Programming robots launches interest in engineering

Programming robots launches interest in engineering

Noah Ray and Diego Fierro build robots as a part of a CU Science Discovery engineering camp

June 24, 2016

Diego Fierro, 13, hopes to be a mechanical engineer someday. And thanks to a LEGO Robotics: Space Challenge camp at the University of Colorado Boulder, Diego took one step closer to that dream this week.

“I’ve never built anything with LEGO Mindstorms before,” Diego explained, as he programmed the robot’s next move. “It’s cool because it gives me an idea of how a machine works, how every piece is important and has a job.”

Diego was one of 30 middle school students from Skinner and Lake middle schools and Bryant Webster – an early childhood through eighth grade school – in Denver who built and programmed robots as part of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Science Discovery residential camp.

The summer camp is a partnership between CU Science Discovery, CU-Boulder’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement and the Summer Academic Focused Education program, a nonprofit that provides hands-on experiences in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to middle school students in northwest Denver. These week-long camps focus on architecture, business and engineering and are held at CU-Boulder, UC Denver and the Colorado School of Mines.

“Many low-income, first-generation students haven't had much exposure to STEM fields,” said Ron Gallegos, who coordinates the northwest Denver summer program. “Through hands-on projects like programming robots, STEM becomes something they understand and as a result they might choose as a potential career.”

Stacey Forsyth, director of CU Science Discovery, said the week-long camp – led by graduate students in engineering – teaches computer programming, engineering design and robotics. After building the robots, the middle schoolers programmed the LEGO creations to conduct mock space-related challenges, which included collecting rock samples and launching a satellite. CU Science Discovery offers a variety of camps and programs throughout the year that focus on STEM fields, Forsyth said.

Chris Pacheco, director of pre-collegiate programs for CU-Boulder’s Office for Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement, said his office is helping coordinate day and residential camps at CU-Boulder for nearly 700 underrepresented middle and high school students from across the state this summer.

“As with all of our pre-collegiate programs, the earlier and more often you get students on campus, the more likely it is that students will see themselves as college students,” said Pacheco.

For many students, touring science labs, staying in the dorms and visiting the recreation center were as exciting as learning new science skills.

“I like how we get to have the experience of college life,” said Noah Ray, 14. “It’s getting me prepared for college. I can think about it and imagine what it’s going to be like.”

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