A group of elementary school kids is gathered around a table at the SteamWorks Studios at 1050 JFK Boulevard in Bayonne. In this robotics workshop the mission is to assemble a program for robots, so that they can follow a designated path on the floor. The robot kits are made by Lego; one resembles the beloved Disney robot character, Wall-E and another from Star Wars.
“We do everything hands on, so it’s learning by making, rather than by reading,” said director of the program, Sruthi Mangu, emphasizing hands-on learning as opposed to more traditional rote learning. “We are trying to kindle their creativity, and want them to think outside the box,” she said.“They already have creative minds, so it’s like adding fuel to the fire.”
The studio, which opened last week, features maker activities such as 3D printing, robotics, coding in Python and JAVA, and even programming quadcopter drones. Students can sign up for courses that run for 12 weekends for two hours each.
Kids ages 5-16 come to the studio to learn applied STEM disciplines, and parents and students alike expressed excitement for the opportunity. “I want to get [my son] away from using his iPhone and the normal games, so he can focus more on science,” said Shiva Vallala, a computer engineer. His son, Krutin, is 8. “I wanted to get him to think logically and move forward in the right direction.”
Roman Fils-Aime, 8, was at the workshop to sign up with his brother Samuel, 9, and his sister Savannah, 5. “I like the science,and I like the programming,” Roman said. “I want to learn to make robots.” His siblings echoed the sentiment. They all use computers at home, but “want to learn more.”
The family lives in Bayonne and the mother, Qaishal Fils-Aime, said she’s hoping the program helps cultivate their technical skills and creativity, like a similar program at NJCU did for her eldest daughter who is graduating from Quinnipiac next year. “Everything is computerized now, so we’re thinking that starting them younger will get them prepared for engineering,” Fils-Aimesaid. “Hopefully it will steer them in the right direction.”
“This is a place where theory meets action. Kids come in and what they learn in school is reinforced here.” – Sruthi Mangu
Preparing for the future
“America is getting increasingly competitive,” said Mangu in discussing the technological challenges in the education field. She said that students are often unprepared to apply the theories learned in class to a rapidly advancing technological world. “This is a place where theory meets action,” she said.“Kids come in and what they learn in school is reinforced here. In many ways, our program supplements what is being taught in schools, and it is also unique.”
Mangu cited the way students learn about powering their robots, or quadcopters. “The students learn about hydroelectric energy, thermonuclear power, and solar energy in school,” she said. “But when they come here, they use a solar cell to light an LED bulb. That is a very enriching experience that reinforces what they learned already.”
Mangu referenced White House Stem Initiative statistics which showed STEM-related jobs in the U.S. increasing by around 60 percent by the year 2020. “In this way, we’re also preparing them for the job market ahead,” Mangu said.
SteamWorks Studios has five locations throughout New Jersey, with Bayonne being its latest. Its goal is eventually to open other locations in Hudson County and partner with schools to be a part of their after-school curriculum. “Speaking to parents, I know they don’t have these kinds of programs in school,” Mangu said.
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.