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Grade school students build robots, get excited about science during iCAN Robotics Program
Every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening for the past five weeks, 22 middle- and high school students from Syracuse have come together at the Vision Center on South Salina Street to build and program their very own robots.
The iCAN Robotics Program has been much more than a venue for students to channel their inner child. The program is designed to increase the access of underrepresented groups to the science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) disciplines by immersing students into the exciting and fast-paced field of robotics and inspiring them to think about a future career in one of the STEM disciplines. The first step is getting the students excited about it and showing them what is possible, says Don Sawyer, associate director of the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) at Syracuse University.
The students will present and demonstrate their robots, and even engage them in battle, during the program’s culminating celebration on Wednesday, Aug. 19, at 6 p.m. in the University’s Maxwell Auditorium. The celebration is open to the public.
The program is a collaborative creation that came into being through discussions among Sawyer, LaToya Sawyer of Mercy Works and Damani Musgrave, assistant director of technical systems and services in the University’s Division of Institutional Advancement. LaToya Sawyer approached Don Sawyer with the idea of a possible robotics program.
Don Sawyer, who is also a doctoral student in sociology in SU’s Maxwell School, had performed dissertation research that pointed to the importance of programs like robotics as key influences on the lives of underrepresented students who became engineers and scientists. They decided to move forward with the program, signed Musgrave on as the instructor, and got the ball rolling.
The South Side Initiative Office is also a sponsor of the program. Musgrave is the lead instructor, and Don Sawyer works with students in some areas of robot construction and PowerPoint development.
Sawyer says the program is based upon three principles—aspiration, access and achievement. “There are huge national efforts to get American citizens to focus on science and to develop a more diverse science workforce that includes more women and people of color,” he says. “These are not opportunities for our youth unless you expose them to science and acclimate them early.” A key part of the program has been to teach the participants that science is all around them in their everyday lives, from the cell phones they talk on to the cars they ride in to the tractors that harvest the food that comes to their kitchen tables.
Students in the program have gained knowledge and proficiency in engineering design concepts and computer programming by building robots from Lego Mindstorms NXT kits and then programming and testing them. Through this process, students have also learned to think critically and understand the value of working within a team format. “They learn that to solve problems, there needs to be diversity of thought,” Sawyer says.
Sawyer plans to use the feedback garnered from the summer program in the development and coordination of a subsequent program that will utilize the LSAMP Scholars at SU, community and parent groups during the academic year.