FORT WAYNE, Ind.—Selling teens on the latest technology is easy, but sparking their interest in studying and pursuing careers in technology and related fields is a greater challenge. Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) has been engaging middle to high school age students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) related summer Exploration Camps for over 10 years. The College of Engineering, Technology, and Computer Science (ETCS) offered Engineering Explorations in VEX® Robotics and Computer Science Explorations involving 45 students this summer.
Professor Sedlmeyer, Exploration instructor, has a vision for how the Computer Science Exploration can transform the creativity and gaming enthusiasm of the 8–12th grade participants in Adventures in Computing for Teens (ACT) into an interest in a computer science career. As he stood over the shoulders of participants who attended from Northrop, Wayne, Leo, and 13 other schools, he lent his considerable expertise to advise them on their “Alice” creations. Alice is free graphic software available for game design and other 3D creations. “I had an image in my mind,” said Logan Rex from Leo High School, on choosing Space Encounters as his project. “It was creative and fun to do but the hardest part was getting the commands to make the astronaut do what I wanted.”
On the final day, family members, sitting in a theater style classroom, got to be the “end users” and watched each project to see how their student used the software to create short educational challenges or fun games with characters, player-interaction, and, in some cases, music. Logan’s project earned him an Act II award, which was presented after the viewings.
For many of the 22 participants of ACT 1 and ACT II, this could be one more step in their decision-making process of exploring and choosing a career and that is the mission of the IPFW Explorations. It’s exactly what Professor Sedlmeyer hopes will happen. Instead of sleeping in, at 8:30 a.m. these students focused their imaginations on their computer designs and expanded their skills. Logan commented, “The best part was learning about programming and it was fun.” Having the participants on the university campus, becoming familiar with the labs, and conversing with faculty is a plus for the IPFW Summer Explorations.
On the third floor of the IPFW Engineering, Technology, and Computer Science Building, where the Engineering Department is housed, a group of 15 students in grades 8 through 12 listened to and conversed with Engineering Professor Chao Chen. Her background in robotics helped the enthusiastic VEX Exploration participants learn about programming. Not just for guys, females made up 25 percent of the VEX Exploration this year, joining their grades 8-12 male peers.
The first day started out quiet as they were all from different schools, but it didn’t take long for students, working in teams, to learn from each other’s skill sets to collaborate on their robot building and programming. Each morning the IPFW engineering computer lab was strewn with mechanical parts as students designed and built their robots. Then they traveled between two labs to test robots and hone their remote control driving skills, working on this year’s project-based “MARS Habitat Challenge” to establish a livable “home” for astronauts on Mars. Engineer Michael Dobbs of Scientific and Biomedical Microsystems worked with Professor Chen to guide students. Dobbs shared his industry knowledge and experience to offer advice on engineering design. Professor Nashwan Younis, Engineering Department Chair, joined the camp for a mid-week conversation about engineering careers.
The real excitement came at the conclusion of the VEX Exploration when teams tested their skills on the YOUTH BOT Robotics game field. Family members applauded and encouraged the participants as they watched the results of each team’s efforts to accomplish the mission. In the 10 years that IPFW has hosted these challenges, Barbie® has been the crowd favorite used in the robotic missions. Always playing the victim in need of rescue, her safety can tally up points in the competition.
While some students said experimenting with the robot or learning programming was the most fun, others added “the bonding” and “the people” were the most fun. Regardless of which Exploration was chosen, they have common themes: they require thought, a design process, and include fun, project-based learning enhanced by the camaraderie found in peers from other schools who share their interests—and it’s all done in one week. In the end, the overwhelming response to the question “What was the most beneficial part of the VEX Exploration” was what they “learned” and the “knowledge they gained.” As an added bonus, all VEX participants were interested in taking either an advanced version or another STEM Exploration in the future.
The IPFW Explorations translate STEM into a real-life experience that encourages participants to see beyond what they know exists and come up with ideas and solutions of their own. The Explorations encourage participants to question, design, and gather advice from their instructors’ expertise. Ultimately, this experience will help them look toward the future and see how they could be successful in a STEM career.
List of Summer Exploration winners
The results of the VEX® competition were:
ACT I Awards:
ACT 2 Awards:
VEX Robots (An Engineering Exploration): June 24–28
ACT I Adventures in Computing for Teens (A Computer Science Exploration): July 8–12
ACT II Advanced Adventures in Computing For Teens: July 15–19
For more information, contact Carol Dostal, outreach director, Engineering, Technology, Computer Science, 260-481-6905 or firstname.lastname@example.org.