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Robotics Club Bridges Gaps in Coding Education

On Nov. 9, club members had to fix bugs in their codes that made their robots charge at empty space. They use the projectors and laptops to follow along with Program Coordinator Joan Tang. (Becky Mehorter/Ithaca Week)

Children sit at tables in pairs of two huddled around a laptop displaying a series of numbers, symbols and letters that dictate what their robots will do in battle. They’re supposed to be taking a bug out of lines of code, but most of them are programming their avatars to floss (a dance move which involves swinging one’s arms and hips from one side of the body to the other). Each group’s robot, decorated in the most imaginative ways possible, sits on the table.

Joan Tang, library assistant at the Tompkins County Public Library, said he created the Library’s Robotics Club the summer of 2018 to maintain children’s interest in coding and robotics. The club, which is free to attend, enrolls 30 to 40 children, ages 6 to 17.

Tang said he helped start the club to remove the barriers that prevent children from learning coding and robotics.

“For me personally, when I was a kid, I couldn’t afford to be part of any robotics clubs because it was too expensive.” 

The robots that the club uses would typically cost $75 each, and the club has 10 of them. Tang said the club offsets costs through donations and by creating parts for the robots instead of buying them. The space has a 3D printer, laser engraver and other tools that allow them to make the parts for free.

The club meetings consist of working on code and then battling   robots. Tang said coding is a manner of learning problem solving and   that it applies to all areas of life.

“What we found was that, that definitely helped attract people to learn how to code,” Tang said. “Coding has been something that’s been super important for kids to learn. It’s a skill they’re going to learn in school, and it’s a skill they can pursue in art, music, anything they want to put it to.”

Tang said the club helps fill the gaps in school systems by educating children on STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) topics. Only 34 states have created K-12 computer science standards, and New York is not one of them. STEM jobs have grown each year since 2009. By the end of 2018, 2.4 million STEM jobs were projected to go unfilled.

In order to prepare students for these jobs, states like New Jersey have unveiled coding curriculums. New York is currently gathering information and suggestions for the creation of its computer science programs. While the state crafts its policy, outlets like TCPL’s Robotics Club continue to educate K-12 students.

Alistair, a 10-year-old club member, said he’s learned a lot in the one block of classes he’s attended. He is also part of his coding club at school. Alistair said he likes to add pipe cleaners and armor to his robot, The Crab, for battle.

Alistair became interested in coding because his dad is a programmer. He added crab claws to his robot to mess with other robots’ sensors. (Becky Mehorter/Ithaca Week)

“It’s really fun to battle them and decorate them,” he said. “[Coding is] pretty hard to learn, but it’s really fun to do … and learn how to do it step-by-step.”

The club is looking to expand its program from 40 seats to 60, Tang said. He said the children want to program autonomous robots as well as create laser-cut claws and hands. 

The program, he said, will grow but won’t get too complex.

“We want to make sure to keep it so that anyone can jump in and join without being scared they don’t know enough about code or any of that,” he said. “We’re hoping it’s just a good entry point for anyone.

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