Robotics flash camp opens new world for students

Hew: There is a future for Cayman in the tech industry.

Igniting a spark for science in some children can be a challenge for educators, especially when dealing with students learning at different speeds.

But over the weekend, the Acts of Random Kindness Mentor Educate and Reinforce (MER) programme inspired the kids participating in a ‘flash camp’ hosted in partnership with TechCayman and 345 Robotics.

Robotics fosters interest in science

For children like 8-year-old Seon De Nieuenkirk, the camp was an opportunity put his love for science in action.

He told the Cayman Compass this was the first time he had built robots.

It was something he said he always wanted to do, and the camp gave him a chance to fulfil that ambition.

“It is what I would like to do, it is part of my dream. I like building robots and doing science,” the student said as he held his robot.

De Nieuenkirk was one of around a dozen children participating in the special camp held at the Grand Pavilion on West Bay Road.

For Tara Nielsen, director of Cayman’s ARK Foundation, De Nieuenkirk’s excitement and that of the other children participating in the camp, most of whom were from George Town Primary School, was more than enough reward for the extra hours the team had put in to make the initiative happen.

“They [the children] actually didn’t really know they were doing maths and science. So, when you tell them afterwards, that’s what they were actually doing, they can’t believe it. So it’s really building that sense of self and that success, their identity, and giving them that,” she said.

TechCayman, in announcing the partnership with ARK and 345 Robotics, said the camp offers an opportunity to get the children in the MER programme re-engaged while they are distance learning or in early days of on-campus learning.

ARK runs the MER programme in George Town Primary School and, through that initiative, students who may be struggling academically are identified and offered intensive remediation with private teachers once a day to help bolster their schooling.

“For example, one of our children is going into Year 6, but she isn’t yet at Year 1 reading level. So, these children would not have been able to access their curriculum and they’d be locked out of any future success, left behind, because teachers can only do so much,” Nielson said.

“So what we’re trying to do is to get the children at the beginning of their academic careers and help them to break the reading hold, so they can access that curriculum and can experience success.”

Tech is the future

On Saturday, Commerce Minister and George Town North MLA Joey Hew visited the camp to witness firsthand some of the work the children have been doing, and he said he was impressed with what he saw.

The camp, he said, is centred around kids that may not usually have the opportunity to participate in such programmes.

“But, most importantly, also it is kids that sometimes can be misunderstood in the school system, and sometimes left behind because they don’t learn the same way as other kids do… [P]articipating in a robotics programme and building the robots, and then seeing them come to life and work and do things, renews their sense of purpose and gives them that focus that they need, and inspiration they need, to come to learn,” he told the Compass.

He welcomed the initiative and opportunity it provided for children who may be disadvantaged due to their family circumstances.

Hew said sometimes children’s feelings can be taken for granted, especially when they get frustrated with learning.

“But programmes like this provide the confidence for them and they realise that, ‘Hey, you know what? I just learn a little different and look at what I can do. I mean, I can build a robot and I can drive it after.’ That’s an amazing programme, it’s fantastic,” he said.

Hew added that this weekend’s flash camp was timely as he had pointed out that at the recently held Chamber of Commerce Economic Outlook conference that special emphasis was being placed on tech industries and growing innovation locally.

He said he would like to see Cayman as the ‘Silicon Valley of the Caribbean’ – attracting and developing the most talented people in that sphere.

“I think that this is a good start for that, and I really, truly believe that there is a future for the Cayman Islands and our Caymanian people in the tech industry,” he said.

Jennifer McCarthy, TechCayman’s operations and business development manager, agreed.

She said the team at TechCayman felt that there was a need to provide access to technology for children who may not necessarily have that opportunity.

Through the flash camps, which run until the end of August, McCarthy said, it is hoped that the children’s love for science grows.

“It’s exactly what we’re hoping to accomplish in that Caymanian children…  are getting sparks and finding parts of themselves and skills they didn’t know they had… [W]e’re hoping that they will choose to continue this and then look at technology careers and… shift the trajectory of their lives. It might come from something as simple as this, and that’s our hope,” she said.

For 345Robotics founder Kendra Morris, instilling a love for robots and STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is important for her and her daughter Kya, who was into competitive robotics in the US.

“A lot of [the students] come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, and to have this kind of attention, and building confidence and doting on them and taking an interest in them… it’s just very gratifying to watch the responses. Their faces light up when they build something that works,” she said.

For more information about the robotics flash camps or other TechCayman education initiatives, email [email protected].

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