ATLANTIC CITY — On a recent Saturday morning, 9-year-old Jayla Smith worked diligently on a robot at Atlantic Cape Community College.
She ran back and forth from her computer, to the robot, back to the computer in order to program it just right, so the robot could do what she designed it to do, and so it would work on its own with her instructions.
“I’m doing ‘detect and react,’” the fourth-grader at the Pennsylvania Avenue School said, explaining how the robots she designed can detect colors on a map and travel on their own. “You can make them do whatever you want.”
Smith is part of a group of about 30 students from grades one through 12 who spend their Saturday mornings in the city working on computer engineering, science and robotics in a program known as STEM Saturdays. The 10-week program focuses on building robots, design and computer science for children, augmenting their education in science, technology, engineering and math.
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The program is part of the Pleasantville-based nonprofit organization American Engineering and Science Robotics Academy, led by Dr. Basilyn Bunting, 68. Bunting has been executive director since 2011, but STEM Saturdays have been around for the past three years.
“The primary skill that they really are learning in robotics is problem-solving,” she said. “Everything that could go wrong goes wrong. They learn.”
At the weekly program, the kids are there by 9 a.m. They use robotic devices that have the ability to travel on different maps, one of which looks like outer space, and learn to program them to follow lines, detect colors or, in some cases, pick up or knock down “rovers.”
They learn what kind of coding and instructions are needed to make the robot pathways, force or turns just right.
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Bunting said the program gives children another way to exercise “strategic thinking.” While she has a bunch of volunteers helping her, including college students from area schools, most of the work is done by the children themselves, working together on the second level of Atlantic Cape’s campus in the city.
Harpreet Singh, 10, wants to be a surgeon, he said. The student at Atlantic Community Charter School in Galloway Township comes to the program every week because he loves to code.
“At first, we had to build a robot,” he said. “If it didn’t work, you would just keep trying and trying to fix your mistakes.”
Amarjeet Kaur, of Pleasantville, brings her three children to the program, who “never want to take a day off,” she said.
The fall semester wrapped Nov. 18. Bunting has been advertising for the winter session to begin in December.
Partnerships, grants and sponsors help make the program possible, she said.
Donna Vassallo, dean of the Worthington Campus at Atlantic Cape, said the campus enjoys supporting outside programming that encourages youth, especially if it helps them take notice of the community college building and strive to get there one day.
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“We provide support for unique learning opportunities,” Vassallo said. “These are not our students — yet. But it’s our community.”
Many of the students, who are mostly from Atlantic City and County, also work through a certification program through Carnegie Mellon University while they’re there. The more steps and badges in the online course they complete, the closer they get to bringing a certificate home. It’s a nice accomplishment for the children, Bunting said.
Bunting retired from the William J. Hughes FAA Technical Center in 2012 and decided to put all of her time and energy into teaching children, she said.
She said now is an important time to expose the youth to STEM skills and careers — especially girls. She wants to help instill this career interest in children as they grow older, she said.
“I love to see what they do. They surprise me,” she said.