New Brunswick

No campfires or canoes: this summer camp has bots and 3D printers

A tech camp in Saint John hopes to teach young children about cutting-edge tech in a hands-on way.

The camp has been running for eight weeks and uses a hands-on approach to teaching cutting edge tech

The camp teaches young children coding lessons, robotic lessons, what virtual reality is like and has gear for 3D printing. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

At the Crescent Valley Community Resource Centre in Saint John, two robots — with thumb tacks mounted on their fronts and balloons on their backs — engage in a fearsome battle.

They're being controlled by teams of elementary and middle school children, who must complete an electrical circuit with wires hooked up to controls on the floor if they want their bot to pop the other's balloon. 

The game is part of a camp from Brilliant Labs, who in partnership with the City of Saint John, provides access to technology to children who otherwise might not have it.

"Just to give them a taste of what's out there," said Noah Ritcey, supervising tech councillor for the camp. "It's not part of a poverty reduction initiative or anything, but our goals line up with poverty reduction education."

Councillors describe the method of learning as "Maker Education," a hands-on, group and project-based experiential way to teach the children.

Over the last eight weeks, Brilliant Labs visited community centres and summer camps across the city, including the Nic Nicolle Centre, the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA Early Learning Centre, the Teen Resource Centres and Pathways to Education.

"What we do is we bring a sort of mobile computer lab with us," Ritchey said. "We teach coding lessons, robotic lessons. We have our virtual reality headset. We have some 3D printing stuff.

"Just to expose them to this kind of technology, which is a growing part of the workplace, a growing part of being a self-taught entrepreneur."

One of the games the children play is with robots on wheels. There is a tack on the front and balloons in the back. But to pop the rival bot's balloon, the children have to become the controller and work together. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Anne Driscoll, executive director for the resource centre, describes the opportunity to have the camp as "fantastic" for the kids.

"They've just had their eyes opened, and their brains opened, to new experiences," she said. "They're loving it."

Amanda Jefferson, one of the kids at the camp Thursday, is already familiar with computer coding and has even begun working on her own video game.

But despite being ahead of the curve computer-wise, the eighth grader said the camp was still valuable.

"I learned everything's not perfect," she said. "You can screw up sometimes. That technology is really hard and communication is the number one thing."  

Amanda Jefferson is already ahead of the curve when it comes to coding, but she said the camp still taught her how technology can go awry. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Jefferson said the best parts of the camp were Scratch, a visual programming language that teaches kids how to program simple animations and games, and the fighting robots.

The excitement of the game makes it hard for the bot controllers to focus on their task.

"They're trying to communicate with people to get the robot to move where they want it to move," she said. "But the other people are just jumping out of the way because they don't want to get attacked by the tack."

Whatever the kids' prior experience with technology, Driscoll said their faces made it plain the camp and its experience was new to them.

"They've looked forward to it every day it's been here," she said. 

"I've talked to some of them about what they want to be when they grow up. 'Do you want to be a this or a that?' One gal told me she wants to be a doctor — and a computer scientist."