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Enlighten Me: Summer camps keep STEM in the mix for younger grades

Right now, Delaware is in the midst of a race to educate its kids for the future. The state has funded new science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM classes in high schools -- and is pushing districts to write more STEM into younger grades, too.

Education officials are proud of their early successes -- but what happens when school's out for summer? It's up to summer camps to keep STEM on kids' minds -- especially concepts like coding, which they'll soon see at almost all grade levels.

Delaware Public Media's Annie Ropeik visited a pair of STEM camps answering that call by teaching kids kindergarten through eighth grade to create video games.



Kids: What's next again? Rose: What do we do second, after we've filled our pot with soil? Kids: Poke a hole in it!

In a computer lab at Delaware Technical and Community College in Dover, a group of elementary schoolers is figuring out the algorithm for planting a seed.

Elijah Neal: Did I miss the computers? Rose: No, we haven't been on them yet. We're gonna do that next.

Teacher Margaret Rose and her summer campers are actually here to learn how to code. But arranging the steps for planting a seed is the same idea as getting a computer to complete a task. It's a style of thinking that teachers say will help these kids in science, technology, engineering and math -- and beyond.

Rose: We have to put it in sunlight and water the pot, so which one do we do first? Kids: Water! Rose: Could we put it in sunlight first and then water it? Kids: It could go both ways...

Once their algorithms are sorted out, they put them into action -- planting an actual lettuce seed in a plastic cup:

Rose: There's no worms in here. I'm going to bring the soil bag around…

After that, it's computer time. Today, the kids are practicing debugging. video: "Debugging is finding and fixing problems. There are lots of ways to debug problems. One of the easiest is going step by step to find where something goes wrong…"

Elijah Neal is watching this video on, which many Delaware schools used this past year for their "Hour of Code." Soon, that hour could turn into a whole class. And today, Elijah's learning some basic skills he'll probably need.

"Now I see where I have to add something," he says. He's fixing a set of pre-coded directions to make a bird from the game Angry Birds navigate around obstacles, like boxes of TNT. "Not completely finished… let's see. Two more should do the trick."

And if he doesn't add the right step?

"I think I would be doomed," he says.

But he makes it out in the end. For kids as young as Elijah, Margaret Rose says that learning process isn't just about computers.


"They can try something, and if it doesn't work -- to get to the next level, they have to keep trying that. They're really motivated by this format to keep doing it," Rose says. "So the perseverance is a real big thing. That's actually one of the vocabulary words that the curriculum teaches them."


By high school, these kids will be asked to actually write the Javascript behind the blocks of code they're playing with today. And the state Department of Education is working on preparing them by upping its STEM focus in younger grades. Luke Rhine is the state's director of career and technical education and STEM initiatives.

"It's really important that we create a generation of scientists. The way that I'll characterize that is just that we need to take advantage of that natural curiosity," Rhine says. "We need to foster a generation of kids who ask the question, 'Why?'"

If younger kids understand their own interests, he says, they can pick the high school and career that's right for them. Lots of the kids at these summer camps, for example, say they want to be game designers.

"You're having a conversation with the kids around what they want to be when they're an adult. And that's a really rich conversation. It's something that we need to do more with students," Rhine says. "It's a privilege to like what you do, and to find that early in your career, I feel a lot of adults are still searching for it. But to have the opportunity to find out who you are, and then evolve in a profession -- it's a really neat gift."

Job prep is a big part of the state's push for STEM education -- with home-grown financial and medical companies on board. Public institutions like DelTech, where the coding camp is taking place, have also been involved in training teachers to teach STEM. That educational shift is happening at private schools, too -- like the Independence School in Newark, where STEM is funded by tuition and a grant from the Longwood Foundation.

Matthew Boyle: Go, doggie, go! (laughs)

At an Independence School camp this summer, middle schoolers are learning to design their own computer games.

"This is turning right," he says, explaining some of his code. "And I had the idea to make it when they're turning right, the dragon actually faces right…"

Rising 6th grader Matthew Boyle is building a two-player basketball game on an MIT site called Scratch -- like, but less guided, he says. Both use those same blocks of Javascript, with labels like 'if right arrow' then 'move on x 10 pixels.' Sounds simple, but Matthew's game is pretty complex.

"The ball, whenever it touches orange, it'll go up for .25 seconds… and it'll wait, and then go down," he explains.

Jonas Raab is the Independence School's technology teacher, who's leading this camp. He says this way of learning to code will take these kids far.

"And this way they're actually creating something, rather than going to someone else's game and playing it," he says. "We're trying to teach them to be creators and not just consumers."

Nearby, Sean Allen is arranging his code so that the mouse moves a bar at the bottom of the screen to catch falling rocks against a moonscape background. His game is called Meteorfall, and he agrees that making it has been more fun than just playing.

"It's just so fun to know how they work," he says. "And if I get really frustrated with a game on Scratch, it's good 'cause I can just see the script and then see how to win easily."

And when winning gets old? They know how to make the game harder -- and better. That's the innovative instinct that camps like these are aiming to instill in Delaware kids -- and what they hope they'll bring back to school with them as more STEM comes into the curriculum next year.


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