Building Skills One Robot at a Time

February 15, 2019
Ryan Imondi

Students from Chaminade College Prep brought robotics back to CII’s PowerUp! after-school program last week in what will be a monthly program at the Otis Booth Campus. The series aims to expand involvement of fourth through seventh graders in STEAM subjects by partnering with eager high school robotic students ready to share their knowledge.

The PowerUp! program at CII works with children facing adversity in Los Angeles by providing curriculum and activities that will enable them to succeed in school, at home and in the community. When the students from Chaminade’s robotics team, called Eagle Engineering, visited PowerUp! in the fall to present about robotics competitions, the group saw potential for a longer-term partnership. This would include PowerUp! kids learning to build and code their own robots.

Through two fundraisers, Eagle Engineering raised enough money to start a robotics program at PowerUp!. They purchased kits for two different robots that came with software to program commands for the machines. With the purchases, the group committed to leading monthly classes for the remainder of the school year.

Chaminade and Childrens InstituteA student from Chaminade College Prep goes over direction with a CII client as they work to assemble the robotic kit.

At their first meeting, many of the kids had little to no experience writing program code for robot commands, but by the end of the class, the kids were celebrating as their newly built robots mastered new activities like wheeling around the room or picking up a water bottle with a mechanical arm.

Christina Gideon, Senior at Chaminade College Prep and Vice President of Business Operations with Eagle Engineering, said he appreciated the opportunity to share his experience in robotics with a younger generation.

“I like working with the kids and seeing where they need to learn more,” Gideon said. “It is definitely awesome to see how much they already know,” he said.

Two kids benefiting from Gideon’s guidance were fourth grader Hector and seventh grader Katheryn. After figuring out how to program movements on the robotic arm, Hector and Katheryn paused for a moment to figure out how to write code for the remote control.

There will be millions more jobs created in this field and we currently don’t have enough people for them.

-Tommy Smeltzer, Robotic Program Director at Chaminade College Prep

“It is kind of hard and frustrating,” Hector said.

Katheryn looked to Eagle Engineering Business Manager Yiwen Zhao who was standing nearby. He pointed to a section of the code that might be tripping the kids up. Hector and Kathryn swapped ideas and eventually typed in some code that worked.

Other students from Eagle Engineering helped guide the kids through physically assembling the robotic parts. At two tables, the kids spent time screwing together pieces and testing wheels.

Kaylee, a sixth grader, took a break from assembling the robots with fifth grader Matthew. Kaylee said she was having fun while building new skills she would use later in school. She said her code being used to make the robot move around the room was her favorite part.

“I enjoyed the whole thing because I learned new stuff about computer science,” she said.

Chaminade Prep CII RoboticsVice President of Eagle Engineering Christina Gideon looks over CII clients as they write code for the robots.

Robotics Program Director Tommy Smeltzer said students are motivated to partner with kids at CII. They believe they are making an investment in bringing more diversity to STEAM fields. He said any of these kids could pursue a career in a STEAM field.

“We can’t continue to fill important roles in STEAM if we are not pulling from a balanced swath of our population,” he said. “There will be millions more jobs created in this field and we currently don’t have enough people for them.”

In the last decade, there has been a growing emphasis on STEAM courses and careers. According to Pew Research Center, STEAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics, has seen a 79% increase in job growth since 1990. The career field is expected to grow steadily over the next decade. That same Pew study also found that on average, STEAM careers make 26% more than similarly educated non-STEAM careers.

Nawal Salim, Experiential Learning Manager at CII who oversees PowerUp! programming, said a robotics partnership was a natural fit. As an after-school program that works with kids facing adversity and toxic stress in Los Angeles, the program helps to grow self-esteem while supporting kids as they cope with trauma.

We’re trying to keep kids motivated academically and find value in learning.

-Nawal Salim, Experiential Learning Manager at CII

In addition to robotics, the program has given kids access to lessons in yoga, electronic music production and ballet. While fun for the kids, each has a strong educational component.

“We’re trying to keep kids motivated academically and find value in learning,” she said. “They may not see the importance of math as a subject, but can understand its purpose while building a robot.”

While pleased with what will be accomplished with the robotics program, Salim said she is looking forward to future additions to PowerUp! that will bring other new experiences to the kids in the program.