Working with the Encore! Afterschool Program

I am working with the Encore! Afterschool program, which serves several middle schools in the Durham Public Schools (DPS) system. Their objective is to provide fun, inclusive, and educational afterschool activities to DPS students such as STEM education, character education, homework zones, and talent shows. By providing these enriching afterschool activities, the Encore! Afterschool program provides an important service to students and their families in the Durham community.

What led me to work with DPS is that I wanted to share my passion for computing through providing a free robotics program – I think every kid should know just how fun and exciting engineering can be! This interest really stemmed from a lot of fun activities I shared with my father when I was growing up: from designing and building tables to making model rockets and remote-controlled planes. Those experiences eventually led me to pursue an advanced degree in computer engineering, and I’m thankful because I love what I do! I’ve been thinking about starting a robotics program like this for a while, so I just reached out to DPS and proposed my ideas for it. They were thrilled by the idea and setting up the program has been going pretty smoothly.

I am joined by a few other Duke graduate student volunteers to provide this club at 3 schools that were requested by DPS: Lucas Middle, Githens Middle, and Lowe’s Grove Middle. We are learning how to program the Makeblock mBot Neo, a new robot with exciting capabilities such as ultrasonic and RGB line sensors, AI-assisted voice recognition, precise motor control, and internet of things (IoT) communications. While the main goal of the afterschool club is to have fun, the kids will be learning engineering concepts such as Computer Science, AI, and IoT as they complete interactive robotics challenges. My hope is that after the end of the program, the students will share my view that engineering can be very fun and creative, and perhaps more kids will be interested in pursuing an engineering-related profession in the future.

I’m thrilled to be running this program, and I look forward to seeing the students’ skills develop throughout the semester. But I’m the most excited to see the students get creative and try out new ideas for themselves, even if what they end up imagining and making isn’t related to the specific robotics challenge or lesson for that day. In the end, the point of this project is for kids to have fun and experience their own creativity in engineering.

While the sessions have overall been going very well, I think that one of the main challenges for the project is how to design the lessons and activities to best engage and include everyone. In the first session there was varying levels of engagement from the students, and I’d like to get that level of engagement for everyone up to 100%. To get there, I am going to continue to refine the way I present new lessons and organize activities. Furthermore, developing individual relationships during the session will inform better ways to design activities for maximum inclusivity and engagement, and it will lead to a more creative and exciting robotics session for everyone. At the start, this will be learning from the students about their day and supporting their individual forms of creativity as they learn robotics.

Looking towards the future, I intend to work on ways that we can expand STEM-related opportunities for Durham students on a broader level. For one, I’ll continue to run this robotics course and perhaps start an organization at Duke that can keep providing this service. Taking that even farther, I want to see what I can do on a county level in terms of expanding STEM opportunities and engagement for all kids in the public system.