This weekend, unbeknownst to most residents of our fair city, San Antonio nearly fell victim to a major and unnatural disaster: an alien invasion.
Saturday, construction crews near the Alamo unearthed vibrating metal boxes, identified by experts on the scene as alien energy pylons. The extraterrestrial objects were safely relocated on Sunday, first to Lackland Air Force Base and then to a biomedical containment center
at the Alamodome. Troops were later deployed to patrol the perimeter of the city. Robots built and programmed this weekend by a group of seventh and eighth grade students from Dwight Middle School transferred and quarantined these hazards in three minutes flat.
Did I mention that all of this drama unfolded at Geekdom, on the 11th floor of the Weston Centre?
In what was the first (but certainly not the last) educational event of this size and scale, Geekdom hosted 16 middle school students and adult mentors from eight area companies for the Robotics Challenge. Eight teams consisting of two students and one or two mentors spent long hours on Saturday and Sunday creating functioning robots that moved the cardboard “pylons,” relocated fish rock aliens, and disbursed toy soldiers across a tabletop-sized game board resembling a map of the city that was designed in-house by Geekdom members.
Teams earned points from the judges (local teachers and FIRST Robotics representatives) for each task they successfully completed during the three-minute long competitions. At the end of multiple face-offs, all of the teams completed a writing task, summarizing their experiences and capping off a weekend of technology with a different type of creativity. As Louis Pacilli, the Director of Education at Geekdom, explained, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, a popular buzzword in the education community, is slowly giving way to a new movement gaining steam: science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, or STEAM education.
The vision behind this specific Robotics Challenge, as well as the overall mission of educational activities at Geekdom, is to ignite a spark in young minds and cultivate an interest in pursing cerebral passions. Pacilli led the way in organizing the Geekdom Robotics Challenge with input from FIRST Robotics. By placing younger students in situations where they confront technology and science in an exciting and interactive way, Pacilli hopes to shape their educational and career aspirations, and cultivate a homegrown generation of tech-savvy, entrepreneurially minded San Antonians. In his own words: “We want to teach kids that geek is chic. We want them to take ownership of their future and become autonomous learners.”
Daniel, a Dwight student who just completed eighth grade, had this to say about his weekend at the Robotics Challenge: “I’ve never really messed with any robot parts and building it was a good experience for me. I liked the way it came out. I found out neat things on programming and how to build a robot. Geekdom actually showed me a bunch of things on how to build it.” Many other students echoed Daniel’s thoughts. As participants watched their creations roll across the game board, excitement and pride showed on their faces. All of the students selected by their schools for the Robotics Challenge have demonstrated a desire to expand their minds through science and technology. They have also expressed a need for encouragement to do so.
Dwight Middle School is one of several area schools that will participate in a Geekdom pilot program next year called SparkEd. In the website’s own words, SparkEd™ hopes to “spark middle and high school student interest in technology and entrepreneurship.” SparkEd will focus on educating students in four primary subject areas: circuit, coding, design and entrepreneurship. Through professional development opportunities at Geekdom for teachers, Skype classes taught remotely by Geekdom members, curriculum sharing, and events like the Robotics Challenge, Pacilli hopes to see the program expand from South San and SAISD into other school districts. Ultimately the goal is to help students, especially those who lack resources, support, or exposure and who might need an extra push to reach their potential.
The crowd on Sunday at the final Robotics Challenge competition included parents, siblings, teachers, and a few high profile guests. City councilman Rey Saldaña, a South San Antonio ISD graduate himself, praised the students for their initiative and hard work. Graham Weston, Rackspace chairman and co-founder, joined the conversation from London, watching two teams face off by webcam and speaking to participants. Dirk Elmendorf, Rackspace co-founder, encouraged the students to pursue their passions, use their minds, and strive to make their dreams a reality. “This is where you start,” said Elmendorf, “and if you keep with it, the things you will be able to create in your lifetime will blow all of us away.”
Miriam Sitz works for Accion Texas Inc., the nation’s largest non-profit microlender. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com and sells handmade goods on TinderboxGoods.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. [Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.]