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York College Engineering students help local children build STEM skills 

November 03, 2016
Martin Library with Engineering Students

The group of middle-school students marveled as a robot built of LEGOs moved about and interacted with them on the library floor. The humanoid invoked the reaction Ashleen Hayes programmed it to do: inspire awe by bringing math and science to life.

“It feels great to see kids’ eyes light up and be, like, ‘This is a really cool thing,’” said Hayes, an Electrical Engineering junior at York College of Pennsylvania.

Hayes spent 34 hours building the robot for an October event at York’s Martin Library, where she joined engineering classmates to teach more than 20 kids how to build and program LEGO bots.

Dr. Stephen Wilkerson, an Assistant Professor in the Engineering and Computer Science department at the college, hopes events like this will create a pipeline that starts with generating early interest in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That interest could lead to college and would then set up graduates for good, well-paying skilled jobs.

Aiming for sustainable success

But teaching children math and science skills for an hour one day in their life isn’t going to cut it, Wilkerson said. 

“You want to have them in an activity outside of school that interests them, that they’re willing to devote time to,” he said.

To Wilkerson, the key is sustainability. He wants to build enough interest to support a team of young STEM enthusiasts who would compete in LEGO and robot-building competitions across the country. 

It’s similar to an approach taken at York College, where a trio of top students has been immersed in a robotics program that was put together by a consortium of universities, including Stanford. Those students are in the lab all the time, Wilkerson said.

“That’s what you want. The same thing can happen with the little kids,” he said.

Connecting with future engineers

During the event at the library, the college students helped the kids build a simpler but still impressive robot – a small car that could be programmed to follow a line and navigate mazes.

“To have younger people like us there talking to middle-schoolers is a lot better than an adult or a teacher showing them,” Hayes said. “The kids feel a better connection and believe they can build things like this themselves.”

In addition to showing off the programmable LEGOs, York College students have also introduced children to other technology such as 3-D printing and modular electronics.

Marcos Rivera, a York College freshman pursuing a degree in Mechanical Engineering, said that kind of technology is becoming more affordable. During a 3-D printing event, Rivera helped attendees print models of their own faces.

One day, he said, those younger students could learn that instead of buying many objects – like cell phone screen protectors – they could simply make them on a 3-D printer at home.

“They’re going to be our engineers and inventors, and getting them exposed to this is good because we always need people with new ideas to make things more efficient and more practical,” Rivera said. “It’s a good outreach that the college is doing.”