The thrill of the race

ST. LEO, FL – The sounds of small whirring robots traveling across a classroom floor while children cheered them on echoed in Saint Leo University’s Tapia College of Business building as the university hosted its annual Robotics Summer Camp June 18-22. Aimed at children 11 and older who are interested in learning about robots and programming, this year’s camp attracted 15 students.

Under the direction of Dr. Monika Kiss, mathematics professor in the university’s School of Computing, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Data Science (CARDS), the campers used LEGO® Education SPIKE Prime set, the newest robotics kits by LEGO®, to engage in learning about how robots work and how to code. The students were paired into teams and built robots together using the kits.

Kiss said as a female professor in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field, she finds the camp a great way to give back to the community and a way to energize young people, spurring their creativity. At the beginning of the camp, the students learn the basics, she said, and “they use their mathematical skills, their science skills to figure out what their robot can and can’t do, and their problem-solving skills.

“It’s so interdisciplinary,” she said. “In addition to the academic skills they gain by learning to program and build their robots, they also learn a lot of soft skills, such as teamwork, communication skills, leadership skills, and improved self-confidence.”

Across the nation, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that computer and information technology occupations are projected to grow 11 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. Additionally, demand for skilled professionals in robotics and artificial intelligence is growing.

But the robotics campers were not thinking about future jobs. It was all about building their robots and getting them to move the way they wanted.

“I like coding myself, but I’m no expert,” said Geraldo Velez Ruiz, about attending the camp. “I like experimenting with tiny things and making things work.”

Velez Ruiz explained that his team’s robot used vision sensors to detect what is in front of it. He is a repeat robotics camper having attended several of the past events. Kiss has instructed multiple camps including camps for girls only to help build awareness and interest in the STEM fields for young women, boys-only camps, and co-ed camps like this year’s.

The team of Dezirae Gardner and Rosalyn Fletcher built a robot that tracks colors and created something similar to a board game for their robot to follow. They programmed it to move to blue squares, as well as green and red, and to avoid obstacles.

Desirae Gardner and Rosalyn Fletcher work with robot on board game-like surface

Other campers prepared their robots to race. After several heats, the final came down to a robot created by Jackson Bryant and Connor Gray vs. one made by Matthew Longshore. Team Bryant-Gray claimed victory in that race—the first of many.

Reanna Collins, a second-grade teacher at West Zephyrhills Elementary, has been working at Saint Leo’s summer robotics camps since 2018. She enjoyed focusing on getting girls excited about STEM during the “Girls Can!” Summer Robotics Camp, and the sense of female empowerment it created, she said. 

Working with this year’s co-ed camp also is enjoyable for Collins. “It’s so great for teaching critical thinking,” she said. “And working together. They also learn that it takes a lot of patience. Robotics camp is a very creative solution to teaching problem-solving skills. And I learn a lot as well.”

Reanna Collins assisting students