At new Holyoke Community College program, playing with Legos is more than a game

Monday, August 04, 2014
HOLYOKE — Boxes filled with an assortment of Lego parts were the trappings for an experiment in which local teenagers built small robots that follow commands they programmed into a computer in a unusual class offered this summer at Holyoke Community College.

The students, both high schoolers and college-age students, were asked to assemble the four-wheeled robots, and learn the program to make the machines move by touch, sound and light.

“I’ve always been interested in engineering and robotics and this class gave me a chance to do both,” said Liam Peterson, 16, a junior at Hopkins Academy in Hadley. “This class is pretty challenging considering it’s a college course.”

The robot experiment was part of “The Big Why” engineering and science class, one of three, five-week courses in a new program at HCC, the STEM Starter Academy that runs through Thursday. The academy aims to get students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. Overall, 47 students participated in the program which earns them college credits and a $250 stipend if they finish the program with a grade of C- or better. STEM was free to students and paid for through a $300,000 state grant.

Ileana Vasu, HCC STEM coordinator and head of the college’s engineering program, said the earlier students start to learn the sciences, the more likely they are to be engaged and succeed in them.

“This program has the chance to expose students to different areas of science, technology, engineering and math but also to help them build community support and get engaged with our faculty,” she said.

Thomas Barrup, an HCC engineering professor teaching The Big Why class, said the point of the course is to give students a series of seemingly unrelated problems and teach them how to solve those using experiments and other hands-on activities. The class does not use a textbook.

“Once you leave the confines of academia you get crazy things thrown at you and you need to be able to take a moment and think of a clean way through it. My job was to give them an arsenal of problem-solving tools,” he said. “I introduced them to thinking critically in a way that is fun because although you’re playing with Legos it’s actually teaching them some pretty sophisticated problem solving in general.”

While building the robots with Lego pieces may have seemed elementary in one sense, the class required high level skills as students were learning how to interact with the computer, Barrup said.

Two other STEM courses were also offered four days a week at HCC. “Geo-Tracks: Where we’ve been; where we are; where we are going” had students exploring the physical environment of Holyoke by investigating the rocks, water, sky and organisms. The “Self-Paced Math Course” taught everything from arithmetic to intermediate algebra. Students were not eligible to earn college credits in the math course.

Since all three STEM courses were offered at the same time, students could only choose to take one course.

Students also had the opportunity to learn outside the classroom as well. Field trips this summer included a visit to Heritage State Park in Holyoke, a tour of the High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke and a walking tour of the HCC campus to look for geological rock formations.

Back in Barrup’s engineering class, fast-paced whirring sounds could be heard throughout as students continuously tested the movement of the robots on the floor of the classroom to gauge whether they entered the correct sequencing of the computer program. As part of the commands, the robots’ wheels would turn left or right, stop when there was a loud noise like a hand clap or halt just a fraction of an inch of hitting an object such as a door. It was not uncommon for students to repeatedly test the robots before they got the sequencing correct.

Taylor Lesure, 17, a senior at Amherst Regional High School, was paired with fellow high school classmate Drake Niedzielski, 17, in the robot experiment. Lesure said she enjoyed the flexibility of the class.

“The class is interesting and not like high school where you have to do certain things at a certain time. We have a lot of freedom to learn,” she said. “It also gave me an idea of what college life might be like.”

Niedzielski had this to say: “I’ve always liked math, science and engineering and am big into STEM. So when I heard about this program it seemed like a great opportunity to do something fun with my summer.”

Charles Calabrese, 19, a sophomore at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, got his first taste of working with robots while a student at Agawam High School and he said he found The Big Why course both “interesting and challenging,” and not routine in the least.

“You always learn something from it even if it’s something you’ve done a hundred times before,” he said. “Something can go wrong and you have to figure out how to fix it.”

Westfield Vocational High School senior Jeffrey Champagne said he planned to use Barrup’s class as a sneak peek at a career in race car driving.

“My whole life I’ve been involved with motor sports and racing. I feel like I could link the engineering with some day running my own race car team,” he said. “I could maybe use my credits for the motor sports engineering program at Perdue University and make a career path like that.”