Teamwork, career knowledge and friendships flourish at Union College-based camp
From July 30 to Aug. 3, campers at the Capital Region BOCES Career & Technical School's "Build a Better Robot Camp" constructed and programmed robots to do their bidding, including playing music by Beethoven, navigating a brick maze and drawing shapes on large sheets of paper.
A total of 17 area teens who attended the camp also built teamwork skills, made new friends and discovered the many paths to college and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Build A Better Robot Camp was hosted by and offered in partnership with Union College, in Schenectady. This year's campers, hailing from grades 9 through 11, attend the following area high schools: Bethlehem, Burnt Hills/Ballston Lake, Coxsackie-Athens, Duanesburg, New Lebanon, Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady, Scotia-Glenville, Tamarac and Watervliet. Two of the campers, who were among a small group who also attended the BOCES SEMI High Tech U Camp earlier this summer, are home schooled.
At home, Joel Olzak of East Nassau plays music on a keyboard and his computer, which he uses as an instrument. At Robot Camp, he "learned a bit more about connecting electronics together. Now I'm planning several different projects where I can hook musical controllers to a computer to run software," he said.
"You get to be creative with your robot, in what you get it to do and what you get it to look like," said Allie Burt of Schenectady.
Each camper learned how to transform a box of parts into a working robot through instruction, teamwork and guidance. Laptops whirred and workbenches, tables and even chairs quickly filled with robot kit parts and notes. The campers had to tap their STEM skills as they used BASIC computer language to program their robots to do tasks upon their command, as well as tap into their creative sides to design their robot's finished appearance.
The campers also took part in discussions about robotics and viewed demonstrations of robots developed at Union College. The culmination of the weeklong camp was an exhibition for parents and the public at the Schenectady Museum, where students showcased their robots.
Working with the Build A Better Robot campers in the science and engineering labs and classrooms were Union College Professor James Hedrick, Union College students and camp counselors Nathan Smith and Katelyn Lanctel, and BOCES Career & Tech School Business & Education Partnerships Coordinator Marc Peimer.
"The best thing about Robot Camp is the counselors," said Jacob Doepel of Burnt Hills. "They are hands-on and helpful, and they also let you work alone because everyone's robot is unique."
"The campers are really fun to work with and are really quick to pick up on the programming and electrical engineering," said counselor Nathan Smith. "And Professor Hedrick is a great teacher, and I looked forward to working with him."
More than one camper said, "Professor Hedrick is really cool!" They were impressed not only by the knowledge the professor shared about various types of engineering careers — mechanical, electrical and computer — but also by Hedrick's own past experience as a computer engineer with the New York State Thruway when, as Hedrick explained, "we weren't called computer engineers."
Hedrick enjoys the Robot Campers, the third group he's partnered with BOCES to lead. "The best thing about camp for me is getting to work with and know young people who are imaginative, creative and interested in learning," Hedrick said.
BOCES Career & Tech's Peimer echoed the professor's sentiments. "The campers get to apply what they've learned not only here at camp, but also in middle school and high school. And they are making friends from other school districts," he said.
Career & Tech's Build A Better Robot Camp was sponsored by the Tech Valley Career Pathways Consortium through funding provided by the federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006 and the New York State Education Department.
The Tech Valley Career Pathways Consortium is a partnership between Hudson Valley Community College, Capital Region BOCES, Columbia-Greene Community College, Questar III BOCES, Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES, Schenectady County Community College, and SUNY Cobleskill. The Consortium is developing new programs in green technologies, advanced manufacturing systems, nanotechnology and bioscience at both the high school and college level. The consortium is also working to improve the connection between other career and technical education programs taught at the high school level with degree programs offered at local colleges.