Middle schoolers master robotics at Rensselaer

by Emily Donohue on August 7, 2014

A group of middle school students from the Greater Amsterdam School District got a taste of college life as part of a program offered by the Center for Initiatives in Pre-College Education this summer. The students spent a week on campus learning how to build and program robots and working together to put their robots through a series of challenges.

The program encourages the students, who will all enter 8th grade at the Wilbur H. Lynch Literacy Academy this September, to think about college earlier than most would otherwise, said Assistant Principal Chuck Myers. The students who participated were all recommended for the residential program by their science teachers. When they get back to school, “they’ll be a step ahead and will have a lot of knowledge to share with their classmates,” Myers said.

At a demonstration for parents and teachers Aug. 1, the students worked in teams of two and three to put their robots through a series of challenges including navigating a maze, delivering a ping-pong ball to a specific location, and climbing a ramp. As each robot successfully performed its task, the students cheered each other’s work.

One of the students, Austin Levoy, said the camp opened his eyes to the potential of robots: “You can program them to do anything you can possibly imagine.” His classmate Gabriella Feliciano said robotics had never caught her attention before the camp. “I learned how to work motors” during the camp, she said. “It was amazing, I loved it.”

A group of Rensselaer students worked as counselors throughout the session, applying their advanced math, science, and engineering skills to introduce robotics to the middle school students. That group included Amy Watterson, an aeronautical and mechanical engineering student who will enter her third year at Rensselaer this fall.

“It’s a lot of fun because I still feel like a kid and I like to play with LEGOs,” she said. Working with the young students is also a rewarding experience as they learn new skills, she said. “They often think it’s too hard at first, but then they manage to do it.”

Shelli Casler-Failing, who teaches math to students in grades 5-8 at the Robert C. Parker School, said getting students at that age level excited about math and science is crucial to their future success. “If you don’t get them invested in math and science at the middle school level, when they get to high school it’s next to impossible to bring them in,” she said.

The weeklong robotics challenge was just one of many offered to local students at Rensselaer this summer. Other camps included a more advanced robotics workshop for high school students, animation and gaming, and several LEGO robotics challenges.

Below is some video of one student group showing off their robot’s abilities:

[vimeo 102834774]