Robotics Camp fires students’ STEM excitement through hands-on learning

This summer, the ordinarily quiet classrooms of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition’s Pensacola and Ocala campuses became engineering playgrounds as part of 2023 Summer Robotics Camp.

Over the course of four, one-week sessions, 66 middle and high schoolers got these hands-on experiences and more designing their own LEGO robots, learning the basics of computer programming, and interacting with researchers.

Teamwork at IHMC Summer Robotics Camp

Teamwork is a big part of Summer Robotics Camp

“We are reaching out to the next generation of scientists, helping them to discover what their future might look like,” said Dr. Ursula Schwuttke, IHMC’s Director of Educational Outreach.

Any future in STEM requires strong teamwork and problem-solving skills, and Robotics Camp is designed to teach just that.

Under the guidance of IHMC staff and volunteers from local high schools, campers worked in pairs to assemble LEGO Mindstorms robots. Students then used a block-based, visually appealing coding language to guide their creations through mazes and obstacle courses, debugging code and redesigning robots as they went. Campers attending the second Ocala session also learned how to program in Python.

“You don’t get too many chances to actually mess around with robots in day-to-day life,” said Max Truong, a former Science Saturdays attendee who is now a rising senior at Tate High School and a Pensacola camp volunteer. “Giving the kids that opportunity to build and code something themselves is pretty great.”

In addition to real-life engineering experience, Robotics Camp also provides students with inspiring professional role models. During the daily “Lunch With a Scientist” sessions, IHMC researchers explain their work and answer campers’ questions over a meal.

In Pensacola, these sessions included an interactive virtual reality demonstration from Senior Research Associate John Carff and Research Scientist Dr. Matt Johnson, exoskeleton exploration with Research Scientist Dr. Gwen Bryan, an introduction to brain science and human performance research from Research Scientist Dr. Toshi Miyatsu, and the ever-popular IHMC robotics lab tour. Heath Parr, a teacher at Brown-Barge Middle School, provided the daily robotics challenges and instructions.

During the Ocala sessions, IHMC staff introduced campers to concepts in computer game design (Research Scientist Dr. Ian Perera), natural language processing (Research Scientist Dr. Archna Bhatia), and artificial intelligence (Senior Creative and Multimedia Specialist William Howell).

Quantum Improvements Consulting Senior Scientist Dr. Cheryl Johnson shared the concept of human factors with campers, and Rachel Farmer and Ben Thompson, both from Lockheed Martin, gave presentations on careers in engineering.

“Sometimes you see a camper really awed by a one-on-one opportunity with an individual scientist,” said Schwuttke, recalling the connection that formed between Dr. Gwen Bryan and rising eighth-grader Sonja Christiansen.

“We had a lot of interests in common, and I thought that was awesome,” said Sonja about her conversation with Bryan. Schwuttke hopes that personal interactions like these will serve as turning points in the lives of STEM-curious campers.

Davis Coleman 2023 Robotics Camp

Davis Coleman at Summer Robotics Camp.

Inspiring students to engage with science and engineering is a core part of IHMC’s community outreach, but not all local students have equal access to high quality STEM education experiences. To bridge this gap, IHMC provides free camp registration and lunch to qualifying students. These need-based scholarships are made possible by donations from sponsors, including Cox, Lockheed Martin, CareerSource, the Mid-Florida Regional Manufacturers Association, and the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office.

“I always thought that I might want to pursue robotics and engineering,” said rising eighth-grader Davis Coleman, an exceptionally enthusiastic Pensacola participant. “After camp, now I know that I do.”

Touring the robotics lab, designing a robot of his own, and meeting with research scientists all combined to spark a new career goal for Davis: “I hope one day after school I can come back to work at IHMC.”

Subscribe to the Robotics Camp email list here to be in the know for future sessions.