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This Atlantic City program has children building robots

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.

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.

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.

“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.

Even as growing season ends, farmers keep on giving

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Tom Kaye sat among a dozen other people in plastic chairs on a recent afternoon, waiting for his name to be called so he could fill up a shopping cart with canned foods, gravy and cranberry relish, and pick from the fresh vegetables, fruits and produce piled high on crates.

Without the assistance of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch, Kaye said he would struggle to feed his family, but this year, he’ll be able to make a nice Thanksgiving spread with the fresh produce farmers and food-industry businesses donate year-round.

“This really brings communities together,” he said. “I grew up on a farm, so I know what that’s like, and being a farmer isn’t extremely profitable around this time of year, but they’re still donating food anyway out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Food bank officials say produce donations from farmers and others help them feed hungry and food-insecure families and individuals in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, which translates to more than 1 million pounds of food each year.

Richard Uniacke, vice president of the Southern Branch, said more than a dozen farms contribute food to those in need, including ones in Bridgeton, Vineland, Hammonton, Lawrence Township and Deerfield Township.

One of the food bank’s biggest year-round donors is Frank Donio Inc., fourth-generation farmers based in Hammonton. Annie Pape, who helps run her family’s farm with her mother, uncle and cousins, said the farm has made it a goal to fight hunger and food insecurity.

“It’s all about the spirit of giving,” she said. “With most donations to hunger initiatives consisting of nonperishable or canned items, our access to fresh fruits and vegetables gives us a unique opportunity to give back to our neighbors who might be struggling.”

The farm is busy year-round, including the winter, when Pape said they source vegetables and fruits nationally and internationally to fill the gaps in their own growing season. With that produce, they are able to donate about one to two truckloads of food to the food bank each week.

“We all think of food insecurity during this time because the holidays are built around families gathering at the dinner table,” she said. “We are proud to help bring families together to share a healthy and nutritious meal.”

Renate Taylor, development officer at the food bank, said pallets of donated food are brought to the food bank’s main site in Egg Harbor Township and are distributed among 311 partner agencies and organizations with food pantries for residents across South Jersey.

Last week’s produce selections for Egg Harbor Township pantry clients included kale, spinach, tomatoes, potatoes, yams, zucchini, yellow squash, lettuce, carrots, sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions, garlic, melons and apples.

Wanda Jacobs, of Egg Harbor Township, said she encourages people to try the food bank if they need help. The employee at Wawa just next door to the food bank on the Black Horse Pike said the pantry helps supplement her monthly food costs.

As she weaved through the aisles of food last week, she picked up some fruits and vegetables, pre-made cranberry relish and turkey gravy, bread, canned foods, cornmeal and dessert, perfect for weekly meals for herself and for something to have on Thanksgiving.

Both Jacobs and Kaye said they are continuously impressed by the selections at the pantry, especially the vegetables and fruit that came straight from the source.

“It’s just so fresh, it’s all incredible,” Kaye said. “You know, I used to not want people to know I used the food bank, needing help while on disability after working for the state for 25 years, but now, I don’t mind. I tell people to come here, because it helps and it brings everyone together.”

Delaware Bay gets first artificial reef on New Jersey side

The state’s first artificial reef in the Delaware Bay will be centrally located for recreational fishermen from Fortescue to Cape May.

“Fishermen had been requesting one for quite some time,” said Peter Clarke, fisheries biologist and artificial reef coordinator for the Department of Environmental Protection. “We were finally able to do it.”

Construction is due to start in early December, he said.

Party boat captain Mike Rothman, of the 65-foot Bonanza II in Fortescue, said the reef will be beneficial for his business and for the bay’s recreational fishery.

“This give us more of an option,” said Rothman, who operates out of the Fortescue State Marina and is a Downe Township committeeman.

“There has been an absolute decline in the recreational fishery,” largely because of restrictions on the size and number of fish that can be caught, he said. “I definitely hope it’s just a start. I hope in the future there is more of this in the bay.”

The new reef will be built about 9 miles southwest of the mouth of the Maurice River, about 12 miles from Fortescue in Downe Township, and 6.5 miles from the Cape May Canal, Clarke said.

DEP studies have found that artificial reefs are quickly colonized by organisms such as algae, barnacles, mussels, sea stars, blue crabs and sea fans that attract smaller fish. The smaller fish then attract the larger species that fishermen seek.

The Delaware Bay reef will attract larger fish like summer and winter flounder, black drum, black sea bass, tautog, striped bass, bluefish and weakfish, Clarke said.

Delaware has created several artificial reefs on its side of the bay, Clarke said. But New Jersey is starting with one experimental reef, and will carefully monitor the age of the fish at the reef before building another.

Reefs in estuaries can attract more juvenile fish than those in the ocean, he said. The state doesn’t want juvenile fish exposed to too much fishing pressure.

The new reef will have a base of rock dynamited from a dredge site farther upriver near the Commodore Barry Bridge, said Clarke. Then concrete culverts and other material will be added on top.

“The rock is taken to the site via hopper scow, which is like a big bathtub with two sets of doors on the bottom,” said Clarke. “We open the bottom up, and the material drops out. You can get a very precise deployment.”

The rock varies from basketball size to the size of a car, he said.

The water is too shallow to use something larger, like a ship, he said. The 1.3-square-mile area has a minimum depth of 19 feet deep and a maximum of 35 feet.

Clarke said New Jersey recently applied for a new 10-year reef permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which allowed it to add the Delaware Bay site.

“Generally speaking, we are looking for an area with a featureless bottom, made of hard sand — at most small sand waves,” said Clarke. The site was also chosen for its central location to Delaware Bay fishing towns.

The DEP’s artificial reef deployment program was suspended for a time, after losing its funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fish and Wildlife felt commercial fishing interests were hampering recreational fishing on artificial reefs in state waters, which are funded by taxes on recreational fishing gear and motor boat fuel.

Fish and Wildlife began providing $119,250 last year to the reef program because the DEP had reached a compromise allowing commercial interests limited access to two reefs in state waters, and agreed to construct a new ocean reef for recreational fishing only.

The DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife currently holds permits for 15 artificial reef sites — 13 in federal waters and two in state waters.

For more information on New Jersey’s Artificial Reef Program, visit