Photos by Steven Mantilla / Times-News
Renewable Energy Summer Camp teaches middle-school kids about electricity
By Isaac Groves The Times-News 7/19/15
Reprinted with permission.
There is a connection between building a cardboard labyrinth for electric bugs and building the electrical grid of the future.
“It’s more to do with the engineering aspect and the science aspect and problem solving and creative thinking,” said Michael O’Brien, 14, who starts at Western Alamance High School in August.
This is his second year in the Renewable Energy Summer Camp at the Alamance-Burlington School System’s Career and Technical Education Center. The Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems puts the camp in partnership with ABSS and N.C. State University.
The idea is to get science and engineering concepts across to middle-school kids, especially girls and minorities under-represented in these fields, in the hopes some of them will follow that career path or at least be more aware of energy issues.
The labyrinth starts out with a design on graph paper, and then O’Brien and his partner Caitlin Blovin, 12, of Southern Alamance Middle School, put it together mostly out of cardboard, small wooden pieces, Styrofoam balls, paper and hot glue. The labyrinth is for HEXBUGS, inch-long vibrating, many-legged toys powered by watch batteries made to jiggle their way blindly through mazes.
Their labyrinth is a big spiral. It had to meet a list of criteria including a loop, dead end, slope and a tunnel. The object was “to get the bug through as fast as it can,” O’Brien said.
“And to be successful,” Blovin said.
Getting it there took trial and error and problem solving. Every right angle has a little curved piece of wood with a cardboard bumper to keep the bugs from getting stuck in corners and the pair keeps messing around with little spots where the bugs get stuck.
Trial, error and revision were the point, Orange High School teacher Kristen Riley said. Riley is running the camp with Daniel Kelly, an NCSU graduate student.
Kids are not used to working without instructions these days, Riley said, and it is easy to become discouraged when things don’t work out right away.
“One thing we find is a lot of times students don’t have a lot of practice imagining and building,” Riley said. “One of the things we try to teach them is to become comfortable being uncomfortable.”
The seven campers range from rising ninth-graders, like O’Brien, with a background in science and tinkering , to seventh-graders who never built a straw rocket before. Not even two days later, they were designing and building mazes.
“So it’s encouraging that they want to try to build things,” Riley said.
The final project was a model house — really a cardboard box wired with five different types of circuits operating things like a light, buzzer and small fan, one of them powered by a small solar panel.
Few, if any, of the campers had handled a soldering iron before, but Pam Carpenter, education program coordinator with FREEDM, said they told her it turned out to be one of their favorite things about the camp.
The 10-year NSF grant funding the camp and Alamance County’s partnership with FREEDM have been going on for eight years now, Carpenter said. There are also programs for high school students to spend a few weeks studying at the FREEDM Center at NCSU, called Young Scholars and the Research Experience for teachers, which aims to send them back to school with science and engineering lesson plans.
When the grant runs out, Carpenter said, the center plans to find other funding for the long term. A long-term system to track the kids in these programs and keep them engaged in science and energy issues, and to expand these programs to counties besides Alamance, are other works in progress, she said.
O’Brien solders a wire during the first day of the camp.