The Summer Program for Automation, Robotics and Coding (SPARC) is a unique tuition-based program offered for the first time during summer 2018. It welcomes high school students with strong passions for STEM, specifically in the realm of robotics. The course lasts two weeks and takes students through the coding and circuitry of basic robotics before leading into some construction and testing. The instructors of SPARC are what truly make it stand out as a STEM program, as the complex construction and coding of robots is transformed in an accessible, casual atmosphere, where learning and question asking are happening constantly.
The classes start with a rundown of circuitry and basic electrical engineering fundamentals before progressing into physical breadboards, wiring, and coding. The first robot the group constructed was a four wheeler made of acrylic with rubber tires and was designed to move according to code input through an Arduino microcontroller.
Our instructors believe in giving the students the right amount of balance between formal instruction and freedom. For example, while the students understand the basics of constructing the robot and its frame, they are never told where to put their Arduino board and its wires, through which all of the coding directs the device’s movements. For the next robot the group constructed, a type of large claw device, the students were given even less advice, but were still highly adept with the instructions provided, despite the increase in complexity of the new kits. The materials were also upgraded from acrylic to more solid metal and plastic.
The instructors are all graduate students whose studies are either Mechatronics or Mechanical Engineering, well experienced in the devices used in the program and the fundamentals behind their abilities. Items such as microcontrollers, interface sensors, and actuators were all explained and treated with care. Shivam Bhardwaj explains his philosophy of embracing the missteps of the students. He acknowledges, “No one can become an engineer in ten days, but we put them on the right path, and they’re interested, they’re engaged.” Shivam allows flawed code to be uploaded on purpose, to enable the students to problem solve it proactively as engineers would, so that everyone learns and progresses together.
Maintaining interest is a key focus for the instructors, and their approach is very nuanced. Shivam explained that he starts the students off with interesting things, such as sensors, to pull them in. One such device is a proximity sensor that measures distance; it’s the same type of technology included in the Roomba (as one example). The lessons conclude with more difficult tasks, such as conducting proper wiring. Shivam explains, if one aspect of the numerous wiring ports is not perfect, the program will not work. Ending with this is important because it allows the students to gain confidence in their abilities and interest from the material they enjoy early on; they’re far less likely to give up despite the increased difficulty of their final tasks.
Having an inclusive atmosphere is also very important to the instructors and course. Alberta Kove, a Masters Mechanical Engineering student, reminds students that workers in STEM, not the most diverse of fields, don’t have a mold, and anyone with enough interest is capable of reaching their full potential.
Alberta says, “While NYU is the exception, many institutions related to STEM are not diverse at all, not just when it comes to women, but race as well. We miss out on so many great minds because they feel they don’t fit the mold of a typical engineer or scientist. When I was confused, I used to think it was because I was a girl, but it took time to understand that newer concepts can be difficult sometimes, for anyone… Teaching is so much more than sharing knowledge, its about inspiring; inspiring curiosity and inspiring that anyone can succeed. Working with this age is great, pre-college years are literally life changing, and we’re still students ourselves even though we are their teachers, and so it’s a fun experience for us both.”
With the program’s innovative, hands on, teaching style alongside its advanced and intricate robot kits, SPARC promises to be a program with incredible potential and nuance for high school students from all backgrounds.
Written by Nicolas Parada