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Saturday, July 24, 2021

UC Davis hosts annual C-STEM day

Students test curriculum knowledge in computing, science, engineering

UC Davis’ annual C-STEM day, to be held this year on May 30, includes various competitions and award announcements for California students from middle schools, high schools and community colleges.

C-STEM stands for “computing, science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” and the annual competition brings students together to test their skills in each of these components.

“This is a curriculum-based competition, meaning they’re learning about it at their school,” said UC Davis C-STEM Program Manager Heidi Espindola. “It can enter the curriculum in a variety of ways. It can be an after-school or an elective course, or it could be that the teacher is implementing it in a math or science course, and they’re doing it as a supplement to the curriculum they already use.”

The curriculum includes programming in a language called Ch, a variation on the normal C/C++ languages, which is then used to program robots called Linkbots. The language and the robots were designed in the UC Davis Integration Engineering lab. At the competition, students are expected to solve math challenges using programming and to program robots to complete certain tasks.

“What’s really cool, I think, about C-STEM day is we give them the challenges the day of, so they kind of have to program on the fly,” said Muntaha Samad, a sophomore computer science and engineering major. “That’s kind of different from other competitions because for other robotics competitions they’ll give you challenges months in advance.”

After learning basic programming through the curriculum and practicing in their class, teams of three to five students can go to the competition at one of two sites: UC Davis or UC Irvine. Once there, they are given a booklet with the day’s challenges. There are varying degrees of difficulty dependent on the grade or math level of the students. Espindola said that there are 55 teams registered this year.

There are also options for participating outside of the single day competition in the form of separate video competitions.

“The video competition still uses the link bots; it is an alternative if teachers can’t get students here on C-STEM day,” said Ryan Mangan, the C-STEM Education Specialist and Technology Coordinator. “Maybe getting kids to a robot competition isn’t a possibility, but you can still compete in a C-STEM activity through the video competition, which is an online submission. And since we’re an educational preparation program for UCs, any student that wins awards and participates through our program can now check boxes on all UC applications.”

The video competition allows for a more integrated learning experience. Mangan said that in the past when he has had students compete he enlisted the help of English and history teachers at the high school he worked at to work with the students on developing storylines and costumes.

“It’s kind of an end-term project that’s showing mastery of concepts across multiple subjects for the students,” Mangan said. “It’s a really integrated approach. It’s a fun activity.”

The C-STEM center emphasizes creativity, both in problem solving and expression. In addition to the video portion of the competition, participants in the C-STEM Girls in Robotics Leadership (GIRL) Camp can learn videography and are taught to use Windows Movie Maker.

“I think there’s kind of a stigma associated with programing and computer science in general, ‘it’s dull; it’s for people with tunnel vision who sit at a computer all day,’” Samad said. “First of all, I think just having the program at all they see that that’s not true, especially with the robots. When they get them to move and execute different challenges, they’re all across the board very excited. But I think showing them that they can also express more of an artistic side kind of solidifies that, or really brings home that idea.”

Samad pointed out that one of the overarching missions of the C-STEM center is to promote interest in the various fields it covers.

“We try to make sure that everyone, no matter what their socioeconomic background may be, can have exposure to stem and get involved at a younger age,” Samad said.

The GIRL Camp is targeted toward female middle school students, in an attempt to increase participation in C-STEM fields.

“One of the topics we discuss is that from a young age, stereotypically boy games and toys involve different electronics and stuff like that, so boys have been playing with these kinds of things from a very young age. Whereas typical toys for girls, if you look in a Toys ‘R’ Us, the section involves more things like dolls; there’s less electronics,” Samad said. “I think GIRL Camp gives them that opportunity to speak up without having boys around.”

Samad said that GIRL Camp has expanded to include three separate sites, and the goal is to expand it even more across California. The C-STEM center is actively looking for more sites for GIRL Camp and more schools to participate in C-STEM curriculum.

Graphic by Jennifer Wu.

 

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