NASA Team visits the ET ASTRO Summer Robotics Camp in Natchitoches

In a turn of events described as “unique, inspiring, and out-of-this-world,” a team from NASA visited Natchitoches. The NASA scientists participated in the ASTRO STEM Robotics camp hosted by the Department of Engineering Technology at Northwestern State University. Although the camp is an annual event, this is the first time that representatives from the space agency attended.

“We are indebted to the NASA team,” said Dr. Jafar El-Sharab, head of the ET department. “I was delighted to see camp participants touch and try items used for training NASA astronauts. The kids asked penetrating questions and obviously enjoyed themselves.”

The NASA team’s demonstration “Living and Working in Space” was a camp highlight. Students learned about the details of astronaut life, from spacesuits to sample foods. Students donned spacesuits while experts explained different attachments and equipment. Additionally, NASA team members reviewed different technologies that astronauts use to communicate and interact with others. Students glimpsed into the astronauts’ daily routines such as what foods astronauts eat, how astronauts sleep, and the challenges of personal hygiene in a zero-gravity environment. The demonstration included an EVA simulation activity where students mimicked tasks that astronauts complete on the International Space Station. At the conclusion of the demonstration, the NASA team used a portable planetarium to unveil a fun, educational presentation about space exploration.

“My girls thoroughly enjoyed it and are continuing to explore NASA and space,” reported Ms. Ashwini Weber, a parent whose children attended the camp. After the “Living and Working in Space” demonstration, the NASA team interacted with camp participants and their parents and observed the robotics competition. The team was highly impressed by the campers’ engagement and by the knowledge and problem-solving skills gained by the students in such a short period of time. Camp directors and instructors echoed this sentiment.

“The camp was a cheerful gathering of energetic kids. It reminded me of a research lab full of future engineers and scientists,” said Dr. Shahriar Hossain. “Their enthusiastic participation in problem solving amazed me, especially when I saw them repairing broken robots with a screwdriver, glue gun and tape. Almost all of the kids who came on the first day continued to join every day of the camp. They were very committed which I appreciated as a part of the organizing team for the camp.”

“Teaching at the ASTRO STEM Summer Camp 2022 was an interesting and rewarding experience,” agreed Dr. Ali. “Interacting with a wide range of young learners who were thirsting for knowledge was satisfying yet challenging because I mostly instruct mature students. However, the aid and support from the ET Department at NSU, the Natchitoches public library staff, and parents/guardians made this mission’s objectives easily attainable. I would be delighted to take part in such an activity next year!”

For over 10 years, the ET department at NSU has conducted summer robotics camps and various STEM activities. Throughout the year, the ET department collaborates with the non-profit STEM Pioneers to host summer camps, NASA Day, after school STEM activities, RC&S3 (an annual robotics competition for middle schools), First Robotics, Boys & Girls STEM Day, and Makers Club. Such programs are designed to ignite problem solving, enhance critical thinking and promote teamwork in a fun yet educational environment.

“The STEM summer camp that I volunteered at was very fun and exciting. Every day there was a new obstacle that I would find a solution too. We explored many subjects ranging from coding to building robots, and every subject had the fun aspects of stem. At the end of the summer camp, I was able to code with scratch and use the technology of the robots to make it as if it was a Mars rover. I would recommend it because it makes you a complete thinker and good problem solver.” Commented Omar AlSharab

Campers at the ASTRO STEM summer robotics camp engaged in hands-on projects across a range of technologies, including robotics, coding, electric circuits and space exploration. Participants in the camps and other community programs enjoy the exposure to STEM education and competition-based learning. The ASTRO STEM camp provides professors and volunteers with the opportunity to pass on their knowledge to local youth.

“Camp was a great opportunity for me to gain volunteer hours, increase my experience with teaching young students, and bolster my presentation skills. I enjoyed the lessons I got to present, especially the games I created using Scratch programming,” said Mohammed AlSharab. “The students were very excited to present and were active in the sessions we had together. They put together some amazing projects for students who were new to coding.”

For the past three years, the robotics camp adopted the theme “To Mars and Beyond…” This theme draws on the science behind real-life space missions like returning to the Moon and exploring Mars. Also included are topics of particular interest to young learners such as the search for alien life. The goal is that the ASTRO STEM camp fosters dreams of future and farther space exploration among the next generation. “We strongly believe that the ASTRO Camp Team inspired youth, families and educators to explore the realms of space and the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” said Dr. Jafar Al-Sharab. “It is very evident based on student participation and students who return to the camp every summer that we are on the right track to inspire the Artemis generation and to prepare a future STEM workforce. It is our hope that these programs increase and sustain youth engagement through authentic experiences with NASA and STEM.”

Activities from the ET Department and STEM Pioneers promote the national interest in STEM careers, bring added value to the community, broaden the experiences of participating students and create a pipeline of future NSU students. Additionally, these organizations are committed to providing STEM education at no cost to the student. There is an imperative to provide all students with access to quality education especially those who come from backgrounds that are under-represented in STEM fields. These programs hope to attract a diverse group of motivated students. Having a chance to communicate with real-life NASA scientists motivated the ASTRO STEM campers to seriously consider careers in STEM.

About 95% of the participants in the Boys and Girls STEM day identified themselves as a people of color and underprivileged community. “ Our youth were very excited to tell me about their experience during STEM Day. I am excited about the partnership with the Engineering Technology Department at NSU and STEM Pioneers. We hope to have more fun filled STEM Days at The Boys and Girls Club.” Said Coach DE, Director Boys and Girls Club at Natchitoches.

As a celebration of achievements, participants received certificates of completion from STEM Pioneers and ET Department and also educational materials from the NASA team. Parents are already requesting that the camp return. “I am in high hopes that you guys will have this camp again next year. Thank you again for making it so enjoyable for our kids,” praised Lisa Ryder.

The ASTRO STEM camp is presented by the Department of Engineering Technology at NSU and STEM Pioneers. The involved team is highly professionally. It consists of university professors who are capable of introducing complicated concepts in a simplified manner. It also consists of dedicated and self-motivated volunteers. The ET Department will continue offering STEM activities in collaboration with STEM Pioneers, an official NASA Partner. For more information about these activities, you may contact the ET department head, Dr. Jafar AlSharab (Doc J),