Here at Racksburg we’re big believers in exposing kids to STEM and information technologies. Admittedly, we do this partly because making our region more attractive to seasoned technology experts with growing families is just good for business (as discussed in this previous blog post). However we also invest in STEM because exposing kids to IT/programming technologies helps transform their mind set from one of being mere consumers of new technology, into becoming more technology innovators, makers and creators. Something we all need to strive to do in our communities and schools.
In line with the latter point, and as a part of our coporate “Rack Gives Back” program, every year Rackspace sponsors and provides volunteer support for the Kids Tech University STEM program (created and run by Kristy Collins at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech). The events are held one Saturday per month spread across January through April every year. For more information on all the cool stuff going on at “KTU”, as we call it, see this blog piece by a Racker-dad who recently attended KTU with his daughter.
Dr. Kristy Collins, the creator and organizer of KTU comments, “It’s important to get community ‘buy in’ to the program. Cutting edge local tech companies are always welcome to participate with the program by showing off their awesome technology to the kids/parents or making a monetary donation.” She continues, “[Tech] companies benefit from this relationship [in the long term], either in the form of a KTUer being hired on with their company or simply through the public learning about the tech they are doing. ”
Besides financially supporting KTU every year, we also like to help out by way of our corporate volunteer time, which Rackers are all encouraged to use as a way of giving back to our community. We’re usually able to gather together a group of Racker volunteers and come up with a fun STEM coding activity booth for KTU’s hands on activity time at Kid’s Tech. During this activity time, kids and parents wander around a couple hundred activity booths, usually set up in a large campus venue. They are free to wander from booth to booth and get hands on experience with everything from extracting strawberry DNA to aerospace, robotics and coding – while the parents can ask questions about the related technology and how to get their kids on the right track to learn more about each technology discipline.
We’ve been told that Rackspace usually has one of the more popular activity booths every year at KTU, which is evidenced in our long wait lines to experience our coding adventures.
Our February Programming Booth: OO Programming Penguins
In February Dev Racker Yan Zhouwe put together a 3D game programming booth that leveraged Alice, a 3D programming environment that makes it easy to create games, videos, and more using a simplified Java-like graphical programming language. This specific activity booth focused on teaching 4th-8th graders object oriented programming by coding a penguin named Tux and a human named Guy to interact in a scripted manner that taught many of the basic concepts behind graphical object oriented, or OO, programming, a key concept in every college level CS education. Everyone was surprised at how quickly the kids picked up the concepts, and how hugely popular our activity booth was. At one point, we had a 1hr waiting list for kids to participate in our 15 minute Alice programming adventure.
The coding assignment first focused on having the child create and manipulate 3D objects in Alice. In this case the objects were the characters Guy, the penguin and the 3D world they exist in. Next, the kids learn about conditionals (if()/else statements), how to they’re used to make logical branches in code to take programmatic actions. Lastly, the kids learn how to create their own methods (or OO procedures) to customize and write their own unique action-code within Alice.
We also like to provide the kids something to take home with them to continue exploring on their own if they really like what they experienced. As with any STEM event that we sponsor, we provide an info-sheet or hand out for the child to take home. It’s important to encourage them to follow their curiosity, even if it goes in a different direction from what they were originally shown. At this booth we provided a handout containing all the instructions, sample code, and web sites for the child to start experimenting on their own.
While our technical Rackers worked with the kids on coding in Alice, our other volunteers stood back with the wide eyed parents answering questions about programming, the free Alice software, jobs in computer science and how to better prepare their kids for STEM and Computer Science careers — also giving them their own parental hand out with resources to continue introducing and exposing their kids to other on-line as well as and brick-and-mortar STEM opportunities.
Our March Booth: Robots & Lasers on Mars
The March activity was a robot programming challenge, another big hit. The scenario: a Mars alien invasion!
The story line assignment explains that…
.. a Mars alien invasion force is mounting an attack on Earth. Earth has just sent a robotic rover equipped with a 5,000m Watt pulsed laser cannon to take them out before they can launch on Earth! Your mission is to program the rover to navigate the mountainous Martian terrain, aim on the alien war ships and take them out before they can launch!
The robot was actually an ultrasonic, collision avoidance robot designed and provided by our Let’s Code Blacksurg! community coding group (also run by Rackspace) , equipped with a 5milliWatt laser pointer “cannon”. The object of this exercise was to program the bot using simple forward(), backward,(), turnL(), turnR() and fireLaser() functions to navigate a mountainous terrain and take out the alien ship.
This activity was extremely popular and took 10-15 minutes to teach each child how to program their robot and we had four robots and programming stations. The arduino microcontroller brain in our bots is coded in a simplified version of the C++ programming language. Because the software uses simple English-verb commands (e.g. move-forward), the kids were not being exposed to complex coding constructs, however they were dabbling and interacting with the C++ programming language (a very powerful, classic programming language), as well as being exposed to important concepts such as coding syntax, compiling and uploading their program to a running microcontroller. Additionally, they were also being exposed to basic robotic programming concepts (such as dead reckoning vs closed loop control systems). Very powerful undergraduate engineering/CS concepts!
Thanks to the following Rackers for helping us put this on and make such big waves at Kid’s Tech 2016:
Thomas “Tweeks” Weeks
The Impact & Going Forward
We’ll never really know the full impact we make in these kid’s lives through events like this, but I can attest that a single encounter like this in my own youth completely changed my own life. The Racksburg volunteers have also reported on the pride filled-looks on children’s faces as they see their code accomplishing a mission, effecting changes in the real world. The affect on the child from these encounters are real and the creator/maker seed does get planted. How well that seed takes and if it sprouts and grows is partially up to the child and their desires, but also in large part relies on how adults around the child continue to water and feed it. Teachers, parents, friends and other technology leaders need to all continue to provide similar encounters and opportunities in their schools, communities and lives. Here’s a previous article that touches on just one of the STEM success stories that I have been lucky enough to see blossom.
So what’s the point of all this? If we don’t purposefully cultivate STEM and plant the seed of inspirational creativity, then we will be guilty of rearing a generation of media and IT consumers instead of creators. Takers instead of makers.
In an upcoming blog post, I will discuss the global socio-economic impact of STEM, and delve into how children fit into the future of the 21st century global job market.