Arduinos. Spheros. Microcontrollers.
All foreign sounding words to a group of rising ninth graders from Newport News who, before coming to NASA Langley last week, hadn’t had much interaction with robots or drones.
“What IS an Arduino?” asked student Evan Shephard.
That answer and many others came during the four-day camp, which offered 35 rising high school freshman an opportunity to learn more about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) from NASA experts.
The Junior Game Changers Camp was the brainchild of Mary Beth Wusk, acting program manager for the Game Changing Development Program (GCD) and avid supporter of education and internships.
Wusk wanted to create a camp that reached the “at-risk” students, the ones who maybe just needed a little nudge in the right direction, a positive role model and encourage to get them to pursue a STEM-related field.
“We really wanted this camp to be innovative and different, and we wanted to reach students who might not easily get an opportunity to come to a NASA center,” said Wusk.
The rising ninth graders are also a part of the Newport News schools system’s STEMulating Minds summer program, a free offering for Heritage High School’s Governor’s STEM Academy.
The Academy is designed to raise students’ aspirations and expand their options, whether it is in STEM-related college studies or technical careers.
For Jr. Game Changer Kelvin Kariuki, the NASA camp reaffirmed what he already knew – he loves engineering and computer programming.
“I really enjoyed building the mBot,” said Kelvin. And one word he’d use to describe the overall experience?
Kelvin said the camp wasn’t what he expected. “I thought we’d be in rooms with people talking all day,” he said.
That wasn’t the case.
In the four short days the students were in camp, they programmed mBots, Sumos and Ollies, flew drones, learned Autodesk and Tickle, worked with 3D printers, soldered, and toured Langley facilities such as the flight simulators, hangar and ISAAC robot under the guidance of GCD staff and interns, the National Institute of Aerospace, and volunteers.
Nancy Hornung, GCD program analyst, served as the camp’s project manager. Hornung said that all the planning was worth the outcome.
“It is humbling to me to think that our camp interaction may change a life,” Hornung said. “These students were eager to learn and we definitely planted seeds.”
Another innovative aspect of the camp is that Wusk used the energy and youth of several NIFS interns who were supporting GCD as part of the Space Tech Academy.
The interns did everything from develop the curriculum for the camp, teach and supervise the campers to documenting the experience with photos and video.
Mark Marioneaux, a physics and engineering teacher at Heritage High School, said the camp has been good for the students, particularly the hands-on activities.
“They really loved the drones and the soldering,” Marioneaux said. “All of the students have been talking about jobs in programming and if they can solder back at school. The fact that college interns served as their mentors was huge. It’s nice for them to be around people closer to their age, so that they can really relate to them.”
In addition to all of the hands-on activities the campers experienced, they also received guidance and support from lunchtime speakers. Langley’s Mia Siochi, Anna McGowan and Juan Cruz were among those who took time out of their day to inspire the campers.
Even Lanetra Tate and Damian Taylor of the Space Technology Mission Directorate traveled down from NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. to share their personal journeys with the Jr. Game Changers.
“Don’t allow anyone to label you,” Tate offered. “Create your own path.”
Tate, who majored in chemistry in college, said it wasn’t her favorite subject, but she chose it because it was a challenge.
“It took dogged determination to conquer chemistry,” she said. “But I did it, and so can you.”
Taylor offered a similar message.
“It’s not where you start in life, it’s where you want to go,” he said.
Amy Leigh McCluskey
NASA Langley Research Center