Special camp introduces homeless Raleigh children to robots

krupp@newsobserver.comJune 14, 2013 

— A fourth-grader programmed a robot to move forward eight rotations. She then was able to say how many degrees were in a rotation.

The student was one of about 20 children who took park in a free, three-day robotics camp this week. None of the children, who are homeless and staying in a shelter in Raleigh, had ever used robotics before.

The Mop Top Shop, a for-profit organization, holds weeklong summer science and technology camps, as well as afterschool programs and two-day clinics across the state. Sessions are meant to encourage children from underserved backgrounds to become excited about science and engineering.

To participate in Mop Top Shop sessions, students must meet one prerequisite: to have read a book.

On the first day, Jackie Johnson, owner and founder of Mop Top Shop, questions each student about the book, “because I love reading and I want them to develop that same love of reading.”

Then the students get right to work learning the names of and identifying the mechanical pieces that they will use to build their robots.

“We always talk about the vocabulary,” said Johnson. “We want you to use the words that are synonymous with the part. We don’t want, ‘Can you hand me that thing?’ Well that’s not a thing. It’s a beam or an axle.”

Students break into teams and follow a diagram to build a robot on the first day of the session. Some students program pictures or audio into their robots using professional software. On the following days, students design and build robots without a diagram, using what they learned about the functions of mechanical pieces, including beams and axles.

All in a name

Because she was a former graphic artist for IBM, Johnson’s three sons were introduced to technology at an early age. But as she looked for educational games, she said she could not find any computer programs featuring an African American as the main character.

After IBM, Johnson returned to graduate school and decided to create a male computer character herself.

“His name will be Mop Top because of his hair, and this young man will love learning. Science, math, technology: that is what he is about,” she said.

Mop Top, the mascot of the Mop Top Shop, was born.

Next, Johnson created a little girl in ripped jeans named Lollipop.

In addition to its weeklong summer sessions, the Mop Top Shop also travels outside the Triangle, putting on science and robotics clinics for afterschool programs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and school districts.

Nathanial Jackson directs a 21st Century Learning Center in Pinehurst and worked with the Mop Top Shop twice last year and again this summer. He commissioned the Mop Top Shop to teach a two-day program on robotics and animation to about 50 children of varying ages.

Jackson met Johnson two years ago when she presented at a 21st Century Workshop.

“I liked what I saw,” he said of the program.

Rupp: 919-829-8955

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