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Telling a small, baseball-shaped robot to roll around the floor and go back and forth and navigate a maze may sound like nothing more than a mildly amusing diversion, but it has a serious purpose when middle school students are learning how to do it with the assistance of instructors and cadets from West Point.
On Saturday, February 9, the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Spartanburg Community College Union County Campus help their annual robotics workshop for middle school students (6th-8th grade) at the campus. The workshop brings together middle school students in Union County and beyond to study robotics and related subjects with the assistance of West Point cadets and instructors.
One of the instructors at the workshop was Major David del Cuadro-Zimmerman, an Instructor with Department of Mathematical Sciences at West Point, who said the workshop is sponsored by West Point’s Center for Leadership and Diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). He said that the purpose of the workshop is to encourage students to study, understand, and acquire the skills related to STEM in order to prepare them for the workplaces of the future where such knowledge, understanding, and skills will be even more important than they are today.
“Our objective is to engage with middle schoolers and encourage their interest in STEM,” del Cuadro-Zimmerman said. “We feel this is important for whatever field they go into.”
Part of encouraging that interest in STEM was giving students Sphero robots — small spherical robots capable of rolling around under the control of a smartphone or a tablet — to program to perform tasks.
“The Sphero robots enable students to use block coding to improve their skills,” del Cuadro-Zimmerman said. “We want them to think through what actions they want the robot to perform prior to running the code.”
The students attending the workshop were divided into groups who, using a computer, programmed their Sphero robots to perform, first, the simple task of going from the start point again, and then having them perform increasingly difficult tasks of maneuvering through mazes and around obstacles.
The cadets — Cadet Cpls Kathryn Kochevar, Aidan Place, Lawrence Shepherd, and Cadet Pvt Shania Harris, a Union native — who accompanied del Cuadro-Zimmerman to the workshop, assisted and advised the students on coding and programming as well setting up the obstacles the students had to program their Sphero robots to navigate.
Also assisting in the workshop was Dr. Lubjana Beshaj, a member of the Army Cyber Institute and an Instructor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at West Point, who not only assisted the students with operating their robots, but also addressed them on the issues of Cryptography and Cyber Security.
For SCC Union County Campus Director Isaac McKissick had both personal and educational significance. On the personal level, McKissick is a 1979 graduate of West Point. He is one of three West Point graduates in Union County, the others being Lynn Lancaster (1981) and Dan Berry (1990).
On the educational level, McKissick said the workshop is not an isolated event, but supports the curriculum offered by the campus, a curriculum that is going to expand this fall along STEM-related lines.
‘This was an exciting opportunity for partnerships with West Point that support our upcoming course offerings,” McKissick. “In the fall we plan to offer additional majors to include Computer Technology, Database Design, and Cyber Security, Electronics Engineering Technology, and Pre-Engineering. We currently offer Mechatronics and Welding.”
McKissick said this year’s workshop went well and that SCC is looking forward to continuing its collaboration with West Point to provide training in STEM and encourage student interest in the subject. He added that this will not only benefit Union County, but also the nation as a whole.
“This type collaboration contributes not only to the development of technology-based skills for Union County, but also addresses the nationwide shortage of qualified STEM professionals,” McKissick said. “It is a national security issue and that’s one of the reasons the service academies got involved in it. This initiative is over ten years old and we hosted the first mobile STEM workshop for West Point in Spartanburg in 2010.”