Thursday, May 17, 2007

Camp opens doors for deaf students

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Courtesy of the Maryland School for the Deaf
Donald McCoy, an engineer from IBM, helps Robert Harris, a high school student at the Maryland School for the Deaf, check a robot they assembled at a special event this week.
At first, the box of jumbled wires, tires, motors and small plastic parts made Jackie Coffran feel uneasy.

Jackie, 16, could not believe it was possible to piece together the random parts and turn them into anything, let alone an electronic robot able to move, stop and turn on command.

But a few hours later, Jackie’s team at the Maryland School for the Deaf had finished its creation. Programmed by the students with meticulously calculated instructions, the robot followed the curves of pre-set route, making all the right turns and stopping at obstacles.

‘‘I surprised myself,” the junior said on Tuesday, through an American Sign Language interpreter. ‘‘I’ve tried Legos before, but I have never been successful. It makes me want to learn more about this.”

That was exactly the goal of the daylong technology camp, which gathered 17 Maryland School for the Deaf high-school students to introduce them to the fields of technology, science and engineering.

A cooperative effort between IBM, the Maryland School for the Deaf and the Maryland State Department of Education’s Division of Rehabilitation Services, the event was the first partnership between the school and a private company.

‘‘There are a lot of businesses that are recruiting,” Robert Padden, assistant principal of career and technology education at the school, said through an interpreter. ‘‘Our students need the exposure.”

During the technology camp, students built a mathematically calculated bridge from raw spaghetti, and used coins to test its strength. They tested electronic circuits and used programming software and listened to presentations about technology careers available to them.

Two IBM representatives held the seminar. Seth Bravin, who works at IBM Finance, is deaf and hopes to become a role model for deaf students. Last year, Bravin and Padden together came up with the idea to bring the IBM seminar to the Maryland School for the Deaf.

The presentation is modeled after hundreds of other presentations the company holds nationally and internationally, said Donald McCoy, IBM program manager and engineer. The idea is to use fun, hands-on projects to show students career opportunities.

‘‘Using robots, they are able to relate [concepts] from science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” McCoy said. ‘‘And they don’t even know it.”

IBM specifically targets students in the African-American, Hispanic and Asian communities, as well as students with disabilities, who are more likely to shy away from technology and engineering, McCoy said.

‘‘Many of them feel it’s too complicated ... that it takes some extra strain,” he said.

Even when they said they had no particular interest in engineering, students seemed fully immersed in Tuesday’s seminar. Even Tandy Lewis, a freshman who wants a career in business, was captured by the way a robot can be programmed through a computer.

‘‘I am more the business type,” Lewis said through an American Sign Language interpreter, ‘‘but this is a great experience. And I am learning a lot about robots.”