Summer robotics fun with Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and the Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida

 In Classes

As a new school year approaches, one group of St. Johns County students is returning to class with a fresh perspective on STEM learning, thanks to a partnership between the Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida, the Iota Mu Nu Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and the Northeast Florida Regional STEM2 Hub.

Throughout June and July, fraternity members volunteered their time at THE PLAYERS Championship Boys & Girls Club facility in St. Augustine to coach students in FIRST LEGO League robotics activities. The volunteers also completed training offered by STEM2 Hub member Renaissance Jax, the Northeast Florida affiliate partner for FIRST LEGO League.

In FIRST LEGO League, teams of students in fourth through eighth grade are tasked with researching real-life problems facing society and challenged to develop their own solutions. In the course of their research, students must also design, build, and program their own robots using LEGO Mindstorms hardware and software. Volunteer mentors from the Iota Mu Nu Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity built the robot field table and provided financial sponsorship for the program.

For many of the students, this summer’s program was was the first time they were exposed to any robotics activities. Building robots from the kits provided by the Boys & Girls Club and the STEM2 Hub could prove to be a life-changing introduction to career fields where jobs are growing at a rate far faster than non-STEM jobs. By the end of the summer, each participating student had successfully designed a robot, built and programmed their design, then tested and re-engineered their design for any anomalies they found. They also researched the league’s 2017-18 theme, hydrodynamics, and presented their projects and research to other students and visitors.

Eric Ammonds, the president of the Iota Mu Nu Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity in St. Augustine, would often encourage the kids to overcome any barriers to success by reminding them, “The greatest obstacle to your fullest potential is you.” Throughout the summer, students often encountered obstacles such as programming challenges, barriers to good teamwork like losing team members to other activities or vacations, and or even having to redesign their robots entirely.

“We observed many occasions where these students overcame these obstacles, and the ones who endured until the end are stronger now and more determined that they can be successful in the robotics competition this fall,” said Frank Robinson, director of operations for the STEM2 Hub.

The Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida serves predominantly at-risk students — 82 percent of participating students receive free or reduced lunch at school, and two-thirds live in a single-parent household. Despite these odds, the organization has a track record of success. Participating students are promoted to the next grade level at a rate of 94 percent, 95 percent of members are able to avoid the juvenile justice system, and 100 percent of participating students are able to avoid teen parenthood.

These achievements pair perfectly with the FIRST LEGO League’s mission: inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering, and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.

Floretta Robinson, the unit director of the THE PLAYERS Championship Boys & Girls Club facility in St. Augustine, made positive observations throughout the program.

“I was excited to hear that robotics was coming to our Boys & Girls Club facility. It has been such a joy to witness the excitement and anticipation of students as they gave it their all and made progress with their projects. We look forward to welcoming them back in the fall for more robotics fun, as well as any new students who are interested in learning more about robotics and joining us for fall competition,” she said.

Feedback from students was overwhelmingly positive. The program universally improved the participants’ outlook on STEM, more than half felt they had a greater degree of confidence in their ability to take math and science college readiness classes, and more than two thirds felt that their robotics experience made them more likely to consider a career in a STEM field.

“I think it was cool. I really had fun even though it was hard,” said a student named Ellis.

For more information about FIRST Lego League in Northeast Florida, visit renaissancejax.org. The league will kick off their fall 2017 season on Sept. 2 at Jacksonville University.

Frank Robinson, Jr. is a retired Senior Manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. He currently serves as the director of operations for the Northeast Florida STEM2 Hub.

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