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At STEM Camp: Binary coding, cybersecurity, programming

July 29, 2018

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Gathered around a road map laid across the tiled classroom floor, children watched robotic cars navigate the twists and turns of a street. With one final day to perfect their codes, the young computer programmers analyzed every command to drive forward, turn and reverse.

“I’ve really liked learning how to program robots. I like working as a team. When we mess up, we work together to fix it and find a solution,” said 11-year-old Quiyah Harris, of team QTSSS.

Harris and 29 other rising sixth-graders will present the science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills they learned during Decatur-Morgan County Minority Development Association’s inaugural STEM Camp at West Decatur Elementary.

“One of the passions I have is to make sure our minority students have exposure to some of the things that I had exposure to. They have to see what is possible and experience it,” said Claudette Owens, who holds a doctorate in physics and retired in February as director of the Space and Missile Defense Command’s Future Warfare Center Operations Directorate.

Partnering with Murphy Brown, president of the Minority Development Association, Owens’ passion came to life.

Over the past three weeks, Decatur City Schools’ students, many from underserved areas, learned about binary coding, cybersecurity, budgeting and computer programming. They built lunar rovers out of found materials, programmed robots, learned from scientists, engineers, physicists and college math professors and visited NASA, the Robotics Center and GE.

“My favorite part of camp has been science,” said Xoey Mangum, 11. “I love inventing things and making my mind work in different ways. I like being creative.”

Brown and Owens decided to target rising sixth-graders after talking with Decatur City Schools Superintendent Michael Douglas and learning that the first year of middle school marks the turning point for many minority students.

“That is when our young minority men and women start to go awry,” Owens said. “We thought if we could catch them and expose them to science, engineering and robotics on a different level, let them see what it looks like in real life, we might pique their interest. They just need that one person or thing to connect with.”

As a child growing up in rural south Alabama, Owens’ connection with science and technology came in the form of “Star Trek.”

“I like to say I was exposed to STEM by able, not cable. We didn’t have cable, so the only thing we were able to watch was ‘Star Trek.’ It was intriguing to me and I wanted to be a part of all of it. I wanted to learn about holodecks and phasers,” Owens said.

Watching the students explore computers and robots, Owens wonders what lifelong connections are being made. Beyond STEM, the students practiced soft skills, including how to introduce and present themselves.

Datie Priest, an administrator with Decatur City Schools, witnessed the students grow their communication skills during the camp.

“Some came in and would barely whisper their name. Some looked down. Now, not only are we seeing a change in them, they are seeing a change in each other,” Priest said. “It’s important for kids to learn these skills at a young age because practice matters and kids learn best from each other.”

Along with Priest, teachers, principals, community leaders and professionals in STEM fields volunteered for the camp.

“People want to help, they want to give back to the community, they want to see the children succeed. The question wasn’t will we have enough people. It was how will we be able to fit in the schedule everyone who wants to come,” Owens said.

Responsibility for teaching the robotics classes rested with Cassandra Thrower, who led the Brookhaven Middle School robotics team to state and won.

“It is hugely important to give students hands-on experiences with STEM to start preparing them for STEM careers and give them a fun way of implementing science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Thrower said.

The STEM Camp represents one of a handful of summer activities focused on exposing children of all ages to science, technology, engineering and math.

Decatur Youth Services implemented Girls STEAM, also a first-year program, for girls ages 9-13 to explore robotics, drones and programming. In Camp Invention, held at Priceville Junior High, campers designed smart homes and interacted with self-driving robots. At First Baptist Church in Decatur, 30 students participated in Seize the Brain Summer Camp. And Athens Center for Lifelong Learning introduced children to engineering through a Dr. Seuss STEM Camp, which featured building a tower for Yertle.

“I hope the kids take away a better image of who they are and the possibilities for their life,” Owens said of the STEM Camp. “I hope that they know they can achieve anything they want. I hope they realize the world is much bigger than what they thought it was. The sky is the limit.”

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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