Dr. Cortney Bolden, a robotics engineer and chief scientist at MIA Solutions, also teaches mechatronics at Rowan College of South Jersey.  

For three days a week for 50 minutes, she also offers an elective class in robotics to ninth graders at Uncommon Schools Camden Prep’s new high school.

The class is part of Camden Prep High School’s efforts to pique students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), to teach students new technologies and to expose them to careers in STEM.

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“It's about exposure to new skills. It's about problem solving. It's about critical thinking and even getting excited about technology and using it in everyday life,” Bolden said.

Camden Prep High School opened this year with its first class of ninth graders. The robotics class is virtual for now, but when the pandemic subsides, Bolden hopes to have an opportunity for in-person instruction so students can have a more in-depth hands-on experience building robots.

“As an STEM educator myself, I am thrilled that our students are having this opportunity to take this class with a college professor,” said Camden Prep High School Principal Syrena Burnam,  who has been an educator for 18 years, and had spent the past eight years perfecting her craft at Uncommon’s North Star Academy in Newark, first as a teacher of Advanced Placement Biology, then as Science Department Chair, and then as the Dean of Curriculum and Instruction. 

“STEM classes that allow students to build and create allow them to explore what mathematicians and scientists actually do in a way that engages and excites many teenagers,” Burnam said. “This is how our robotics program gets them thinking about continuing their STEM education in challenging high school summer programs, internships and in college.” 

Bolden is the program director of Safe Passage Community Technology Center, a non-profit organization in the Whitman Park neighborhood in Camden. The organization’s mission is to develop innovative learners to be the catalyst of change in their community. As part of that mission, it offers an after-school enrichment program in robotics for middle and high school students.

Bolden said when she learned about Camden Prep, she wanted to get its students involved in the robotics program at Safe Passage.

“We saw what Camden Prep was doing, how collaborative the administrators are with the community, the mission and vision and we wanted to be a part of it,” Bolden said. “We wanted to give the students an opportunity to learn how to do robotics.”

The after-school program follows the First Lego League curriculum, which is designed to introduce STEM concepts to children from 4-16. The curriculum is designed to teach critical thinking, coding, and design skills through hands-on STEM learning and robotics.

“The students started coming to the after-school program and started building robots and they were excited about it,” Bolden said. “It gave us an opportunity to get students excited about learning what engineering is all about. All they knew is they were having fun and they were doing some cool stuff. This is all going on while applying engineering principles.”

Bolden said she particularly enjoyed watching the students teach one another, using their own vernacular.

“It was just amazing to see the light bulb go off when the student got it,” Bolden said.

When Bolden was offered an opportunity to teach the robotics class at Camden Prep High School, she jumped at the opportunity.

While teaching remotely presents its share of difficulties, Bolden said it’s not an impossible task. The students are currently learning how to design using computer-aided design software, known as CAD, which is the initial step in prototype development and lends itself to remote instruction, she said.

Naquan Tatum, who has attended Camden Prep since fourth grade, was eager to take the robotics class in high school because he enjoys the design and build aspects of the class.

“At first the class feels hard, then it actually gets easier and you become better and better,” Naquan said. “It gets more fun to do.”

Frank Santiago Jr., who is new to Camden Prep, said he liked helping other students who were having difficulty with the class.

Frank, who spent time outside of class watching videos about the topic, said he could see himself going on to college to study robotics and even pursuing a career in the field.
“I really didn’t know anything about robotics before the class and Dr. Bolden just taught me,” he said.

One thing that students are interested in hearing about, Bolden said, is the job opportunities for graduates who possess the skills they are learning. The field of mechatronics, which combines electrical, computer and mechanical engineering skills, is a high-demand, well-paying career choice.

While Bolden doesn’t expect every student to pursue degrees in engineering, Bolden said students taking the class will learn tangible skills that can be applied to any career choice.

“The point is to expose them to the engineering design process because it will help them become better problem solvers and critical thinkers,” Bolden said.