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WATERLOO — Teams of students huddled over small pieces of paper in different colors and shapes, lining them up and rearranging the order.

Each colored shape represented a particular movement. Once students had finished arranging them, the slips of paper were used to direct a teammate in moving across the room and setting down a milk crate or a small ball.

It was the first day of a middle school summer camp at the Waterloo Career Center and the students were learning about creating code to program a robot. The admittedly low-tech exercise was led by employees of John Deere, who were teaching in one of six career programs featured during the three-day camp last week.

“Robots do a lot of different things, particularly in John Deere,” Rory Dolan Jr., one of the instructors from the company, told students before the exercise. Efficiency, he explained, is important in programming a robot. “We want our robot to go from the starting point to the ending point in as little steps as possible.”

Dolan said they would be focused on several things during the camp — teaching the kids about programming robots, assembling tractors and working in a foundry.

A total of 70 incoming sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders mostly from Waterloo Community Schools participated in the first-time camp.

Denise Clark-Burke, a retired Deere employee helping with the camp, said it fit in with the company’s efforts to educate students about career possibilities in the manufacturing field. Deere holds a STEM day every spring and sponsors a number of FIRST Robotics Competition teams. The company is also a sponsor of the career center’s advanced manufacturing program, providing funding for equipment.

“We need to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” she noted. But that often means getting students hooked earlier than high school, when many have decided those subjects are too difficult. “So, we know middle school is really important from a John Deere standpoint.”

Manufacturing wasn’t the only career field represented at the camp.

Instructors in the digital interactive media program introduced students to the lights, cameras and green screen used for filming as the camp got underway. In the nearby digital graphics classroom, instructor Todd Kern told students they would find images on the internet and use photography software to create poster-sized collages as one of their “two, maybe three projects” during the camp. Other programs offered were early childhood education, information technology: web and gaming, and culinary arts.

“I was interested in exposing middle school students to what we offer in the career center,” said Amy Miehe, career development coordinator at the center. The facility, located in the remodeled north end of Central Middle School, serves high schoolers from across Waterloo Schools and several surrounding districts.

“It’s really just hands-on projects exposing them to each of the programs we have there,” she added of the camp.

All district sixth- through eighth-graders will use part of their nine-week exploratory classes starting this fall to further delve into the career and technical education offerings that will be available when they reach high school.

That includes the Project Lead the Way medical detectives class and a computer science course for sixth graders. Seventh graders will also have a computer science class and an introduction to human services course – which will include three-week rotations with early childhood education, culinary and hospitality. Eighth graders will have a Project Lead the Way automation and robotics course as well as a business and career exploration class that surveys options available at the center.

Some of the courses got started during the past school year including the medical detectives, computer science, and automation and robotics classes.

“They’re very problem-based courses,” said Anjuli Myers, the district’s STEM coordinator. In the classes’ “engineering and design model,” students are tasked with finding solutions to those problems. “We’re hoping by the end of eighth grade students will have more of an understanding of what’s offered” at the career center to better “optimize” their time spent in the programs.

Clickstop, an Urbana company with businesses in multiple industries, is a recently-signed career center partner in the area of information technology. Jeremy Meyer, director of communications, said the company has developed plans to actively work with students in related career pathways. He applauded the district for helping middle school students to begin exploring career possibilities, part of the “long-term investment” it is making in their lives.

“They can build a life through development of that skill at an early age,” he said. In some cases, students may discover new interests as they learn about the career programs.

Veridian Credit Union is a partner with the career center and provided financial support for the camp. Angela Weekley, the company’s community inclusion manager, agreed that working with middle school students on career exploration is an important investment with broad benefits.

“We know that our community is only as strong as all the individuals in it,” she said. “If we want to be able to have employees, if we want to have members (for the credit union) in the future we need to invest in our community.”

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