Ray Huard ….Get a robotic car to dance.
Track the migration of an imaginary swarm of monarch butterflies. Plan the layout of crops on a farm using a video game.
Those were just some of the challenges posed to 40 seventh and eighth-graders from Vista Magnet Middle School during a week-long summer science camp at California State University of San Marcos.
The students – 20 girls and 20 boys – were intrigued.
“It’s really fun,” said Juan Diaz as he worked on his robot. “At first, I thought it was going to be like any other class, but it turned out to be much more than I expected it to be.”
Part of his challenge was to get the robot to roll right up to a wall and stop without touching it.
Juan’s robot passed the test, after he learned how to program it under the guidance of CSU computer science Professor Youwen Ouyang. Juan figured out exactly how far the robot had to travel before stopping, and tested his work before sending the robot on its way.
“They are really using their computational thinking skills,” Ouyang said. “All their problem solving skills are skills scientists use in the real world.”
A primary purpose of the camp was to introduce the students to “computational thinking,” which the Carnegie Melon Center for Computational Thinking defines as a way of solving problems and understanding human behavior that draws on concepts fundamental to computer science.
For example, part of computational thinking is to look at a complex problem and break it down into manageable parts, which can be worked on separately to avoid getting frustrated by what might seem like an overwhelming task.
That’s called “problem decomposition” in the computational thinking vocabulary students were taught during the camp.
In another challenge, Vista High School physics teacher Traves O’Neill led the students on a scavenger hunt of sorts.
Using GPS trackers, the students had to find 16 small plastic containers scattered around campus and mark down where they were. Inside each container was a note that listed a number of how many imaginary butterflies were in the container.
Once they collected all the containers, the students recorded how many butterflies were in each location and which location had the greatest number of butterflies.
Using Google Maps, the students then had to analyze the data to figure out how butterflies migrated across campus.
That taught them how GPS works, how to collect, organize and display data and how to make sense out of what they had, O’Neill said – all skills that use computational thinking.
Sinem Siyahhan, an assistant professor of educational technology, led the students through an exercise in which they designed farm fields, complete with irrigation systems.
On their own, some of the students figured out they could complete the challenge faster if they collaborated, with each student doing a different part of the design, Siyahhan said.
Without realizing it, the students were practicing a computational thinking practice called parallelization, which is organizing resources to simultaneously carry out tasks to reach a common goal.
In the fast-paced job market of the 21st Century, people must be able to handle complex issues and video games like Minecraft can help students learn how to do that, Siyahhan said.
“Linear thinking is the past. It’s not A causes B,” Siyahhan said. “Games are good representations of very complex systems that kids can learn, can enjoy. There are multiple components and they are working in different ways.”
Like Juan Diaz, several other students said the summer camp made learning new concepts much more fun than they thought it would be.
“It’s cool, totally tubular,” said Aky Morales.
Aky said one of his favorite parts of the camp was learning how to design a figure to be made on a 3D printer. His character was a bird hatching, with its beak and legs poking out of the shell.
Elizabeth Arango said she really liked working with robotics.
“It’s something that I didn’t know before,” Elizabeth said.
Besides giving the 40 students at camp new skills, the hope is that they will go back and pass on what they learned to their classmates, said Katherine Hayden, a CSU education technology professor who oversaw the summer camp.
“We hope the students become leaders and want to go into careers in science and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), “Hayden said. “We know summer camps make a big difference.”