Robotics camps provide valuable STEM education for students

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Nissan engineers, Lipscomb professors and students model a future engineering career for students

What could possibly get a bunch of elementary and middle schoolers excited about learning math, science and engineering during the middle of the summer break? Robots! Lots of robots.

So that’s what Lipscomb University’s Raymond B. Jones College of Engineering and Nissan North America Inc. are bringing to more than 100 students this summer, including a group of 16 underserved middle schoolers selected through Youth Encouragement Services.

This summer, from June 12 to 30 and from July 10 to July 21, Lipscomb and Nissan are hosting five weeks of robotics camps for 126 youngsters from the age of 6 to those preparing to pre-teens. Nissan engineers are involved one-on-one with students at every camp.

Since 2010, Nissan has donated more than $518,000 in total to fund the summer Lipscomb/Nissan BisonBot Robotics Camps and the annual Music City BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) competition held in the fall.

During the five weeks of camp, participants get to travel around Tennessee to tour the Nissan plant in Smyrna, visit the SFEG factory in Fairview to see collaborative robots that work side-by-side with humans in action and visit the Saint Thomas Hospital robotic surgical suite, as well as learn the basics of engineering and other valuable STEM concepts.

See a photo feature of this summer's camps here.

Each camp ends with a finale activity, and Nissan engineers participate to congratulate the campers. Younger campers hold a show-and-tell for their parents and friends, showing off the robots they built during the week. Older campers enjoy a competition to determine the best robot through various mechanical tasks.

The session held June 26-30 was particularly special as it was designed to bring valuable STEM education to at-risk youth. Despite more than a decade of alarms, the gaps between whites and minority children with access to top-quality STEM education remain entrenched.

The Lipscomb/Nissan Fundamentals BisonBot Robotics Camp brought together current Nissan engineers and Lipscomb’s future engineers and faculty in a week-long service opportunity to teach the campers about electrical circuits, batteries, switches, DC motors and robotic arm- and hand-actuators, all while reinforcing various STEM concepts and skills.

“Our longstanding partnership with Nissan enables us to be able to offer this robotic experience and STEM education to students who come from hardworking families and who would not be able to pay for something like this if it weren’t for Nissan’s support,” said Ginger Reasonover, one of the coordinators of the robotics camps. “A big portion of those students also come from inner city programs where coming to a camp like this would only be a dream.”

"YES already does a fantastic job with the kids they serve and are wonderful to work with,” said john  Hutson, chair of the electrical engineering program and coordinator of the Fundamentals camp for YES students. “The expertise and experience at (the college’s) Peugeot Center (for Engineering Service in Developing Communities) provides a proven structure to work from, and the generosity of Nissan makes it all possible. This partnership allows our engineering students at Lipscomb to give back to the community with the gifts that they have been given."

This is the third year Lipscomb and Nissan have brought robotics engineering to underserved youth, but the first year the camp has been held on the Lipscomb campus, in the brand new Fields Engineering Center.

"It was really fun… and I got to do a lot of things I never thought I could do," said Phillip Motley, a rising fifth-grader at Rose Park Middle School who attended the Fundamentals camp. “It was just interesting. I liked how you have to put all the parts together. It was challenging compared to everything else, and different."

The YES students were among those who traveled to Fairview, Tennessee, to the SFEG factory to see collaborative robots that do not operate in cages or with guards and shields like most companies, but are safe enough and dexterous enough to work side-by-side with humans.

"It was really cool to see all these other types of robots and what they did and how they helped do the same things that humans do. We really didn't know that robots did that!" Motley said.

On the final day of camp, the YES campers used a robotic arm, which they built themselves, to compete to remove the most recyclable “trash” from a conveyor belt.

Other camps during the summer include the WeeBots camp for the youngest students, Junior BisonBots and the Advanced campers for those with previous robotics experience.

“At each camp, we interweave our classroom and hands-on time throughout the whole week,” said Greg Nordstrom, professor of electrical and computer engineering and another robotics camp coordinator. “They learn a little bit of theory and then they go and get their hands dirty doing stuff.

“Nissan is very involved throughout the camp and has professional engineers that come and spend time with our campers and be counselors for a day. There is always an element of career building and our Nissan reps will always talk to campers about what it is like to work at Nissan and how and why they became an engineer themselves,” he said. “We do all of that because we believe that kids need to not only see the theory and do some practice on their own, they need models to talk to them about how they got where they are.”