Education

At 12, did you build robots? Thanks to Carnegie Mellon, these summer campers did

From left, Lily Hiraldo, Kionne McKhee and Connor Callaham show off their robot Bobby during a STEM Summer Camp presentation at Cutler Ridge Park on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.
From left, Lily Hiraldo, Kionne McKhee and Connor Callaham show off their robot Bobby during a STEM Summer Camp presentation at Cutler Ridge Park on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. sballestas@miamiherald.com

At Cutler Ridge Park, in front of parents, kids and the town mayor, Watermelon the robot wheeled around a cardboard track.

For 30 seconds, Watermelon beeped and swerved. Then the showcase ended with the robot grabbing a little block and launching it across the stage it was performing on.

The crowd erupted — because Watermelon was built and programmed by four middle-schoolers.

As part of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Academy, 40 students from Cutler Bay Middle School explored programming and STEM subjects with the help of LEGO pieces.

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The robot Watermelon picks up a block during a STEM Summer Camp presentation at Cutler Ridge Park on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. SEBASTIAN BALLESTAS sballestas@miamiherald.com

For 11-year-old Roman Chirino — who built Watermelon — the six-week summer camp was not only enjoyable, but educational, too.

“I liked it a lot because it was very fun [working] with people I never knew,” he said. “And it’s very helpful because let’s say you’re going to do robotics in the future, it helps you to like build robots and program them to do something.”

Roman, interested in pursuing computing or robotics, was one of two campers who passed a certification exam, thereby demonstrating a mastery of programming.

As part of the online curriculum from Carnegie, the kids were able to test their math and programming skills by earning badges, and after enough badges, they could take an exam.

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Cutler Bay Middle School students display certificates they received on behalf of the STEM robotics summer camp at Cutler Ridge Park on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. SEBASTIAN BALLESTAS sballestas@miamiherald.com

The camp was a collaboration between Carnegie, Miami Dade College’s Homestead Campus, The Children’s Trust and the town of Cutler Bay.

Carnegie supplied the lessons, but the teachers were of MDC’s School of Continuing Education and Professional Advancement.

“It was a privilege for MDC to participate in this camp,” said Yeni Carranza, the lead STEM instructor. “They made friends, they learned a lot, and it’s an experience that’s going to help them if they’re interested later on in programming robots, or even engineering.”

The college has partnered with the town previously. For the past two years, MDC has provided the STEM component of an after-school program at the park.

That made it easier to orchestrate the robotics camp, said LaKeesha Morris-Moreau, the town’s grants coordinator.

With a connection between the town, park and college, Morris-Moreau only needed a certification component to fulfill The Children’s Trust’s grant requirement.

That’s where Carnegie fit in.

Partnering with Carnegie’s Robotics Academy, Morris-Moreau was then able to get a two-year $136,350 grant.

The grant is dependent on this year’s success. But from the responses she’s received from the campers and The Children’s Trust, she’s confident they’ll be able to run the program again.

“I was happy with just two badges per child,” Morris-Moreau said. “That would’ve been a success for such a short six-week program. But these children went above and beyond.”

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From left, Zahrai Baker, Jessica Fung Lee, Jazzilyne Gonzalez and Michael Gonzalez show off their robot Ev3O during a STEM Summer Camp presentation at Cutler Ridge Park on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. SEBASTIAN BALLESTAS sballestas@miamiherald.com

Not only did the kids outdo themselves, but so did the organizers.

All of the partnerships, hiring and coordinating were done within six months. Amazed by the campers, Cutler Bay Mayor Peggy Bell congratulated the people who organized the camp.

“I’m incredibly proud of our managers, staff, council and admin,” she said. “We are constantly looking for ways to improve the lives of our residents. And I really hope that we will be able to provide this program again next year.”

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Cutler Bay Town Mayor Peggy Bell speaks during a STEM Summer Camp presentation at Cutler Ridge Park on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. SEBASTIAN BALLESTAS sballestas@miamiherald.com

This was the first time Cutler Bay was involved in planning, according to Garnet Esters, a contract manager for The Children’s Trust.

“Not only did they develop it, they had to implement it within a short time frame,” Esters said. “I have to give them their kudos. It is challenging to implement a program of that magnitude at no cost.”

For any expenses the grant didn’t cover, the town stepped in.

All of the partnerships were geared toward making the program as successful as possible for the kids.

Middle-school populations often are neglected in favor of elementary or high schools, making programs like these all the more important, Esters said.

Carranza felt similarly. Sometimes it’s too late to change high school students, but not so for middle-schoolers, she said.

Seeing some of the campers grow more social and confident attested to the character benefits the camp provided, aside from its educational value, she said.

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From left, Axel Barrado, Eddie Diaz and Ariyah Bell show off their robot Wall-E during a STEM Summer Camp presentation at Cutler Ridge Park on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. SEBASTIAN BALLESTAS sballestas@miamiherald.com

Targeting at-risk groups, the camp was geared toward providing opportunities that otherwise may not have happened for the kids.

With only 40 slots, the selection was narrow, but ideally, compelling for those chosen, Morris-Moreau said.

Besides the learning program, there were also field trips to the Frost Museum and Zoo Miami.

“We wanted it to be infused with as much fun as possible because these are middle-schoolers who can stay home,” Morris-Moreau said. “We wanted to make sure they kept coming in the door.”

For those unfamiliar with robots, like Ariyah Bell, the breaks were probably just as important as the lessons.

“With the robots, you have to know where the wires go to plug them in,” the 11-year-old explained in very technical talk. “Like A, B, or C –– A, B, C, or D and 1, 2, 3, and 4. You have to know that 1, 2, 3, and 4 are for sensors and A, B, 3. And A, B, C, and D are for the motors.”

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