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VA STAR program donates laptops to NOVA's robotics camps

Northern Virginia Community College’s popular summer STEM camps expanded this year from the Prince William region into Arlington and Loudoun counties. Operated by NOVA’s SySTEMic Solutions, the robotics camps were bolstered by the donation of 30 laptop computers from the VA STAR (Virginia Student Training and Refurbishment) program. 

VA STAR students refurbish surplus hardware from state agencies or private companies and earn IT repair certification for their work. Once refurbished, the computers are donated to families and organizations in need of a computer. The laptops donated to SySTEMic Solutions were used by campers to program their robots. 

Forest Park High School (Woodbridge) senior Tim Reed used the laptop refurbishment endeavor as his high school capstone project. Reed has been actively involved in Prince William County Public Schools robotics for six years as both a student and a mentor. To prepare the laptops, he had to sift through 130 units to find the best ones and then re-add the hard drives, re-install the operating systems, and add the software components. The most challenging part of his task was installing the operating systems, using Linux (a UNIX-based operating system) to format the drives so Windows 7 would be able to access the hard drive with no security errors. 

Reed has a bright future in the networking field. In addition to having been the IT head at Forest Park High School, he is currently the lead technician at Slable, an IT consulting firm in Prince William County. He also has a coveted internship with Ashburn-based LionLink Networks. 

“I aspire to one day be working high in the ranks of a major company and even start my own business in the networking field,” Reed said. “The knowledge I have gained through Forest Park High School is far more than I could have ever envisioned in the scope of a high school career. The VA STAR program teaches invaluable skills that apply to real world situations while at the same time helping those less fortunate by giving them a computer.”

Chuck Drake, coordinator of Forest Park’s IT Specialty Program and VA STAR, says NOVA’s robotics camps are a good fit for the laptop giveaway.

“Both VA STAR and the robotics programs provide hands-on learning opportunities that enhance the STEM workforce pipeline. SySTEMic Solutions has been such an effective force in the growth of robotics in the region that it’s an obvious choice to furnish them with these laptops because we know they’ll go to great use at the camps,” Drake said.

The camps provide students with a platform to learn scientific principles, engineering design processes and computer programming. Through teamwork and competition, the students gain valuable insight and experience in all four STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines while also having fun. Robotics has proven a vital component in developing skills that prepare students for further STEM education, nurturing an early and sustained interest, and moving students along the pipeline. 

Participating students from fourth to 10th grade engaged in FIRST LEGO League or VEX robotics challenges in building, programming and competition. Fourth and fifth graders participated in FIRST LEGO League, building an autonomous LEGO robot to carry out pre-designed missions on an obstacle course. Sixth to ninth graders built and programmed VEX robots while rising seventh to 10th graders increased their building and programming skills with more difficult parameters. All of them exercised what they learned in competitions, with the VEX students using the official game for 2013, “Toss Up.” In this game, robots are built to push, lift and place bright red or blue balls in specific locations on a field.

Popular in Prince William County since the camps began in 2008, the robotics camps exceeded projected enrollment totals this year with more than 360 students enrolled. Aleksander Marthinussen, regional SySTEMic Solutions STEM Education Coordinator, is proud of what the students achieved. 

“It was a pleasure to see so many interested and dedicated young minds work together over the summer with STEM and robotics in particular. It was amazing to see how much these inspired young students have grown and how much they have learned. They will have a huge advantage when taking the lessons from the camps back to their schools and teams,” Marthinussen said.

More unknown was how the robotics camps would fare in new counties but the response to the introductory camps in Loudoun County was overwhelming as they quickly filled beyond capacity. Rather than 224 projected students, the camps actually attracted 350 campers. 

Loudoun STEM Education Coordinator Tosin Adetoro was excited about the turnout. “Robotics is a great example of STEM education at its finest and through SySTEMic Solutions 350 students in Loudoun were able to experience an engaging robotics summer camp. Bearing witness to the critical thinking and STEM literacy growth of the students during the camp sessions has been amazing,” Adetoro said.

The newer camps in Arlington saw smaller numbers but were developmentally promising. STEM Education Coordinator Jim Egenrieder is optimistic about their potential. 

“Despite being announced much later than other summer camps in Arlington, the first-ever Vex Robotics camp at the Governor’s STEM Academy in Arlington enrolled many eager builders and programmers in its two-week camp. Support from SySTEMic Solutions has inspired Arlington leaders to consider several additional STEM camps in cyber security, robotics and engineering,” he said.

The camps ran from July 8 through Aug. 9. In Prince William County, the camps were held at NOVA’s Manassas and Woodbridge campuses as well as Woodbridge High School. The Loudoun camps were held at NOVA’s Loudoun Campus and Tuscarora High School in Leesburg, while the Arlington camps took place at the Governor’s STEM Academy.

SySTEMic Solutions Program Manager Josh Labrie expressed appreciation for the laptops. “You can’t run camps without equipment and we are deeply grateful for the laptop donation which has helped us recruit younger students into STEM fields. The VA STAR legacy involves growing the STEM pipeline and high school students are potentially making a career decision by being involved in that program. Through their work on the laptops we have a wider impact on the number of students we can reach in the summer camps. The older, more experienced students at VA STAR are able to positively affect and influence the younger students who are just entering the pipeline,” he said.

Corporate sponsors for the 2013 camps were Micron in Manassas, Aerojet RocketDyne in Gainesville and UNO Chicago Grill in Manassas.

For more information, contact SySTEMic Solutions Director Amy Harris at 703-257-6689 or aharris@nvcc.edu.

Northern Virginia Community College is the largest institution of higher education in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls more than 75,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield and Woodbridge, and through the Extended Learning Institute. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, call 703-323-3000 or visit the College's Web site, www.nvcc.edu.