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July 18, 2013

Camp brings robotics to younger TCAPS students

TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Area Public Schools teacher Philip Leete saw something impressive during the first day of the district’s summer robotics camps.

Middle school students diligently constructed robots step-by-step without pause all morning. Leete noticed some fidgeting after about two hours, but students’ concentration persevered for another 90 minutes.

“There’s no TV, there’s no video games, nobody is trying to text,” Leete said.

Three-plus hours of uninterrupted learning is a tall order for students whose generation supposedly is plagued by short attention spans. But Leete said many students learn more effectively through hands-on work with robots than they do in traditional classrooms.

The first of two week-long TCAPS robotics camps kicked off Monday at Traverse City West Middle School. Campers build robots with four wheels and a claw arm, and program them to respond to commands from a remote control. The work exposes them to algebra, computer science and other academic subjects along the way.

Leete runs the camps along with West student volunteers A.J. Ebling and Jerry Marek. Leete also runs West Senior High’s robotics program, where students including Ebling and Marek design and program robots to perform various tasks in competitions. Central High School fields a similar robotics program.

Marek, a junior-to-be, is a big believer in learning through robots. He said the summer camps are an effort to introduce the district’s middle schoolers to robotics, thereby creating a sort of farm system for the high school robotics programs.

“We’re trying to expand out,” Marek said. “Trying to get more participation.”

Complex computer codes and expensive parts used in high school robotics often create a barrier for inexperienced students who want to get involved.

“If you make a mistake, that mistake could cost $1,000 because the parts costs so much,” Leete said. “People were intimidated.”

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