The Sparks Garage is a YMCA program offered to students grades 3-8 who have family memberships. We do a different “theme” every month. Each theme focuses on having fun as opposed to a regular class which focuses on education. In our experience, students learn well as a side effect of having fun.
The inaugural theme was called “Mechanical Hacking,” for which the students took apart regular household items (toasters, old TVs, RC cars, clocks, etc.) and upon having them apart were, able to learn about the various scientific principles that made the items work.
Other themes include Introduction to Mechanics, Popsicle Stick Bridges, Robot Programming, 3D Design and Manufacturing, Sumo Robots, and the recent unnamed theme that includes marshmallow catapults and earthquake-proof towers, as well as the popular “egg drop challenge”.
The most popular so far has been the sumo robots theme, where students build Lego Mindstorms robots and battle with them via remote control. Each week a different “twist” was presented to the students, such as a dangerous elevated platform, or a different victory condition (pushing, flipping, or flat out battlebots dismemberment).
As the program is a “drop in” program, we have anywhere between 8 and 15 kids in the garage at a time, with the average being at roughly a dozen. To increase the number of kids we could reach, we began running the STEMPede program at the YMCA camps, where we teach the same concepts in a modified format to three groups as large as 30 kids each three days a week.
The Sparks Garage also houses the recently started YMCA of the Foothills VEX Robotics middle school team, mentored by the same instructors that run the Sparks Garage and STEMPede CORE program. During the summer, students can enroll at any time to learn about robotics and the advanced concepts and practices that go into making a competitive VEX robot, and throughout the process will also begin creating the robot that they will compete with in the 2015-2016 VEX Nothing But Net game.