Summer of Robotics
Through its annual engineering camp, Cal State East Bay gives teens a taste of college
Cal State East Bay professors Farzad Shahbodaghlou and Cristián Gaedicke know they can entice students to take an interest in engineering by building and testing robots — but convincing them they have what it takes to become college students isn’t always so easy to sell.
Enter DiscoverE robotics camp: A summer engineering program that brings together more than 70 Contra Costa County high school students to build, code and test robots, all while sleeping and eating on campus, and experiencing life as a college student. The camp, co-directed by Shahbodaghlou and Gaedicke, is part of a program called Project Lead the Way, and the students’ tuition, room and board — roughly $3,000 per person — is fully funded by a grant from Chevron.
“What is unique about DiscoverE, is that it offers a holistic experience, where participants can feel what life could be as a university student,” Gaedicke, assistant professor of engineering, says. “They stay in the dorms, work in teams, solve challenging engineering problems, visit engineering sites, and enhance their written and oral skills. The camp also provides the tools to make [going to college] a reality, by providing information about the university application process and financial aid.”
This is the third year Cal State East Bay has hosted the camp, and includes the highest number of female enrollees yet — of the 72 students, 30 are young women.
In addition to PLW’s funding, the experience is made possible by the work of Cal State East Bay’s undergraduate engineers who mentor high school students throughout Contra Costa County during the school year and build up interest in the camps for the summer.
According to Shahbodaghlou, more than half of this year’s DiscoverE students could be the first in their family to attend college. Their exposure to both Cal State East Bay college students and the university campus itself enable them to learn about viable careers and realize their full potential.
“My No. 1 goal is to have them motivated and interested in engineering as a whole,” Shahbodaghlou says. “Most of them don’t have a role model engineer in their family ... they may not even know what engineering is.”
Meet a few of this year’s students:
Pouya Rezvani, 18, Ygnacio Valley High School
Rezvani was introduced to Project Lead the Way by his engineering design teacher. Neither one of his parents attended or graduated from a four-year university, and for a long time, Rezvani didn’t think he would either. He’s signed up for classes starting in the fall at Diablo Valley College and just days into the DiscoverE camp, he’s now determined to eventually apply to Cal State East Bay’s business or engineering program.
“It’s made me realize I want to go here and that someday I can,” Rezvani says.
He says at first, college campuses can be intimidating. He himself had only been on a couple of tours, and he’d never stayed overnight at a university. But now? He hopes others from his high school can have the same opportunity.
“I love [being on campus], it’s an incredible experience,” he says. “I think it’s something that every high school student needs and deserves to do.”
Shyla Simon, 16, Pittsburg High
On a recent day in the DiscoverE camp’s build lab, Simon was bent over one-half of a balsa wood bridge, meticulously cutting the struts so each piece fit just right.
Since she was a child, Simon has always been a tinkerer. She loves taking machines and other contraptions apart and figuring out how to put them back together again, and she’s been a member of Pittsburg High’s engineering cohort since her freshman year.
This summer, she’s not just building though — she’s learning how to code and combine the two skillsets.
“I love that I can not only create something but put in a code that makes it actually work,” Simon said.
A big influence in her desire to pursue engineering, she says her future plans include studying engineering at a four year university and hopefully becoming an astrospace engineer like her dad. Camps like DiscoverE help her hone her skills, she says.
But there’s something else she gets out of the experience, too.
This year, with a record number of girls participating in the camp, including her best friend from school, Simon says there’s been a palpable sense of pride and camaraderie. “It shows me that as girls we can do anything we want to do and that’s very empowering,” she says.
Tristan Kelly, 17, Pinole Valley High School
This is Kelly’s second summer at Cal State East Bay, and he returned this year with high hopes that his robot would crush the competition. Two years ago, his team’s autonomous robot started out OK, but failed to finish the course.
Kelly’s school doesn’t offer coding classes, so he’s spent the two years between his last experience at DiscoverE and this year’s camp learning about coding and going to workshops on his own. He says he enjoys coming to camp because it allows him to learn with peers.
And this year he’s ready.
“We’re testing it right now and already it’s better than the first time,” he says. “This year, I’m going to win.”
A rising senior, Kelly is looking forward to studying computer science in college and likes the camp because of its hands-on nature.
“It’s cool because it combines robotics and civil engineering with actual application,” Kelly says.
DiscoverE is a nonprofit coalition of more than 100 organizations working to provide resources and programs that support engineering and technology outreach and education. For more information visit discovere.org.