Before kids carried iPhones in their pockets and used District 97 loaner iPads at home and school, the Oak Park Education Foundation’s Technology in Motion (Tech Bus) program rolled in.

On the crest of the tech-in-schools movement, the Tech Bus was an old, refurbished school bus with a state-of-the-art editing suite that became a mobile learning station for elementary-age kids at 10 schools.

But by 2000, as personal technology blasted into the school and home markets, the Tech Bus went the way of the dinosaur, making room for new Oak Park Education Foundation (OPEF) program innovations.

To learn more about two of these innovative programs, Wednesday Journal caught up with Tim Walsh, the STEM/Design teacher at Percy Julian Middle School and the Head Coach of Julian’s OPEF VEX Robotics Club, and Jenny Roen, OPEF’s resourceful Build A Summer Education (B.A.S.E.) Camp Coordinator.

Interview with Tim Walsh, OPEF VEX Robotics Coach

How did you become involved with OPEF’s VEX Robotics?

Walsh: When Mark Pickus initially called me to see if I wanted to sponsor the club, I told him that I didn’t know anything about robots and was a Bio major in college. Bob Parks, who I had been paired with for the previous four years as an OPEF Global Village [now Science Alliance] scientist, came to my classroom, and when I mentioned the idea to him, he said that we could do it together and that he would help me. So without Global Village putting experts in my room, I never would have had the time, or training, to delve into the robotics world. But the experts came and slowly and surely I developed a new skill set, one that never would have happened without OPEF.

How does VEX Robotics work?

Walsh: Our middle school students use the VEX Robotics equipment to design, build and program robots to compete against other schools at local and regional competitions. Last year, two of our teams established themselves as top dogs at the state tournament: Team “Serious Black” won the Middle School Excellence award, which is the highest honor awarded at the competition. Team “Lost in Pink” was a member of the alliance that went on to win the entire tournament. In addition, the staff members of the program from both schools also won accolades, earning an Award of Merit from the Illinois State Board of Education Those Who Excel.

What has been innovative about the program?

Walsh: VEX is a huge collection of people working together to make it happen, which is another thing the Ed Foundation brings to this. Currently we have 12 teams at each school, Brooks and Julian we have one of the biggest robotics programs in the nation. We also have 14 or 15 high school mentors who come back, and they are really, really

helpful, and we also have professional engineers who come in and work with the kids.

What is the link between VEX Robotics and STEM classes at Julian?

Walsh: Superintendent Al Roberts was at our Battle of the Bots competition, and I said, ‘Hey, this is too good. We have to make this a class.’ And, he said, ‘OK, come in give me a presentation and sell me on the idea.’ It was a huge shift and big idea at the middle schools, and now it’s a five-person department. We call it the Design Department, using a national Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) curriculum called ‘Project Lead the Way.’

What is the next big thing?

Walsh: That’s a funny question because I’m hoping the next big thing will be small, like circuit-board small. I would like to see the OPEF VEX Robotics program grow beyond a kit-based program and into the realm of a makerspace. How awesome would it be if our young engineers could make their own ideas come to life by drawing up CAD designs, 3D print them, hand solder the circuits and then write a code to control it all? This sort of club could complement the new Design program at the middle schools and give students an opportunity to enhance their classroom experiences. We are still in the planning phase of this one, but fingers crossed that we will be able to figure it out.

Interview with Jenny Roen, OPEF BASE Camp Program Coordinator

How did B.A.S.E. Camp emerge?

Roen: B.A.S.E. Camp came out of the 25 year history of the Oak Park Education Foundation doing free programs during the school year. The idea was for the summer programming to provide funding for the free programming that happens during the school year, while at the same time experimenting with innovative new learning concepts for K-8 students.

How did BASE Camp get started?

Roen: Five years ago we began by offering VEX Robotics, Geared Up which is engineering with LEGOs and Architecture Adventure. We had 130 kids that first year. In future summers, we added an Art Start aspect with art, photography, dance and theater programs, and some Science Alliance-type camps like dissection. So in the beginning, and still today, BASE Camp draws from OPEF’s school-year programs, and experiments with new topics we haven’t yet tried during the school year. And this past summer? We reached over 900 kids, and awarded more than $12,000 worth of camp scholarships to District 97 families on the free and reduced lunch program!

What has been innovative?

Roen: Last year, we introduced Waterbotics, where we worked with Triton College who trained us and loaned us their Waterbotics kits. It involved a big plastic swimming pool where kids built robots and programmed them using computers to make the robot dive and move various ways. Another innovative new camp was Coding, which uses Scratch, MIT’s publicly-available programming language. The kids learned how to create their own games or whatever they wanted to do in Coding camp.

What is the next big thing for B.A.S.E. camp?

Roen: OPEF views BASE Camp as its innovation incubator, the place where we seek out new ideas and try them on a relatively small scale. For example, in our upcoming day-off camp in January, we are designing a class where kids go to Triton for a design and build project, finishing the day with a field trip to a company using 3D printing technology to create medical devices. And next summer we”re planning a sailing camp. How cool is that?

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....