Robots attacked last Thursday at Gulf Coast State College’s Gulf/Franklin Center.
To be precise, the robots collected rocks from the surface of “Mars” and sought out a flat suitable place to establish a base camp on the planet’s surface.
They also performed “underwater” rescues and flew through an obstacle course of classroom chairs and tables and plastic rings at varying heights.
And the robots, or drones, did all that at the command of some smart, ingenious students.
Funded by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical, hosted by GCSC and held in partnership with the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium, a three-day STEM camp provided a winning combination: learning, fun and just a tad bit of friendly competition.
“I thought it was fun and educational,” said Sara Flowers, who will be entering the seventh grade at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School in the fall. “I learned to fly a drone really well without crashing it.
“And I learned a lot about coding. I had done a little bit. It was interesting and it was hard at first, but it got easier.”
Coding, or crafting the correct combination of words or numbers to provide the correct commands to a drone or small robot to perform specific duties was the focus of the camp.
“The drones come pre-assembled because of the time-crunch,” said instructor Fred Stephenson, noting the camp’s 18 total hours. “We wanted them to go right into programming.”
The time-crunch, however, was aided this year by proximity.
This was the first time the camp was held at the Gulf/Franklin Center, allowing more participation from students out of Franklin and Bay counties.
“We used to have to go to Panama City or Chipola (Junior College in Marianna),” said Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School teacher Lana Harrison. “This is a good central location.”
The students were paired in teams, competing at programming a drone to complete certain tasks that a robot might have to perform on Mars.
One long wooden box contained stones at various locations with the students tasked with programming the drone, equipped with two “tentacles” in front, to collect the stones in a certain sequence and return to the starting point.
Another long wooden box contained a host of bumps and obstacles of varying sizes and shapes; the goal was for the drone to find an open, clear surface on which to build a base camp.
Still another puzzle involved a drone meandering along a track before entering a “tunnel” and stopping, as if performing a task underwater, and then resuming its path and entering another “tunnel.”
Again and again, as teams or as individuals, the students placed their drones, turned them on and watched.
Far too many times the drone did not perform to task and it was back to the computer and a review of the coding.
“None of them wanted to quit,” said Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School teacher Kim McFarland. “Talk about perseverance.”
And, of course, there was another classroom for drone flying and, during one juncture, the sibling team of Sara Flowers and brother, Dru, entering the sixth grade in the fall.
Dru could not give the camp a stronger recommendation.
“At the end of the three days they made us fill out this survey and gave them a five on every question, which was the highest you could give,” Dru said. “It was fun and it was fun to have someone there that you knew.”
The two competed as only siblings can on flying a drone safely through an obstacle course and, naturally, nailing the landing.
“I pretty much won,” Dru said.
The STEM camp dovetails into considerable educational effort going on the district and at GCSC.
Loretta Costin, director of the Gulf/Franklin Campus, said the camp extended many programs the college was offering at its main campus, offerings the college hopes to expand to Gulf/Franklin.
In addition, the district will soon begin a drone program at both high schools, folding in a host of applications, including agricultural sciences at WHS.