In the Classroom at the STEM Summer Institute

July 21, 2011 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and a classroom full of 7th and 8th graders are building robots with the instruction of three dedicated teachers.  Not too unusual for a school day, except that they’re in the middle of summer break.  How is it that these kids chose going to class over going to the pool on a hot summer day?

This isn’t your average science class; it’s part of the innovative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Summer Institute, a partnership between the Boys & Girls Club, East Austin College Prep, and the KDK Harman Foundation.  For seven weeks this summer, roughly 140 kids of all ages are spending their days at the summer camp, where STEM classes are woven into more traditional activities such as arts & crafts and old-fashioned summer camp recreation time.

Each week has a different STEM theme; on this particular week, the theme happens to be robotics.  The lead teacher is the energetic Mr. Kapasi, aided by two younger assistants.

Class starts off with the basics.  “Why do we use metal to build robots?” Mr. Kapasi begins, passing out foot-long rods of steel and aluminum for the students to examine.  As the students get warmed up and begin to answer questions without hesitation, Mr. Kapasi and his teaching aids get a chart going on the board with their responses.

After about 10 minutes of questions & answers, the students break into groups to begin construction of their own robots.  Kits are handed out, and the teachers divide up, one per table, to assist the students in their week-long project.

At one table sits a group of industrious boys, hard at work on their robot.  Their heads are leaned in, listening closely to their instructor, each concentrating to make sense of the machine and figure out how to build it together.  These boys, eager to talk with each other as they walked into the classroom, have now fallen quiet, focused on the task at hand.

On the other side of the room, some students appear a little less motivated.  Three girls seem to prefer talking and laughing amongst themselves rather than rudimentary robot construction.  There could be a myriad of reasons for this: they’re good friends, it’s late in the afternoon and they are worn out, or perhaps they just don’t feel like it.  Or maybe, as so often happens with girls in this age group, the insidious grip of skeptical expectation is already upon them; maybe they believe that girls and science don’t mix.  Whatever the reasons are that these girls aren’t yet enamored with robots, the teachers are there to find a way to get them interested in science.

One table over, Mr. Kapasi leads a demonstration of a student-built robot that he brought into class.  The surrounding students look on; they’re probably wondering how the seemingly random assortment of metal rods, screws, and gears in front of them can possibly be assembled into a functioning machine.

Back at the girls’ table, interest seems to have picked up.  The table-mates are now dutifully following the building instructions for their robot, as their teacher shows them what to do and explains the mechanics behind the project.

Getting students motivated and interested in science is no easy task.  Through creative and intellectually stimulating hands-on activities, these summer STEM classes give students a glimpse of the real-world applications of the concepts that they learn in the classroom throughout the school year.  Each week offers a different perspective on the vast world of science and technology, and projects like building a robot are what keep students coming back for more.  It’s only Tuesday, so they’ve still got quite a ways to go before their robots come together, but that sense of accomplishment they’ll feel on Friday afternoon will be worth much more than sleeping in and taking trips to the pool.

– Kelle Kampa
Communications Intern
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Entry filed under: East Austin Children's Promise, EAustin College Prep Academy, Education, Govalle/Johnston Terrace Neighborhood.

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