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Youth collaborate to expand access to robotics and increase STEM literacy

Students programming a LEGO EV3 robot.
Students programming the LEGO® EV3 Robot. (Photo: Chris Belcher)

Dorey Park Recreation Center was abuzz with the sounds of robotic gears and laughter as middle school youth moved from one discovery station to another; each station filled with innovative technologies. These future STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) experts were learning life skills as they struggled to make cardboard robotic hands and explored the design potential of Tinkercad®. Critical thinking came into play as they created a magnet that could be used in a robot and worked as a team to 3D print replacement components for robots. This fun-filled workshop, held as a part of Camp Henrico this summer, required a great deal of planning, from designing activities that would engage and inspire the youth, to gathering materials, to training volunteer instructors. Each step was critical to the success of the day. And each step was completed by local high school youth.

STEM collaboration can spark change
When Kyla Fowler reached out to Chris Belcher, STEM Coordinator for the Henrico Police Athletic League and Camp Henrico, she was intent on expanding access to robotics to youth who might not otherwise have the opportunity. Fowler and Sidney To are co-leaders of Sparky 384, which is a student-led organization at J.R. Tucker High School located in Henrico County Virginia. As a student at the most diverse high school in Virginia, Fowler recognizes the importance of collaboration in providing real-world experiences in STEM. “Our team is composed of students from a plethora of cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds and we strive to make STEM accessible to all who are interested and ready to spark change. Collaboration not only facilitates new ideas or improvement on proposed ideas, but it also encourages character growth and builds a grander, more well-rounded perspective of the world.” This desire to improve accessibility to STEM led the Sparky 384 organization to the development of their summer camp outreach program, which included the collaborative robotics workshop at Camp Henrico.

Working alongside Fowler and the students from Sparky 384 was high school student Neel Gandhi, CEO of Skills4Gen. Skills4Gen is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that strives to spread knowledge through classes and workshops in robotics, coding, soft skills, and more. Gandhi has been involved in robotics for many years and his company loaned LEGO® EV3 robots for use in the workshop. He sees collaboration as incredibly important in expanding STEM literacy through the community. “When you collaborate, you can combine the skills and talents of everyone involved as well as work together to create something so much more important than yourself. Individually, we are capable of helping a few people, but together we can help thousands,” Gandhi shares.

Why a workshop in robotics and innovative technologies?
Robotics and the use of other innovative technologies can empower youth to explore and contribute to advancements in our ever-changing world while building vital skills in leadership and teamwork. Fowler sees this type of learning as critical, “with the technological world becoming more and more advanced, it’s important for students to be exposed to different facets of science and technology to increase their knowledge and understanding of things they might encounter in the future.”  Going one step further, To describes the impact of STEM on her own experience and how this motivates her participation in Sparky 384’s outreach efforts. “As a student who can't afford to put down a couple of hundred dollars for STEM summer camps, I had to search the internet for free to low-cost opportunities; I know how difficult it can be, especially if one doesn't know that there are even opportunities to look up. Through the development of Sparky's summer camp outreach program, I am able to help introduce the existence of STEM activities and academic enrichment opportunities to those with limited resources.”

Fostering STEM outreach efforts
As a STEM coordinator, Belcher understands the importance of providing support and cooperation to peer-to-peer outreach efforts in expanding STEM literacy, “STEM is such a broad field that it is impossible for a single organization to be expert in every aspect, so it is important to collaborate to bring a well-rounded STEM experience to students”. The vision of Belcher and many others in leadership positions is one reason that Virginia has been a front runner in advancing STEM education and innovative technologies. On July 17, 2019, the Governor of Virginia announced the creation of the Governor’s STEM Education Commission. The goals of the Commission were to address the collaboration and coordination of STEM efforts in Virginia, and to carefully define STEM, including what career preparations are necessary to enter STEM fields, the breadth of STEM, and the importance for all Virginia residents to be STEM literate.

According to Chuck English, former Virginia STEM Coordinator, STEM efforts in Virginia have struggled with a lack of coordination and clarity of effort. English states, “STEM literacy will only flourish if STEM entities have a common goal and collaborate to meet the needs of Virginia.” The Commission’s final report, released in August 2020, identified four focus areas for STEM efforts in the Commonwealth-STEM Literacy, Equity, Inclusion, & Access, Workforce Pipeline, and Sustainable Partnerships. Sidney notes that “accessibility to free or low-cost STEM opportunities is a large challenge that draws a dividing line between those who pursue STEM as their concentration of study in higher education. Not only do those exposed to STEM at a young age feel more confident going into the field because of their experience, but they also just know the endless possibilities STEM offers in life.” Only through powerful, accessible collaborations between diverse players, including student-led initiatives, can we hope to successfully address these efforts.