Young scientists learn coding and more at robotics workshop

With the help of USC undergrads, fourth- and fifth-graders take part in a skills-shaping event hosted by the Joint Educational Project

April 14, 2016 Susan Bell

Fourth-grader Cody Cartier proudly held aloft a bristlebot, a tiny robot he had made by attaching a vibrating motor and a battery to a toothbrush head. Grinning widely, he dipped his bristlebot into a bowl of blue paint and set it down on a blank sheet of white paper. As the little robot moved across the paper, it left a trail, creating an abstract painting. “This is so cool,” said Cartier, whose ambition is to become a veterinarian. “Now that I know how to make these, I can do this at home.”

Cartier, a student at 32nd Street USC Performing Arts Magnet, was participating in a computer science and robotics workshop organized by the Joint Educational Project’s Young Scientists Program (YSP) based at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and funded, in part, thought a grant from Union Bank. Located near the University Park Campus, 32nd Street is one of five community schools from the USC Family of Schools to benefit from YSP.

On April 6, the cafeteria at the elementary school was transformed into a robotics laboratory as more than 40 fourth- and fifth-grade students participated in the afterschool workshop led by Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast, JEP’s STEM programs manager.

‘Crucial 21st-century skills’

“The reason that we’re holding this workshop for the kids today is because many of these abilities — knowing how to code and using some of the different robotics kits now available — are crucial 21st-century skills,” Kast said. “Practicing them in this type of environment will help prepare these students for middle school, high school and beyond in tech careers as engineers and scientists.”

Creating bristlebots was just one of three activities that allowed youngsters to gain hands-on robotics experience as they rotated among three workstations at the afterschool workshop.

At the first station, students learned basic coding skills by making digital postcards using Scratch, a platform for animating a character in front of a customized background.

There, Claire Chatinover, a junior majoring in political science, worked with students to write a Scratch code to tell their character, a small dog, what to do.

“Now when they click the flag, their dog takes 10 steps and turns 15 degrees,” she said. “It’s a really cool system that allows them to understand the simplicities of coding but also make it their own by adding their choice of background, icon and sound.”

Station to station

Chatinover aims to become an elementary school science teacher.

“I think this event is amazing, and it gets kids interested so they can find other events that will let them code all the time,” she said.

At the second station, students worked with Makey Makeys — devices that enable users to substitute conductive substances for computer keys. Combining the Makey Makey with a Hummingbirds Robotics Kit, the students made recyclobots using recycled materials.

At this station, Sharon Sin, a senior majoring in social sciences with an emphasis in psychology, was helping young students create a circuit using graphite drawings and Makey Makeys. She smiled as she showed the youngsters how to puncture holes in the recycled materials and plug in circuits to make their robots light up.

Sin, who decided to become a YSP teaching assistant after finding out about the program this semester, said she found participation in the program to be very rewarding.

These kids are learning so much about science and having so much fun.

Sharon Sin

“These kids are learning so much about science and having so much fun,” she said. “It’s really gratifying to be able to help provide this wonderful experience that shows science and engineering in a way that is much more relatable and fun.”

Girls get involved in STEM

With girls and women often underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects and careers, Kast said it was encouraging to see so many girls taking part in the workshop.

“Based on the number of smiles that I see here today, they certainly seem to be having a lot of fun with it,” she said.

“This workshop is cool, awesome and a great idea for a way to have fun with robots and coding,” said fifth-grader Pedro Francisco Rojas, one of five YSP students also participating in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Robotics and Coding Academy.

During the workshop, Rojas demonstrated how he had programmed a Dash robot to dance to his favorite song, moving back and forth, swiveling its head and flashing its eyes. While his fellow students provided an enthusiastic musical accompaniment by singing along, Rojas put his robot through its paces.

“This workshop makes me want to learn more about robotics and science,” he said. “When I grow up, I want to study to be an engineer at USC.”