It was an eight-year-old boy’s curiosity about robots and how they are programmed that got Carlos Margo, associate dean of Industry Training and Economic Development at South Texas College (STC), thinking about creating a robotics camp on campus during the summer months.

“This second-grader, A.J. Cano, had such an interest and had already built a robot on his own. But to go further, he needed to learn how to program it. I discussed the idea of a camp with my staff, and the idea just gained a lot of traction,” Margo says. “We had the resources, the labs and the equipment, and it just took off from there.” 

Now in its fourth year, STC’s Robotics and Automation Summer Camp serves about 800 young people, ages 8 to 18, in intensive, weeklong sessions every summer. 

Each week at the camp is unique, with projects geared toward different ages and interests. Younger children, for example, learn to design, build, and program a robot made of Legos through a partnership with the national non-profit First Robotics. But that’s just the beginning.

“This particular program is very task-oriented,” explains Margo. After each team builds their robot, “we put a map of a city across the table, and their challenge is to program that robot to pick up a load of material at point A, deliver it to point B, and then travel to point C. The kids must program the robot to follow the color of the roads on the map and to factor in the distance between each destination.”  

Too tough for a group of eight-year-olds?  Not on your life.  “They do it each week, and the teams compete to see who has built the better robot,” says Margo.

Each member of the group is responsible for a different part of the project, from design to build and programming. Besides learning automation, there are less obvious benefits as well, such as learning to work as a team.

“The team-building was important, and so was the trial and error aspect of it,” says A.J.’s mom, Nora Tagle Cano. Campers learn that making mistakes, rethinking, and rebuilding a project is both a normal and necessary part of making something new. They learn from each other, recognizing that there’s often more than one way to complete an assigned task.  

Cano also credits the camp with kick-starting her son’s interest in other areas of technology. “He learned to build an Arduino [a single board microcontroller] the next summer. And now he’s building his own computer and learning to code.” A.J. is in seventh grade.

More advanced campers actually work in STC’s advanced manufacturing and automation labs using industry-grade automation equipment.  “This is the same equipment that automakers and the advanced manufacturing industry are using,” says Margo. “At STC, we have pneumatics, hydraulics, circuits, programmable logic controllers…everything needed in an advanced manufacturing setting.”

“Older students might learn about circuits one week, or program a robotic arm to do a task, such as pick up and place, the next week,” continues Margo.

It’s important to note, he adds, that these are not just projects. “This is actual, real-world work.” The robotic arm, for example, might be used in an automobile manufacturing facility.

The most advanced groups of campers work on the same equipment, but their applications are more advanced.  They’re likely to be tasked with making an entire system run, such as creating a production line with a conveyor belt, a quality control station, a shipping and receiving area, and an area where defective products are taken to be repaired. 

“This gives them the opportunity to mix both their digital knowledge and their mechanical knowledge,” says Margo, adding that this “cyber physical” lab is brand new.

Though it’s often thought that automation will eliminate many jobs altogether, the truth is more nuanced. As the need for labor-intensive jobs falls off, a corresponding need for skilled workers who can run, maintain, and repair automated systems has sprung up. And those needs aren’t unique to the world of manufacturing; they are consistent across industries. Food and beverage companies, produce shippers, and hospitals are just some of the area industries that are becoming more fully automated. 

The skills gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields has been widely reported, and it’s hoped that programs like this one will spark excitement in automation and technology among young people who may not have considered such careers. 

“The skills they learn here will prepare them for an array of different options, from advanced manufacturing to IT and engineering,” says Margo.

STC is a true community resource, offering a variety of camps and classes in addition to robotics. Sewing, guitar, photography, computer classes, and aviation are just a few of the programs offered through STC’s Department of Continuing, Professional, and Workforce Education.  These lifelong educational opportunities are designed both for personal enrichment and for workforce development and growth, and can be taken on Saturdays, evenings, or in summer to accommodate different schedules.  For more, visit www.southtexascollege.edu/cpwe/