Students piloting their robot through the "Kessel Run" section of the course during Von Steuben Metropolitan Science High School's engineering camp. Credit: alex v. hernandez/block club chicago

NORTH PARK — Students tried their hand at navigating the “Kessel Run” and other challenges as fast as they could at Von Steuben High School’s engineering camp.

Now in its sixth year, the summer engineering camp is open to grade school students from surrounding schools as well incoming freshmen, said Jennifer Sutton, Von Steuben’s principal. The camp aims to give grade school students hands-on experience with STEM skills outside of a classroom setting.

More than 30 seventh-ninth grade students worked in nine teams to build remote controlled robots. This year’s camp began on Aug. 6 and the first day was dedicated to teaching students fundamentals in coding, robotics and more. 

By day two, teams of students had built their robots and were test driving them through an obstacle course that consisted of interactive challenges like the “Kessel Run,” “Mines of Moria,” “Temple of Doom” and “Stairs of Hogwarts.”

During the school year, Mike Stachrya teaches physics and engineering and is also the coach of the robotics team. In 2018, the school’s robotics team became the first from Chicago Public Schools to qualify for the U.S. Open Robotics Championship.

“The high school students spent a lot of time developing different obstacles and making some of them mechanical so they run off of the same robotic system that the younger students are building their robots from,” Stachrya said.

Students modifying their robot during Von Steuben Metropolitan Science High School’s engineering camp. Credit: alex v. hernandez/block club chicago

For example, the course’s “Kessel Run” involves shining lights at a sensor switch to open a gate with their robot’s flashlight and then navigating through debris — yellow balls and wide plastic disks — to get through the now-open gate. Each time the robot runs into a piece of debris strewn between the light sensor and the gate, the team gets a time penalty. 

“For the ‘Temple of Doom,’ there’s a pressure plate that brings down the ramp,” said 13-year-old student Yuri Kolovos. “And for the ‘Mines of Moria’ you have to drive the robot to get out of this dark, enclosed box you can’t see inside. So you have to drive your robot to get out of there without seeing where it’s going.” 

The goal for each team is to navigate the course in the shortest amount of time, and fewest penalties, in order to be declared winner. 

Mike Stachrya, a science teacher at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science High School, offers advice to students during the engineering camp. Credit: alex v. hernandez/block club chicago

“The high school students kind of modeled the obstacle course on American Ninja Warrior and they’re calling it Von Robot Warrior,” Stachrya said. 

In addition to creating obstacles, students from the high school’s robotics team, like Olivia Kocot, act as peer mentors to the grade school students. During the camp, she’s advised younger students which kinds of parts to use and the best techniques based on her engineering experience. 

“I took introduction to engineering as a freshman and got really interested in biomedical engineering. Basically building robotic fake limbs for people,” said Kocot, a 15-year-old student.

She joined the high school’s robotics team so she could get hands-on engineering experience.

“I think it would be interesting if a woman has a career in robotics because I think not enough women are in that field,” she said.

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