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Teens Love Being Turned Loose on Technology

July 20, 2004 – Some youngsters are spending their summer vacation from school playing video games and going see movies such as "I, Robot."
On the University of the Virgin Islands St. Croix campus, others have been designing their own video games and building replicas of the robot being used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to explore Mars.
Some of the UVI faculty working with students enrolled in UVI's Summer Science Enrichment Academy say they are amazed by the projects being turned out during the two-week and six-week enrichment courses. On Thursday the public gets a chance to view the products of their youthful imagination fueled by science and technology.
Seventh and eight graders taking part in this year's three two-week sessions were introduced to the latest in robotics. Meantime, high school and some college students enrolled in a six-week enrichment program on UVI's St. Thomas campus have been working on independent projects guided by their instructors.
Michelle Peterson, St. Croix academy coordinator, said while it is exciting to see the final results of children creating their own video games and robots, the process by which they get there is equally exciting.
"The logic and the thought process that the students have to go through is incredibly important in a field where you're doing problem solving," Peterson said. "Where you work through — okay, what's the most logical way to do this? How can I make this work? Ooh, this didn't come out the way I thought it would! Why didn't it? How can I figure out what's wrong? How do I test it?"
Their explorations have been guided by a computer program called Net Logo and by Lego Robotics. Peterson said Lego Robotics is a program used by college freshman engineering students. During three-hour sessions combining lecture and hands-on experimentation, students learn the rudiments of creating a computer-generated agent and getting it to move.
"They're really learning a lot of math, but they don't always realize it," she said.
Then, as part of a group project, the students use what they have learned to play a video game called "Frogger" in which they have to move a virtual frog from one side of the screen to the other through a series of hazards.
Creating Computer Games
After that, the youngsters are turned loose on technology and told to create computer games of their own.
"They see how they do it — that we break it up into modules, just as computer programmers would do any large project," Peterson said. "Each of them is responsible for the program; we join it together. Usually their version of the game is far more interesting than the original version … They become capable of doing a lot more than they think they can do, and that is exciting."
Also exciting for Peterson and her co-instructor, Thelma Tyson, who introduces students to Lego Robotics, is way the technology engages the young people. Some of them have a track record of excelling in science and math, and some don't.
The Net Logo session occupies three hours each morning. The students sit for another three hours, with one 10-minute break, to grasp the concepts behind the space-age robotics program made available by Ohio's John Glenn NASA Research Center. Tyson said her seventh and eight graders are rarin' to go and eager to stay.
"We often have quite a time at the end of the session getting the kids to understand, 'Okay, this is the end,' and we're talking about three-hour sessions," she said.
In previous summer academies, Tyson said, it's been normal for some students to want to telephone their parents. "This time," she said, "the parents are calling and saying, 'But my son hasn't called!" or 'My daughter's been there for several days; I haven't heard from her!'"
Tyson said she believes one of the things that is getting the youngsters so engaged is that "they themselves are producing things their parents spend a lot of money to get from the store."
Putting Robots into Play
The students first learn how to assemble the robots, then learn how they work by remote control. Once the youngsters have their robots responding to commands to move forward and backward, turn and grasp objects, Tyson set up contests to see how skillfully the students can maneuver them through improvised obstacle courses.
Next comes the virtual space exploration, with students using their robots to simulate the exploration now being performed by the Rover currently exploring the surface of Mars. In the UVI classroom, they operate on a simulated Mars field, with robots collecting pebbles and students retrieving the objects from the robot claws.
All the while, Tyson said, there are lessons about science and math and gaining deeper insights into what NASA scientists are doing. In more playful moments, there are also music lessons – students are given programmed music sheets which, successfully installed, allow their robots to play the designated tune.
"Some of these students have never done music before," Tyson said. "We provide for them music sheets with children's songs like 'This Old Man' and 'Old MacDonald,' and they actually write a programming language to get the robots to play those songs."
In her role as a scientific observer, the robotics instructor made some observations about the young people she has guided in this summer's three two-week sessions on the St. Croix campus.
"It's remarkable what these students are doing," she said. "And this has really been provided to foster an interest in the STEM subjects. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, mathematics. We're really trying to get students excited about those areas. The students in the summer academy know that's what it is about. They actually feel like little scientists – and in fact, that's exactly what they are."
On Thursday morning, the students will display their projects at a closing ceremony on the St. Croix campus. A similar ceremony is scheduled for the older students on the St. Thomas campus on Thursday evening.

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