Turlock STEM Learning Education Debut

The camp location was moved to a different venue for numerous reasons; but, the parents were very understanding with the last-minute change.  At STEM Learning Education, students do lots of programming; but, they also engage in some fun and informative STEM project.  Here is the synopsis of our first week.

Day 1 at Turlock STEM Learning Education

As an introductory activity, the little rock stars created name tags for themselves, which surrounded their name with flashing lights  This was an exercise in connecting the Light Emitting Diodes (LED)  in the correct orientation and using a copper wire to connect LEDs’ cathodes and anodes in parallel to a 3-volt battery.

Once we got the name tags out of the way, the young engineers started their computer programming efforts and began working through gamified challenges at their own pace.  I could almost see the static electricity sparking from their heads as they were working through the challenges.  During our coding efforts, we took some cookie breaks and ended the day by building a  self-propelling balloon-powered vehicle, which was a fun challenge.

Day 2 at Turlock STEM Learning Education

On day two, the kids began coding right away.  Two of the block-coding students got recourse adjustments because I felt that they could benefit from other supplemental work. That is, as they solve code-block challenges, they toggle to code view to see the underlying JavaScript (JS) code.  To ensure students are becoming familiar with JS and avoid simply glancing, we asked them to write the code (copy it) into their notepad so that they start recognizing and understanding the syntax coding pattern behind their code block.

For day two activities, kids tackled the classical towers of Hanoi problem, which involves moving a series of disks from one pillar to another, with the constraint that you can only move one at a time and smaller discs can only be placed on top of larger discs.  It is a great algorithm because it shows computer science students the elegance, computational efficiency, and power of the recursive algorithm, which is about 6 lines of code for this problem.

Students are not asked to write code for a recursive problem; but, they are challenged to solve the problem and in the process start recognizing a pattern.   Feel free to give a 5 disc challenge a try with this online Tower of Hanoi game. Frankly, I was amazed when some of the young students solved the challenge.

We resumed our coding effort and the students were once more engrossed in their lessons.  At times the complexity of the challenge really tests their patients; however, their perseverance (with a gentle nudge from instructors) does lead to shouting “yes” when they overcome a challenge.

I could see and sense a deep level of engagement from all the students; so, it was difficult for me to call for a break.  However, my reluctance was quickly put at rest when the kids jumped with enthusiasm at the announcement of the activity break.

The next assigned activity challenge was to build a catapult from popsicle sticks and rubber bands.  While coming up with this activity, I was unsure of its value since most kids have seen something similar in their school and I felt that the exercise would be too elementary. However, our young engineers did struggle with building their catapult.  Instead of presenting them with a solution, I asked them to search for catapult pictures on google and then find a model to mimic.  After all, this is exactly what adults do; hence, the rationale for asking the kids to look for possible solutions and decide for themselves.

The catapult exercise helped me realize that even if students have worked on an activity; they seldom have solved it to completion by themselves.  Even in our classroom environment, we encourage and help the kids along with their journey.  And if/when they complete a curriculum, then the next task is to assign them a project based activity where they can demonstrate their ability and exercise the lessons learned.

Day 3 at Turlock STEM Learning Education

The note taking idea worked great for one student; however, it became a hindrance for another student because it prevented the student from getting the adequate level of challenge; so, we made another curriculum adjustment.
Once more kids started working on their assigned tasks and after some mental judo, they were ready for their cookies and activity break.

For day three activity the students were exposed to the power of binary search algorithm. Students took turns in finding an unknown item inside the room by dividing the space into halves until the object is found.  This is a powerful algorithm and its importance can’t be emphasized enough.  Just to give you an idea, all search engines rely on a sorted tree and a hashing (more on this later) algorithm.

After the break, students returned to coding, and they were progressing very well.  After some more work, it was time for our next stem activity, which was creating a motor with a wire, magnet, and a battery.  Some students turned their motor into a dancing ballerina, which transformed their project from STEM into a STEAM activity.

Day 4 at Turlock STEM Learning Education

As usual, students begin their day by programming the computer with their assigned lesson plans.  After some work, we were once again ready for our snack and STEM activity break.  In this edition, students were given toggles and were asked to come up with a scheme to represent toggle locations with a number.  Essentially, they were inventing their own version of the binary number.  After a brief exercise, we introduced binary numbers and discussed how every number, character, or data in computers are represented by binary numbers.

It goes without saying that after every break students return to programming assignments, and today was no different.  Once more, students work for an extended period of time and then engaged in their next STEM challenge, which was building their own version of a hexbug toy.  Students used a tip of a toothbrush, a 3 volt battery, and a cellphone motor to build and play with their own digital insect.  This is one of many reasons why STEM Learning Education is so cool; we get to build our own toys!

Day 5 at Turlock STEM Learning Education

Once more students started with their computer programming assignment.  This time for our STEM break we discussed the magnetic pole and how we could determine our sense of direction from the sun.  Students also learned to count their steps to determine the distance traveled.  This lead to a discussion about vectors, where they have both direction and magnitude.  Students were then given a direction and distance to exercise their new found knowledge.  That is, use the sun to determine their direction, and step counts to determine the distance to find a marker.  They were then given new information to the next marker. They repeated this process several times until they reached the end of the rainbow where candy awaited them.

It is the last day of camp activity, and we need to go out with a bang!   So after more coding, the students were given small cups and balloons to build their own air vortex cannon.  An air vortex cannon is a device that releases doughnut-shaped air vortices — similar to smoke rings but larger, stronger and invisible. The vortices are able to ruffle hair, disturb papers or blow out candles after traveling several meters (source).

While students were playing with their air cannons, I pulled my canon made of a small plastic trash can.  As you can imagine, they all wanted to play with the bigger vortex gun.  But, after the students confiscated the canon, I pulled my giant vortex cannon.  What made this even more entertaining is that I added smoke to the canon and students could see the vortex ring travel through the air.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m not sure who had more fun, the students or the adults!  In either case, I know that I’m doing something right when parents share with me that my students are enthusiastic about the camp.

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