Rolling robots programmed by 30 high school students are navigating mazes and stimulating interest in science and technology this week at the State University of New York at Cobleskill.
On their second day of a five-day robotics camp, 9th- and 10th-graders from throughout the state were already busy Tuesday testing and tuning the approximately 8-inch plastic vehicles assembled from LEGO building blocks and robotics kits.
“It’s been 31⁄2 hours, and only four kids have asked for bathroom breaks, and they’re all on task,” noted Paul Turner, director of the regional GEAR UP program hosted at SUNY-Cobleskill.
The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program is a state Department of Education effort to help students at low-income schools succeed in a variety of academic areas and promote higher education.
Covered by a five-year, $1.33 million mostly federal grant, the camp and other programs are free to qualified students.
Sean Ramos, 15, of Wyandanch High School on Long Island, was among a couple dozen students using math, science and computer skills to ready their brightly colored LEGO vehicles to run a maze for a Thursday competition.
Seated at one of many computer screens, Ramos was figuring out how many turns of the vehicle’s wheels would be needed to move it various distances in the maze before turning.
“I like computers,” he said as he dragged pre-programmed icons on the screen so their instructions could be fed into the computer chips in the LEGO drive mechanisms.
“It’s pretty interesting,” said Cassandra Sanik, 14, of Stamford High School in the northern Catskills. “I like doing this and figuring out how to make them work.”
It’s a trial-and-error approach. Each two-student team practices running the 8-foot-by 4-foot maze, then readjusts the program if the robot misses a turn or bumps a wall and overturns.
At another screen, Wyandanch sophomore Alissha Outlaw had a broader outlook.
“I like the whole college experience,” Outlaw said. She hopes to keep learning science and math to become a surgeon, as well as earn a doctoral degree someday.
“I want to go all the way, I just don’t want to stop in the middle,” Outlaw said.
The program helps to make science, math and other subjects interesting and relevant to middle and high school students, according to participants.
The robotic LEGO controllers use a system like the computer numerical controls used in many industrial machines, said tutor Fred Vamosy, a technology teacher at South Kortright Central School.
“It’s between a toy and an industrial machine,” he said. “We’re training these kids for careers.”
The SUNY-Cobleskill camp primarily serves students in several school districts in Schoharie, Montgomery, Fulton, Delaware, and Otsego counties, but students in other GEAR-UP programs affiliated with Dowling University on Long Island, St. John’s University in Queens and Binghamton University were also invited, Turner said.
Among local school districts sending team members are Middleburgh, Jefferson, St. Johnsville, Fort Plain and Charlotte Valley.
Some city students rarely have a chance to see rural areas, such as Schoharie County, said Frank Pomata, assistant director of GEAR UP programs for the Urban League of Long Island, which works with Dowling College in Oakdale.
“Many of our kids haven’t been out of their neighborhoods much,” Pomata said. While here they also tour local sites including Howe Caverns, the SUNY-Oneonta Biological Field Station and Clarks Sports Center in Cooperstown.
“We want our rural kids to meet urban kids,” said Turner, so the program tries to mix each two-student team so both youths make a new friend.
“It takes them out of their comfort zone,” said Tonya Rohacevich, a GEAR UP tutor in the Stamford Central Schools.
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