Hundreds of Baltimore City summer school students converged at the Maryland State Fairgrounds on Thursday to have their mechanical alter egos compete in a series of games for the first-ever title of Baltimore City STEM Academy Champion.
More than 100 teams of middle-school students — named "Robogirls," "Souldjabots" and even "Wall-E" — pitted robots that they had built over the course of six weeks this summer against one another in the culmination of the city schools' Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Academy.
The school system devoted more than $2.1 million in additional stimulus funds to its summer school programs this year, primarily to host robotics at six sites. The program was an effort to address summer learning loss in math and science, especially for middle-school students.
"In the past, kids never really came to summer school," said Joshua Gabrielse, a former Dunbar High School physics teacher and consultant and co-mastermind behind the school system's summer robotics program. "So, this is about robotics, but what counts is that they know math and science and that they will take this with them to college and careers."
Five of the six summer school sites around the city participated in the games Thursday, with 300 students demonstrating the physics, mathematics and basic engineering that they've learned this summer during the first school system robotics tournament.
Throughout the summer, students received instruction in the morning, and then applied the lessons to building the robots from a bag of metal pieces in the afternoon. The games on Thursday required them to maneuver their robots with controllers to place rings around posts and lift off the ground by hanging from a bar.
Students and their teachers scurried about polishing their creations, tightening loose pieces and bending parts into place throughout the morning. Many said that the last-minute touches reflected some of the frustrations and successes they experienced this summer.
"It was frustrating at times, but they just took off," said Alice Long, a sixth-grade Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School teacher who taught in the school's summer STEM Academy. "But in the inner city, our children aren't exposed to this a lot, so it gave them so much self-confidence."
Jordan McCormick, 12, who attends Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy, got the opportunity to explain to judges that despite having to build his robot alone, he was proud of what it could do.
"It felt good to share my side of the story — the struggle it took to build my robot," Jordan said. "I told them that every robot is not perfect, and every robot has weaknesses. I was by myself, but I tried to stay positive. I'm proud of what I did."
Jordan had two partners who failed to see the program through, and a new partner stood him up at the tournament Thursday. He wished for more bells and whistles, he said, but his robot, "Total Domination," came in 31st place out of 57 in its first tournament.
"I told him he showed great courage," said his mother, Denise McCormick, as she took pictures of his struggling robot with her camera phone. "He was a little down, but he should be very proud."