Liz Ramos sketches out a shape on a notepad while taking inventory of the robotics parts assembled on her desk at the LEAP Academy University Charter School. If she’s missing a gear or some other piece for her prototype, she won’t panic. She’ll simply invent one.
Ramos and her innovative classmates are taking their designs from concept to reality with the help of Rutgers–Camden students in LEAP’s Fabrication Lab, located in the LEAP STEM building on Cooper Street.
Known as the “Fab Lab,” it is part of a specialized curriculum for LEAP students in grades 7-12 that targets the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The lab allows students to engage in hands-on, design-based activities so STEM concepts come to life while encouraging creative thinking and problem solving.
“It gives us an opportunity to express our ideas, and it’s a chance for to get some experience with something I want to study in college,” says Ramos, a 17-year-old senior who wants to be an architect. “As a student, I appreciate that we have a Fab Lab in a STEM building right here in Camden.”
This semester, the LEAP students are building robots designed to perform specific tasks, like picking up an object, transporting it across a room, and placing it into a basket. Some of the gears needed to complete the robots are created by the students using design software and 3D printers in the lab. Rutgers–Camden students are helping the aspiring LEAP engineers complete the parts.
“The key to the fabrication lab is that you can collaborate and create something original,” says Steve Brownstein, a graduate student from Langhorne, Pa. who is pursuing his master’s degree in biology from Rutgers–Camden. “They’re very excited about it. For me, I love teaching and finding creative ways to engage the students.”
The partnership allows Rutgers–Camden students to mentor the LEAP high school students on their projects. The lab is equipped with design software, a 3-D printer, a laser cutter, and other technology so students can sketch and design model prototypes for projects. When a LEAP student designs say, a gear for a robot, the Rutgers–Camden student assists with the machinery to bring the design to life.
“This lab allows the students to work together on taking their ideas through the complete process from conception,” says David Salas-de la Cruz, an assistant professor of chemistry at Rutgers–Camden and director of the LEAP Fabrication Lab. “We want it to serve as a vehicle to expose both Rutgers and LEAP students to STEM disciplines and apply their skills to creating real designs. It’s about getting them to believe in themselves and it’s allowing them to tap into their creativity.”
Many of the LEAP students creating robots for their coursework this semester are also involved in the school’s Robotics Club, for which students participate in high school robotics competitions across the state. Marco Lopez, a 17-year-old LEAP senior, is one of the students using the Fab Lab to build robots for the club.
“It’s all about innovation here and I find that when I’m here, I’m more interested and engaged in what we’re learning,” Lopez says.
For the Rutgers–Camden students, the reward is helping a LEAP student realize his or her potential.
“When the students say they have an idea for a project, we can help them create it and achieve it, and that’s very satisfying,” says Hideki Yamamoto, a freshman pre-engineering student at Rutgers–Camden from Maple Shade.
Patrick Martin, an Upper Pittsgrove resident also enrolled in Rutgers–Camden’s pre-engineering program, adds, “It’s great to be able to answer questions that they have. It’s giving me hands-on experience that compliments my education at Rutgers.”
While the focus this semester is on robotics, students have used the technology in the past to design anything from puzzles to smart phone cases. In an environmental course taught during the spring 2013 semester, the students designed and created filtering systems for water bottles.
“These projects can also have a major impact on the Camden community,” says Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, a Rutgers University Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor and founder of the LEAP Academy University Charter School. “We needed a place where kids could be innovative and where they could think about ways to solve social problems. That’s why we created a fabrication lab. We want them to be the entrepreneurs of tomorrow.”
The LEAP Academy University Charter School’s STEM building on Cooper Street and its fabrication Lab opened in the fall of 2012.