SPOTSWOOD, NJ - A group of 55 campers were making a different splash this week at the second annual Spotswood School District's STEAM Camp. Instead of pools and playing fields these kids were designing robots to compete in a battle, fashioning steam-powered boats and stirring up some glow-in-the-dark slime at the week-long August camp that is being held at the Memorial Middle School from Aug/ 14 through Aug. 18.

STEAM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design and Mathematics. It is part of a nationwide endeavor to narrow the skills gap present in American businesses and industries by exposing kids at a young age to the fields of engineering, video animation and computer programming. The camp is instructed by veteran Spotswood School District teachers Gary Hull, Martin Dempsey, Andrew Zaborney and Paige Besthoff.

Hull is a Computer Science teacher. He has worked in the Spotswood School District since 2003 and is the former president of the Central Jersey Computer Science Teachers Association. Dempsey has been teaching Earth Science and Physics at Spotswood High School since 1996. He is currently the district's Science Department Chair and co-founded the high school's Heavy Metal Robotics competition team. Zaborney has been the Video and Film instructor at the high school since 2005. He is the teacher behind the SPSN TV Network that airs on YouTube and local cable access Channel 43. Besthoff has been teaching computers and business in the Spotswood School District since 2005. Currently, she teaches computers and technology at the Appleby School. Bestoff has been named a PBS Digital Innovator and is also a member of the PBS Teacher's Advisory Group.

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The teachers are assisted by a group of Spotswood High School students past and present that serve as counselors. Two of the counselors, Shivani Vyas and Jenna Bousellam teamed up during the school year to create an app that rewards students for staying off of their cell phones while on school grounds. The pair are products of Hull's computer science program at Spotswood High School, graduating this past June. Both will be heading to college in the fall to continue studying in the fields that form the foundation for the STEAM Camp.

Bousellam will be attending the New Jersey Institute of Technology where she plans to pursue a computing and business degree which combines both a computer science and business course of study while Vyas will be entering the Rutgers Honor College. Vyas will major in biomedical engineering with a computer science minor.

The energy level was high from teachers, counselors and campers as the youngsters worked in small groups on their projects.

"The camp is split into three groups," Dempsey explained. "A second and third grade group, a fourth and fifth grade group and a middle school group. They rotate through our three sections."

The three sections are comprised of robotics, computer programming and video animation. Hull handles the computer programming piece. Dempsey works with the campers in constructing and programming their robots while Zaborney handles the video animation end. The kids also work cooperatively to solve a morning challenge in addition to some STEM-driven crafts.

"This week, the kids will be working in the same three tracts as last year: programming, robotics, and video production," Hull said. "However, the curriculum for all three have changed, so no camper will have the same experience as last year.  We've also changed all morning warm-up activities and all STEM Craft activities occurring at the end of the day.  Younger campers will be making rock candy, glow-in-the-dark slime, and magic sand, while the older campers will be making steam-powered boats, hydraulic robots, and homemade speakers."
A mixture of sixth, seventh and eighth graders were hard at work on the latest version of iMovie, learning the basics of editing as they put together their own music videos. Second and third graders were developing their own 30 second commercials after they got a lesson on looping. Hull incorporated a dance routine to show the youngsters how to construct a repeat block in computer programming.
Each of the three groups worked in teams with Dempsey to assemble a robot. The level of difficulty of the robotic construction was age-appropriate for the groups.
"The little guys (second and third graders) work on different robots in LEGO kits that are less sophisticated," Dempsey said. "They work on these little robots called Ozobots that follow colored lines. They can program it essentially by drawing colored paths. If they draw the right combination of colors, the robot will follow their commands. So, it's an early introduction to programming."
Of course, the highlight of the week for many of the campers will come on Thursday and Friday when the robots they created go to battle to see which group's is tops.
Simon Awadalla, Noah Rakvica and Leah Harrell created a robot that is described by Dempsey as being "particularly ambitious."
"We are trying to make the arm flip up and down constantly," Awadalla explained.
While the STEAM Camp day is filled with intellectual challenges and learning-oriented activities. Fun is still central to each of the camp's components. Of course, there's still time for the usual summer camp fare like a game of Pickle in the cafeteria or a couple of running races in between activities.
Spotswood's STEAM Camp held it's first camp last summer in August. The camp was widely well-received by both participants and parents. Last year's camp had 48 campers while this year's enrollment rose to 55. Registration for the summer camp typically begins in April.