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Newton high school robotics team cracks the code for making virtual learning fun

High schoolers launched Camp AMP in the summer after the Newton LigerBots high-school robotics team noticed how COVID-19 impacted elementary school students and parents.
High schoolers launched Camp AMP in the summer after the Newton LigerBots high-school robotics team noticed how COVID-19 impacted elementary school students and parents.contributed photo

To ease the transition to hybrid and remote learning for students and teachers, Newton’s high school robotics team spent much of their summer running a free, virtual camp for elementary school students. What they’ve learned, they said, could help teachers in the age of distance learning.

The high schoolers launched Camp AMP in the summer after the Newton LigerBots high-school robotics team noticed how COVID-19 impacted elementary school students and parents. The free, virtual camp ran from July to August for students who entered first through sixth grade — the majority of participants were Newton students and a few attended from out of state — but the lessons learned over Zoom extended beyond the summer.

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“I had to put myself in the shoes of a third-grader who is sitting at a computer at home and wants to be told a story,” Skyler Bohnert, a Newton North High School senior who taught a history class at the camp, said. “They don’t want to be lectured at, they don’t want to take a test, but they want to be involved in a conversation about something they find interesting.”

Kavya Ajaykumar, a sophomore at Newton North High School and a co-founder of Camp AMP, said background noises and technological challenges can make it difficult for students to speak naturally to their classmates and teacher over Zoom and socialize with each other and feel a sense of community.

Ajaykumar said they staffed Camp AMP entirely with high school students because they had firsthand experience of abruptly transitioning to online learning when schools closed in March. Focusing on facilitated class discussions and hands-on projects, Camp AMP aimed to build a supportive community and keep elementary schoolers learning.

“I think people, in general, are dependent on having a community of people to socialize and feel comfortable with,” Ajaykumar said.

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Camp administrators created and monitored “quiet” and “help” Zoom meeting rooms for students who might have fallen behind in their session or become frustrated during the camp. The students could move to one of the designated rooms, and the administrators would talk, play a game, or sit with them.

To inspire communities across the globe, LigerBots now is producing a white paper on the creation of Camp AMP. The high schoolers plan to share the paper with FIRST, an international high school robotics community, and also enter it into the first round of the group’s competition, where they could potentially compete internationally. The white paper will include things such as staff and student recruitment, marketing, and building the structure from the ground up. Ajaykumar said she hopes their paper will help other FIRST teams launch similar programs in their communities.

As part of Camp AMP the high school students taught a variety of classes to elementary school students, including Greek mythology, mythical creatures, and art, among others. Nicole Weng, a senior at Newton South High School, said she prepared art lessons and taught participants how to finger paint flowers and make origami airplanes.

“I would tell them to hold up their materials so I could see they had it and really just take them along,” Weng said. “The goal of the art class was not to force them into art, but make it so they like the activity and have fun.”

Hunter Morton, a second-grader in Newton, is typically reserved in group settings, his mom, Sarah Morton, said, but he formed a strong connection with Weng during camp, playing Pokémon pictionary and chatting one-on-one after each art class. By the end of his first class, Weng said Hunter appeared more comfortable with her, speaking up and confidently asking questions.

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“I felt delighted, I felt proud of Hunter, actually, because I saw he finally could ask questions and stand up for himself,” Weng said.

Weng said she has advice for teachers hoping to build a bond with students in the age of distance learning. One-on-one Zoom meetings allow teachers to know their students better, she said, and they also might give students the opportunity to say things they would not feel comfortable sharing in a group setting.

Another piece of advice, she said, is to target a shared interest between the student and teacher and go the extra mile to learn more about it. In Weng’s case, she lacked any knowledge about Pokémon prior to the pictionary game with Hunter but researched various characters and trading cards to show her interest.

“Finding a common interest is the most important thing — and just trying to understand that a kid won’t always follow what you’ll do,” Weng said.

Kami Rieck can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.