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At South Jersey Robotics, gears and switches set careers in motion

The program is pushing to expand its efforts into several of the region's chronically underfunded schools, where STEM education has lagged behind more affluent suburbs in which some kids learn coding in kindergarten.

South Jersey Robotics student, Frank DiAntonio, 15, from the LuNaTeCs team, does a demonstration of the team's robot, named Sam, which can throw balls and climb a rope among other things.
South Jersey Robotics student, Frank DiAntonio, 15, from the LuNaTeCs team, does a demonstration of the team's robot, named Sam, which can throw balls and climb a rope among other things.Read moreMargo Reed

At a summer robotics camp for high school and middle school kids in South Jersey's Salem County, failure is an option — but only temporarily.

When 17-year-old Noah Halsted switched on his team's 3½-by-2½-foot, gear-packed robot and absolutely nothing happened, he took just a second to groan, "That failed," before grabbing some electrical tape, fixing a cable, and sending the reenergized robot to scoot across the floor on six wheels, scooping up plastic balls with a cleverly hidden broom.

In the room next door at Salem Community College, 14-year-old Christian Goldsborough – programming a smaller robot made from Legos – said he knows the feeling. What's "cool" about robotics, the Penns Grove teen said, is that "when you mess up and you're frustrated, then do the right thing. A job well done is the best part."

The kids' can-do, blue-collar approach to high-tech wizardry reflects the scrappy nature of the program they are part of — South Jersey Robotics, a volunteer effort that for nearly a decade has steadily built a network of competitive robotics teams and worked with programs like this Gear Up! summer camp to promote tech careers in one of the poorest stretches of the Garden State, where job opportunities have been shrinking.

"These are counties that are forgotten," said Rosanne Danner, the retired DuPont engineer who as president of South Jersey Robotics has seen the program expand to 15 teams with roughly 100 high schoolers and middle schoolers in Cumberland, Salem, Atlantic, and Cape May Counties. "This is about exposing them to STEM" – science, technology, engineering, and math – "and STEM careers, and things they can do. This is about giving them the belief that they can have opportunities beyond what is happening in the counties."

South Jersey Robotics is pushing to expand into several of the region's chronically underfunded schools, where STEM education has lagged behind more affluent suburbs in which some kids learn coding in kindergarten. The program's target counties include five of New Jersey's 31 so-called Abbott districts cited in a landmark court case as victims of an unfair school-funding formula. Three of those districts – Vineland, Bridgeton, and Millville – are in Cumberland County, which has the state's highest poverty rate.

"We have no robotics, no STEAM [STEM learning with an arts component], no nothing" for middle school students, said Joanne Colacurcio, supervisor of instructional technology and career, tech, and education classes for the public schools in Millville, where 80 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunches. That's slated to change this fall with an Intro to STEM class at Lakeside Middle School and a new First Lego League Robotics team supported by South Jersey Robotics.

For Danner and other backers of South Jersey Robotics, getting kids from rural and underdeveloped corners of South Jersey to compete in FIRST Robotics — in which students around the world try to outdo each other with game-playing bots — is a vehicle to put them on a path toward studying science or math in college and toward career choices where job opportunities are more plentiful and more lucrative. The group says more than 95 percent of its participants move on to post-secondary school and more than 70 percent major in a STEM field.

But along that path, winning is still important. The program's two high-school-level teams – including the LuNaTeCs, who've been around since 1999 — have been to the national/world competition in cities including St. Louis and Atlanta five times. This year, three of the program's 11 teams in the Lego League, geared toward middle schoolers, advanced to the South Jersey district finals at Rowan University.

In addition, the teams work on tech-oriented community projects. For example, the high school students in LuNaTeCs built an adaptive device that allowed a child born without a left hand to jump rope.

Danner said the clubs are structured so that kids learn not just tech skills but also "marketing, networking, finance, public speaking, as well as more access to scholarship money" — skills that should help later in life.

At the Gear Up! program, experienced middle schoolers and high schoolers from South Jersey Robotics come in two days a week to teach robotics skills to seventh, eighth  and ninth graders at a camp designed to spark future career ambitions.

Halsted, the 17-year-old from Lower Alloways Creek, said he's been fascinated by robotics ever since other club members came to his grade school and did a demonstration. Now a junior at Salem County Career and Technical High School studying computers, animation, and drafting, he said he knows how to program in nine computer languages and is aiming for a career in information technology.

"There are no school teams around here, no [school] clubs," said Halsted, who's working with officials at his school to create an IT internship program. He said taking part in South Jersey Robotics and its Velocity team is "a lot of fun. You get to meet new people at every event. There's always something new you can learn."

Tim Roy, a 13-year-old camper and an eighth grader at Penns Grove Middle School, helped program a Lego robot to perform tasks on a game board. "You can express your feelings about Legos," he said. "When I'm able to do something like this, I feel good about it."

He said he wants to become a mechanical engineer; his campmate Goldsborough said his career ambition is sound engineering. That kind of talk is music to the ears of the adults backing South Jersey Robotics.

David Stump, director of grant development and management at Cumberland Community College, said he believes "robotics is the vehicle" to get more kids focused on tech as a career option in a poverty-plagued county where too many kids don't stick with STEM learning.

His college has partnered with First Jersey Robotics, two adjoining school districts in Millville and Maurice River Township, and Salem Community College in applying for a $1.2 million federal grant under a program called Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers, or ITEST, that targets underprivileged youths to start robotics teams in more local schools.

Stump said the program could be a huge boost for Cumberland County, where long-term unemployment is nearly double the national rate and just 13 percent of students earn bachelor's degrees.

Although the federal dollars — if they come at all — wouldn't arrive until 2018 at the earliest, First Jersey Robotics, which now has about 55 volunteers and cobbles together an annual budget of roughly $80,000 to 90,000 through grants and fundraising, last year partnered with East Greenwich's Samuel Mickle Middle School to launch robotics teams and clubs and to help train teachers.

Program volunteers such as board member Sandee Rodriguez, whose son competed with the LuNaTeCs and is close to earning a computer and electrical engineering degree from Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania, say this is the best escape route in a county where many families struggle to get off public assistance. "What we're doing is changing lives," Rodriguez said. "We're trying to provide opportunities that weren't there before."