Oak Ridge Robotics Academy prioritizes STEM outreach and student safety

August 6, 2020

As spring passed and summer surged forward at home amid COVID-19, the ORISE K-12 team was faced with the decision whether to continue with this year’s scheduled Oak Ridge Robotics Academy.

Held each year in July, the Robotics Academy offers upcoming 7th, 8th and 9th grade students an introduction to engineering, coding and robotics. The week-long experience concludes with a competition of the students’ robots, which is always highly anticipated.

A female student participates in the Oak Ridge Robotics Academy

The Robotics Academy, along with all other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach summer programs, adds to the K-12 team’s highlights for the year. But, faced with the new challenges of COVID-19, this year’s Robotics Academy would have to be re-thought and re-planned if held at all.

“The curriculum of the Robotics Academy is almost entirely hands-on,” explained Jennifer Tyrell, a manager in K-12 programs. “Moving the program to a virtual platform would not have been manageable. We had to choose between hosting the Academy in person or cancelling all together.”

While always prioritizing STEM outreach and engagement, it was also essential that the team prioritized student safety against COVID-19.

After receiving approvals from the Academy’s host institution, ORAU, to continue with an in-person student experience, the team collaborated to ensure students would get the chance to learn in a safe environment.

Cleaning products and hand sanitizer were quickly stock-piled. The location of the Academy was moved to ORAU’s Pollard Technology Conference Center where students could be distanced 6 feet apart. Strict guidelines were also set into place that held students and their families accountable for checking temperatures before attending each day and being mindful of other COVID-19 symptoms. Students and Robotics Academy instructors were also required to wear masks during the full 8-hour days.

A male student participates in the Oak Ridge Robotics Academy

“We were so proud of the students’ response to these responsibilities,” said Pai Moua, senior program specialist. “They made the best of the situation and followed our COVID-19 guidelines while continuing to learn and build their robots.”

And, best of all, the students still had fun.

“When someone offers you an opportunity to do robotics and coding, and it’s a free camp, it allows you to explore things that you don’t get to do at home,” said Stephan Havrylyak, a Robotics Academy attendee.

“There’s some learning to it, obviously, but it’s more fun than anything else,” added Adi Sastry, another student at the Academy.

Leigha Humphries, group manager for K-12 programs, also applauded her team’s efforts and resourcefulness during this trying time.

“Our K-12 group is a team of dedicated teaching professionals who have been able to think creatively and respond to this rapidly changing pandemic environment in order to continue providing the highest quality and fun educational experiences for our student participants,” said Humphries. “Their passion for STEM outreach is apparent in everything they do.”

In a time when students may be experiencing the majority of learning at home, STEM outreach becomes even more crucial, explains Tyrell.

“We can’t give up on student engagement. We have to figure out how to provide STEM outreach differently, and above all else, safely.”

Video Spotlight

Watch the 2020 Oak Ridge Robotics Academy video

Held each year in July, the Robotics Academy offers upcoming 7th, 8th and 9th grade students an introduction to engineering, coding and robotics.

Media Contacts

Pam Bonee
Director, Communications
Phone: 865.603.5142

Wendy West
Manager, Communications
Phone: 865.207.7953

The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.

ORISE is managed by ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, for DOE’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.osti.gov.