CSE Ambassadors bring robotics to Lincoln middle school

Mar 16, 2017      By Victoria Grdina

CSE Ambassador Colton Harper helps students at Culler Middle School put together robots in an after-school club.
CSE Ambassador Colton Harper helps students at Culler Middle School put together robots in an after-school club.

The CSE Ambassadors are all about giving back to the community with their computing skills. Their latest project involves giving a younger generation the knowledge to do the same. 

The CSE Ambassadors formed a robotics club at Culler Middle School in January with the mission of introducing computing and engineering concepts to younger students. Every Tuesday afternoon, the Ambassadors spend about two hours helping 10-20 sixth graders build and program machinery.

“There are a few students who have had background in computing or programming, and I’m blown away by things they say,” said Colton Harper, CSE Ambassadors president and mentor. “I definitely think starting something early helps you get into that computational-thinking mindset, and it just grows from there.”

The club was funded by the Give Back Big grant the group received from The Center for Civic Engagement in November. The $1,000 grant was also matched by the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and has provided the funds for the club’s robotics kits. Group and academic adviser Ann Koopmann helped connect the group with the Lincoln Learning Community last year and has seen serious commitment from the Ambassadors.  

“They’re really rolling up their sleeves,” Koopmann said. “They had to contact the Learning Community Coordinator and talk about what the needs are. They had to get online and figure out what robotics projects would be best for this age group. They had to earn the grant. They’re thinking about how they sustain this so that when they leave it’s still going...and that’s impressive.”

During the first two months, the Culler students have spent most of their time following schematics to build simple chain-reaction machines, while four or five Ambassadors supervise and assist as needed. Their goal is to get the students to understand physical concepts of the machines first and apply software concepts to them later. Eventually they’ll design their own robots and take them to a showcase and a competition.

“They like the building. They think it’s challenging,” Harper said. “They see the schematic and see that they’re supposed to put the pieces on, but maybe they put them on the inside. Instead of saying, ‘No, you need to put them on the outside,’ we’re trying to get them to picture why they need to put them on the outside. That’s important. It’s neat to see them put those pieces together.”

The CSE Ambassadors aim to foster that curiosity, especially with those underrepresented in computing. The club consists of mostly sixth graders and usually a balanced mix of boys and girls.

“It’s clear that there’s a gender gap in computing and STEM in general. We did some research, and what we found is that the interest is about the same in grade school all the way up to eighth grade or so, but in eighth grade there’s a steep decline,” Harper said. “We wanted to get into a middle school and show students who had an interest in robotics and technology that they’re capable.”

The CSE Ambassadors hope that the club will further develop that interest in students through high school and beyond. They also hope that with enough interest and support, they’ll be able to expand the club to all Lincoln middle schools by next spring and eventually to Lincoln high schools as well.

The CSE Ambassadors always welcome new members to join their organization and help expand their club. Interested students should contact: cse_ambassadors@unl.edu.