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The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology held the first in a series of STEM-themed summer camps this week, drawing high school students from across the country to its campus.

During their week-long crash course on robotics, teens who visited the school assembled and programmed wheeled machines the size of remote-controlled model cars. On Thursday afternoon, they competed to see which of their robots could steer itself through an obstacle course set up in the Harvey Fraser Gym with the least difficulty.

Seated in a classroom earlier that morning, Luke Henderson tinkered with his robot ahead of the big event. The 17-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska, was attempting to write a program on his laptop that would enable his robot to follow the duct tape path stuck to the hallway floor.

“I’m having a bit of trouble with it,” he laughed. “But I’m sure it will turn out fine.”

Like several of his fellow campers, Henderson came equipped with robotics experience that he gleaned through participation in different high school-level engineering programs. For others, it served as an introduction to the discipline.

One of several summer camps the school hosts annually to engage high school students in the subjects of math, science, technology and engineering, the robotics camp was held concurrently with one centered on meteorology. Other camps are centered on subjects such as geology, chemistry and archaeology. 

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Students in the robotics program began their week by assembling robots that came in kits. Mounted on each one is a piece of microcontroller hardware that students learned how to program in C language. Shannon Thornburg, a Mines lecturer in mechanical and electrical engineering, said campers began by learning how to program their machines to perform simple tasks, such as turning a wheel in a specific direction.

By building on that foundation, he said, students learned how to write increasingly more complex programs. Assisting Thornburg were several Mines graduate and undergraduate students whom he said worked with campers one-on-one, making it easier to manage a group with a wide range of experience.

"We've had students who are quite advanced and were ready to jump right in and start doing more advanced stuff, and others that were really uncertain about how to even get started at all," Thornburg said. 

Offering a chance to explore a new career or learn more about an existing interest, the camps also serve as a way for high school students to catch an early glimpse of the college experience. For example, students who attend the camps are put up in on-campus dorms throughout their stay.

Already involved in her school's robotics team, Jessica Gregory said the camp presented a chance to do both. The 17-year-old, Kremmling, Colorado native added that she wants to pursue a career in a STEM field partly so she can one day empower other young women to do the same.

“I figured this is a way to learn a little more and also look at the college I want to go to,” she said.

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— Contact Matt Guerry at matthew.guerry@rapidcityjournal.com

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