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2013-06-28 / Features

STEM Camp at MRC: Preparation for the future

Students navigate the world of robotics
By Cindy Kujala
HTF Staff Writer


The students and staff of Mesabi Range College’s 2013 STEM Camp posed for a picture on the last day of camp. Photo by Brenda Kochevar. The students and staff of Mesabi Range College’s 2013 STEM Camp posed for a picture on the last day of camp. Photo by Brenda Kochevar. Science. Technology. Engineering. Math. You hear these terms often. Frequently they are mentioned when talking about the future of our country and maintaining our preeminent status in the world.

All hands were on deck (a small group of them, anyway) the week of June 10, 2013, when Mesabi Range College hosted STEM Camp on the Virginia campus for students entering grades 7 – 10 this fall. This was the fifth year of STEM Camp at MRC and this year’s camp focused on exploring the world of robotics and the role of science, technology, engineering and math in programming, building and testing robots. Topics from other years included natural disasters and forensics.

Thirty-seven students coming from a variety of towns and schools attended this year’s STEM Camp. Although it is not always easy to recruit from this age group – they are, after all, giving up a week of summer vacation – this was the largest group MRC has hosted to date. “My hat is off to these students,” said Lisa Kvas, the overseer of the program. Working with STEM Camp is just one of her many responsibilities at the college. “These students choose to come to camp to learn, to prepare for the future. They inspire me,” she said. “They contribute as much to this camp as the staff does.”

The staff at this year’s STEM Camp included Jason Slattery, physics instructor at MRC, and Mohammad Habibi, Iron Range Engineering instructor; two Iron Range Engineering students, Dan Schultz and Mike Lynch; Luke Johnson, MRC English instructor, and his wife, Alyssa Johnson, who has assisted with previous STEM Camps at MRC; and Travis Johnson, eFolio program coordinator at MRC. Tim Strasser, teacher at Eveleth-Gilbert High School, brought a human-size robot to class one day to share with the students. Dan Rushton, a robotics mentor from Hibbing, was another speaker brought in to share information with the young learners.

Besides overseeing the entire STEM Camp, Kvas is also responsible for hiring the instructors, assigning duties to staff and grant writing. The result of the grant writing is one of the things she was especially proud of in that they were able to keep the tuition cost very low ($75 for the entire week, which included lunch and snacks all week, a field trip, and a STEM Camp notebook and t-shirt for each camper). Additionally, full scholarships were available based on financial need. “We go after grant funding to make camp affordable and accessible to any student,” Kvas said. Kvas and MRC administration share the recognition of how important it is to make pre-college opportunities available and they work hard to find funding. This year’s camp program costs were supplemented by a generous grant from the Minnesota Center for Engineering & Manufacturing Excellence. A full third of the students attended by way of scholarship assistance.

The first day of camp saw the students learning about resistors, batteries and capacitors. They were also introduced to Boe-Bots, which they would be building in small teams during the week. Day two of camp focused on both digital electronics and programming their Boe-Bots to navigate through an obstacle course. Topics of digital electronics included gates/truth tables and Boolean algebra (a subarea of algebra). Soldering was a highlight for many of the students on Thursday while they also continued learning how to get their Boe-Bot to navigate the obstacle course.

The students learned to solder by using basic soldering kits that made noises. “For example,” Travis

Johnson explained, “there were kits that made chirping noises or lit up when soldered correctly.”

Their learning also included a field trip day on Wednesday to experience day-in-the-life robotics at local businesses. Their first stop was at the Silicon Energy’s solar module facility in Mt. Iron, followed by visits to L & M Radiator’s manufacturing facility and DMR Electronics Manufacturing, both in Hibbing. At least one student noted in their camp survey, “The field trip day was a blast!” Students also enjoyed the lunch stop at Pizza Ranch in Hibbing.

The week concluded with practice navigation on Friday morning and then the course competition – which was a timed competition in getting their Boe-Bots to navigate through the corners and turns of the cardboard constructed obstacle course. The excitement was palpable as the students eagerly watched their creations make their way through to the finish line. Additional time was added as a penalty if the Boe-Bot required hands-on correction or assistance. The Boe-Bots were constructed with whiskers and light sensors for navigation. “If a Boe-Bot hit a wall, it would correct itself thanks to the whiskers” Travis explained. “Also, the students were able to program the Boe-Bots to use light navigation.” The students used flashlights to activate the sensors and help the Boe-Bots move through the course.

Awards and a parent ice cream social hour followed the students’ Boe-Bot competition and brought the week of STEM Camp learning to an end. “It was a super successful week,” Kvas said, “with zero problems.” The parents’ survey responses were almost entirely in the “very satisfied” category. One parent wrote about their son’s camp experience: “We drove every day for two hours one-way, and he made me feel it was worth every mile and early morning. He is a whiz in math, so I hope this helps him to look towards his future and career possibilities. Thank you!” Another parent wrote that his/ her son “learned more in one day here than all school year in science class.” The “start to finish hands-on approach” was also appreciated.

Travis Johnson felt that the varied feedback received from the students was indicative of “an all-around positive experience.” It was his first time working with STEM Camp for MRC. “I wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of the week; overall, it was very rewarding and fun to watch students learn new skills and interact with one another, especially during the summer when they typically aren’t required to be in a classroom!”

Truth tables and Boolean algebra or summer vacation? You might not think there is any comparison, but you would be underestimating these students who are motivated and excited to learn. The participants were asked, “What was the best thing about this camp?” The answers varied from programming the Boe-Bots to soldering to “being with friends and learning together” to the food, but at least one student’s answer probably summed up the best thing about STEM Camp in just one word: “Everything.”

What is a Boe-Bot?

Boe–Bot is short for Board of Education robot. It is the trade name of a robot kit that is used in American college and high school robotics classes. It consists of a main circuit board (the Board of Education), a plug–in microcontroller, servo (an automatic device that uses error-sensing negative feedback to correct the performance of a mechanism) motors to drive the wheels, a bread board and an aluminum chassis that the parts bolt onto. Students can use erector set parts, Lego blocks, and additional servos to build custom projects. – Wikipedia.org.

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