It took 11-year-old Faris Khattack two attempts before he mastered control of his robot.
His fist pumped the air amid cheers from the other students after his programmed Lego reached the buoy, picked it up, then brought it back to him.
The middle school students had gathered in a classroom at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where they were taking part this week in the “Innovation, Design and Robotics” program. On Wednesday, the classroom became the “Marsh Island Research Area,” and after his success at buoy retrieval, Faris scooped his robot up and programmed it for another mission.
“It’s pretty advanced what they’re doing,” said Douglas Williams, a professor in the college of education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where the five-day camp is being held.
The camp has four parts: coding, design challenges, robotics and biomimicry. Williams designed the activities and curriculum the students are working on this week.
“When we designed it, we really wanted to make the camp about innovation,” Williams said. “So all the activities we’re doing are about them creating, designing, inventing and building things.”
Students learn computer coding, which is being done through code.org, a website for a nonprofit firm that offers interactive activities for students that teach basic concepts of the process.
“Through little games where you’re moving the angry bird around through a maze to jump and get the pig, they’re actually learning the same concepts I learned in computer science when I was a freshman (in college),” Williams said. “It’s a very well-designed curriculum, and it’s about 15 to 20 hours of curriculum where they’re learning how to do coding.”
The students also conducted research on biomimicry and will use the technology for their own project.
“We wanted to give them a chance to have their own thoughts and invent something,” Williams said. “So biomimicry is looking to nature for inspiration because nature has been solving the same problems we have for 3.8 billion years.
“So with biomimicry, they pick some problem they want to work on ... cancer, collecting water in a dry climate, things like that.”
Heather Latiolas, a 15-year-old Judice Middle School student, said she feels inspired when working with other young teens.
“So far, my favorite part of this camp is the robotics part,” said Heather, who wants to attend the Air Force Academy and learn air traffic control.
Zayne Abdul-Jabbar also liked the robotics part of the camp.
“You can just build a robot out of Legos, and it’s really cool,” the 13-year-old Lafayette Middle School student said. “You can make something out of nothing, and it’s awesome.”
He became interested in robotics after viewing the “Transformers” films and is considering robotics as his career path.
The mentors who supervised the students at the camp are education majors or recent graduates of UL-Lafayette. The experience gave some of them their first taste of teaching.
“It’s been really beneficial (working here,)” said Kimberly Sullivan, a spring graduate of UL-Lafayette in elementary education. “We’ve had a lot of the kids come up to us and say ‘Wow, like, I never thought I was going to go to college. This makes me want to go.’
“So it’s exciting to see that because a lot of them didn’t even think they had that option,” Sullivan said. “Opening that door to them and making them realize that there’s so much more out there than what they’re used to, it’s the best part by far.”
The camp at UL-Lafayette was funded by Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP — which awarded the Lafayette Parish School System a total of $1.9 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education website.
GEAR UP aims to prepare more low-income students to enter college and succeed. The program provides six-year grants to states to assist low-income middle and high schools. GEAR UP funds also are used to award college scholarships to low-income students. For this camp, Lafayette Parish School System and GEAR UP partnered with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“School is so structured now,” Williams said. “You study this, memorize that and then give it back for the test. This is really about them being creative and applying and having their own thoughts about what they want to study.”