A summer Robotics Learning activity offered a chance for Appalachian girls to experience 21st century technology in a fun atmosphere. Deborah Hicks-Rogoff, founder and Executive Director of the camp, explained the importance of the new robotics program: “Having a STEM learning activity featuring robotics was an exciting opportunity [for girls] living in economically vulnerable rural communities. This kind of activity is part of what will inspire girls to become empowered leaders in a new Appalachia.”
The PARTNERSHIP FOR APPALACHIAN GIRLS’ EDUCATION (PAGE), located in Madison County, North Carolina, runs an educational program for adolescent girls each summer. This past summer, the activities featured a Robotics Program for the first time as one of its offerings, a resource that had its roots in the State of New Jersey.
Duke University sophomore Caroline Potts, a biomedical engineering major, directed and ran the robotics program during the six-week long program. Ms. Potts had previously taken a high school robotics course taught by the Vorpal Robotics, LLC company founder, Steve Pendergrast, who originally developed them at Pope John XXIII Regional HS in Sparta, NJ The students didn’t know it, but they were actually testing a new educational hexapod (six-legged) robot developed by the New Jersey firm, Vorpal Robotics, LLC. Vorpal donated eight robots to PAGE in order to get early feedback on how they worked with real students. “The girls were immediately excited to see one pre-built hexapod robot actually walk and dance,” said Ms. Potts. “Then, as we started to build the kits in small groups, their interest really deepened. One girl exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe I’m actually building a robot!’”
The robots, which use structural parts that are made on a 3D printer, were designed to be built within a two hour period and are programmable using the MIT Scratch language. “In the second three-week session,” Ms. Potts reported, “I concentrated more on the programming aspect. The robots can be wirelessly controlled by Scratch programs which use an easy-to-learn drag and drop interface. Scratch is already used by many schools to introduce programming.”
One girl was so inspired by the ability to control the hexapod using her own programs that she actually cut another activity she was supposed to attend in order to get an extra session with the hexapod. “She was so motivated that I looked the other way,” Ms. Potts explained. “I wasn’t going to stifle her enthusiasm to learn how to program!”
“We received an incredible amount of great feedback from the young ladies during the PAGE program,” commented Steve Pendergrast, whose company donated the robots. We were glad to learn that students as young as sixth grade were able to successfully build them in a classroom setting; and we made several changes to the design based on their feedback. We were very happy to support the great work PAGE is doing in these underserved rural areas to inspire girls to develop career ideas using technology. We have made the Hexapod open source so anyone can print the 3D parts; and for convenience, we provide low cost kits containing all the electronics.”
At the end of the summer program, students and parents attended a presentation to see what the students achieved. One of the students had been to PAGE for several summers in a row. When people asked her what PAGE was all about, she said, ‘Robotics!’ even though that was only one of many activities! “It only took a few 3D printed robots and one motivated college intern to open up a whole new world of science and technology to these girls,” Pendergrast said. “We will definitely be supporting PAGE and other similar programs in the future.”