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Robot camps on northern Vancouver Island get a BC Hydro boost

Image of students at a North Island College robot summer camp in Gold River
Students at a North Island College robot summer camp in Gold River explore how to build and program Lego robots in a program partially supported by BC Hydro's Community Grants. Students also get vital training in internet safety at the camps.

North Island College camps teach robotics, internet safety to young students

No summer camp. No robots.

The COVID-19 pandemic drained the hopes of young students looking forward to North Island College's summer robot camps. But the good news – at least for those who still qualify in the 9-to-16 age group – is that camps should be back in session in summer 2021.

"I'm really excited for this summer because we're hoping to bring back the program and to be able to reach some of those kids that didn't get a chance to go to camps last year," says Ali Sandholm, youth and community outreach liaison with North Island College.

Both in 2018 and 2019, more than 200 students attended the camps in the Vancouver Island communities of Port Alberni, the Comox Valley, Port Hardy, Campbell River, Tofino, Ucluelet and Gold River. The robotics program got funding through BC Hydro's Community Grant initiative to help continue what is a popular summer camp that continues to grow.

"When the robot's built, you can't [at first] do anything but manually kind or push it places," says one camp student. "But once you program it, it'll do it all on its own. And it's really nice to see. You feel like you've accomplished something big."

Applications for this year's BC Hydro community grants are being accepted now through March 31, 2021. Grants of up to $10,000 are available for organizations looking to launch or expand education programs across multiple B.C. communities. And grassroots grants of up to $2,000 are available for local community-based programs.

Get details on who's eligible and how to apply.

Program's a hit, especially with kids from smaller communities

Sandholm confesses that when she was growing up on Vancouver Island, she hadn't even heard of a robotics program. And with many schools unable to put a school-year program in place, it underlines the need (and popularity) of the NIC summer camps.

"It's huge, especially for a kid on the northern Island where they wouldn't have access to a robotics program, or even a college-run robotics program," she says. "It's a really cool experience for them."

This is no ordinary week-long summer camp. This year, younger students start with the basic concepts of robotics and coding. And then there's the really fun stuff, including building the robots and finding what it takes to make them move.

"As the week goes on, they actually have their robots doing different challenges," she says. "They might build a maze or an obstacle course, and some of the older kids might program their advanced bots to follow a certain coloured line. It's pretty amazing."

Recognizing that any activities associated with use of a computer require solid knowledge of internet safety, the NIC program spends a lot of time helping students understand how to stay safe online, and students often take those lessons home to their parents.

What does the summer camp look like? Check out the following video from a past NIC robot summer camp.