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Jaya Flanary

A student sets her robot on the table and her peers circle around to watch it dance. The robot moves forward, spins, moves backwards and spins again.

The other students observe and jot down notes, then rush back to their desks to tinker with their own robots. Their goal is to make them do the same dance.

This robotics class is part of Odyssey of Science and Arts Program, a three-week science and arts program held at Western for elementary and middle school kids. Created 20 years ago, the program has a new format this year. Previously, students had classes all day, but this year involves academic-focused classes in the morning and recreational time in the afternoon.

“By streamlining the process, it gives the students a chance to have some outdoor activity and also gives us a chance to make sure that the academic courses are still really high caliber with some great instructors,” Juliet Holzknecht, Extended Education Program Specialist said.

Three middle school students do an experiment for Fire in the Kitchen!, an Odyssey class that teaches chemistry with household items. // Photo courtesy of Juliet Holzknecht

Last week, classes included “Survival Science” and “Video Game Designs” for elementary-level and “Robotics” and “Fire in the Kitchen!” for middle schoolers. Other courses offered are PhotoShop and Adventures in Media Making: Video Production.

Instructors are often from the Bellingham School District, but some courses, like Robotics, are taught by Western computer science students.

Senior Emmanuel Harley, a computer science major, instructs the Robotics class. Kids learn the history of robotics, then build and customize their own robots. Next, they learn to program the bots.

“That can be difficult conceptually,” Harley said. “For [people] we can say, ‘Go here’ and ‘Go there’ and another person will respond intelligently, but with a robot you have to be really specific.”

The kids learn programming and manipulation by making their robots dance and go through a maze.

“It’s pretty cool to see them get excited,” Harley said.

At the end of this week, the group activity is a Sumo-Bot fight. Robots will face each other in a duel, and the object to stay in the ring.

It’s eye-opening to teach, Harley said. He is learning how many types of learners there are and how to accommodate his teaching style to that.

Fairhaven Middle School sixth-grade science teacher, Mike Finley, instructs “Fire in the Kitchen!” which teaches kids principles of chemistry through household item experiments. He is also a Western alumnum, earning a biology degree in 2008 and his master’s in teaching two years later.

“I specifically like working with middle school kids because they’re truly excited to learn,” Finley said. “They have that true, genuine energy.”

Finley bases his curriculum off what he teaches throughout the school year, as well as what he learned at Western.

One experiment is called “Elephant Toothpaste,” which involves mixing hydrogen peroxide and dish soap, then adding the enzyme, yeast, to create a cloudy tube of foam. They also made slime, which taught the students about what a polymer is and ice cream, which taught the students about salt lowering the freezing temperature of water.

Finley believes the program is effective because it is hands-on experience that kids will remember.

“Having that experience is going to create that insight and excitement about science for the rest of their life,” he said.

Taiming YuenJames is in his third year at Odyssey. He considers himself a hands-on and visual learner.

One of his favorite classes is Robotics because he is interested in STEM fields. YuenJames wants to be an aerospace or nautical engineer because he likes flying and building things.

“It’s cool to write a bunch of code and see it be expressed,” he said. “And then try and troubleshoot, try and make it work, and get a final working product. It’s really exciting.”

He also enjoyed the filmmaking class because he loves making movies.

“I think it’s a good medium to express ideas and how people feel about a certain idea or concept,” YuenJames said.

The classes are based off student interest in past years. The most popular courses are a combination of art, science and creativity.

“[The classes] can get them motivated in areas of learning that they might not get to play with during the elementary or middle school classes that they have,” Holzknecht said.

The Rocketry class shot rockets off and Survival Science students visited the Sehome Hill Arboretum. Video Game Design students created their own video games throughout the week, and by the end of the course they play each other’s games.

Other programs offered are Kids Camp, which aims to encourage fun and learning on a college campus and Girls in Engineering, Math and Science (GEMS), which aims to provide a safe environment for girls to explore STEM fields.

The programs work directly with Woodring College of Education students, who get experience teaching courses to kids.

Holzknecht said Odyssey Camp is made possible by the support of Western departments because the classes take place in various campus buildings, including Academic West, the Communications Facility and the S.M.A.T.E. building.

“For campus, it’s a great opportunity to do some early admissions work,” Holzknecht said. “Feeling comfortable on a college campus just means that there’s more chance they’re going to be interested in participating in higher education later.”

July 30, 2018: The story was corrected to reflect the accurate camp name, Odyssey of Science and Arts Program. 


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