix Robotics (grades 7-9). The classes are restricted to about 10 kids, one instructor, and two mentors.

Coding Robotics Leads to Interest in STEM

Jeremy Richardson, engineering coordinator for the UI Department of Biology, instructed Lego Robotics and Tetrix Robotics. He encouraged and joked with the students throughout his instruction. “It looks like I’m going to have to build the next challenge,” Richardson said to a Tetrix Robotics class. “I didn’t think anyone would get past this one.”

Participant Chad Johnson, Iowa City West High, was one of those students that succeeded in passing Richardson’s challenge.  Johnson commanded his robot, using code, to maneuver its way through wooden blocks and pick up objects with two metal arms.

Johnson is a returning participant and said he enjoys completing the various objectives and learning how to control the robots differently. “I would be here all night if I could,” Johnson said.

After assembling the kits, students used code to program light, ultrasonic, and touch sensors. Some could even personalize the robots with sounds and faces.

“It’s amazing to see what [the kids] can do in a week,” said Alicia Hoffmann, a recent UI graduate in chemical engineering. Hoffmann was one of several students or former students to assist in the camp instruction.

While the challenges naturally became more advanced at each grade level and even each day, all camps had the same goal in mind: to increase students’ interest in STEM learning and careers.

Robotics Camps Attract Both Girls and Boys

Iowa NSF EPSCoR summer research intern Barbara Newhall, a sophomore at the University of Iowa, participated in the data collection throughout the summer. She found that, for nearly every STEM-related question, student interest slightly increased and knowledge greatly increased after participating in the camp. “As the days went on, they became more interested,” Newhall said. “I hope that they’re as excited [about STEM] as they grow older, especially the girls.”

All three camps saw more male than female participants, even the youngest camp, Lego Learners, with 28 males and 18 females participating.  The discrepancy was most apparent among Tetrix Robotics (older) campers, with 15 males and five females participating. Newhall would like to see more females participate in next year’s program. She suggests advertising targeted toward young girls.

Participant Justice Veira, from the U.S. Virgin Islands, participated in a Tetrix Robotics class while visiting her mother in Iowa City. She has done day camps before, but this was her first time at the University of Iowa. “I just like to do robotics,” Veira said.

​Bill Rashid, a UI junior in computer engineering, spent many afternoons with Veira’s Tetrix Robotics class. “It’s really fun to see kids get into it,” Rashid said. “They learn so much. They develop a passion for it.”

At the end of each week, students displayed their robot knowledge to their parents, competing in a “battlebot” arena or completing missions. While Peterson said they did not offer prizes, out of sportsmanship, each student did receive a T-shirt and bag of STEM-related materials.

To view Newhall's research poster highlighting the pre-engineering Lego day camps, click here.