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Miami-Dade middle schoolers build virtual bases on Mars

Fernando Suarez presents his teams Mars base.
Armando Carrada
West Miami Middle School student Fernando Suarez presents his team's Mars base.

A group of Miami-Dade middle-schoolers established a base on our sister planet Mars — at least virtually.

For the fifth year in a row, students from Andover, West Miami, Thomas Jefferson and other middle schools in the county were a part of a three-week summer program focusing on science, tech, engineering and math (STEM).

A student shows off the rover his group programmed for their Mars base.
Armando Carrada
A student shows off the rover his group programmed for their Mars base.

The Verizon Innovative Learning Program, run in collaboration with Florida International University’s After School All-Stars Program, was hosted at the university campus earlier this month.

Richard McKinley, the program director for After School All-Stars, says the camp is about getting a taste of the college experience while also exploring STEM subjects. The students got to eat at the dining hall, learned from professors and did their work in the university's classrooms.

“The reason for this camp is obviously immersion. So we’re trying to give them immersion in regards to technology so therefore they can make better decisions as they go on to high school and they go on to college,” he explained.

Throughout the program students learn four different educational tracks: immersive media, smart solutions, digital product innovations and artificial intelligence. Within these tracks are units on 3D printing, augmented reality, virtual reality and coding using software such as CoSpaces and Tinkercad.

Sean Prospect, the director for After School All-Stars, said he was able to see the kids grow throughout the camp. "We want them to go from consumers to producers — and they really got into it all,” he said.

Jasmine King shows off an augmented reality program to a panel of judges.
Armando Carrada
Students take part in a three-week summer program focusing on science, tech, engineering and math.

Fernando Suarez and Chelsea Bello, of West Miami Middle School, were among those who got to immerse themselves in the camp.

“My favorite thing would be the activities that we had, we’ve made projects, we’ve made a lot of creative things like we made a little ship and a submarine,” said Suarez.

For Bello, the highlight was coding. “It was really challenging but also fun," she said. "It made you put a lot of thought into it."

Throughout the camp the students worked on smaller projects such as programming rovers and building virtual worlds, all leading up to one final project — building a virtual base on Mars. They presented their work to each other at the end of the program.

Some students showed off currency which they had 3D-printed, others explained their base's government, and others got to show off their programmed rovers.

Many of the students say the experience has encouraged them to pursue STEM career paths.

Students from Andover, West Miami, Thomas Jefferson and other local middle schools discuss the camp and their experiences to a group of camp directors and supervisors as well as university faculty.
Armando Carrada
Students from Andover, West Miami, Thomas Jefferson and other local middle schools show off their projects at the Verizon Innovative Learning Program, a three-week summer program focusing on science, tech, engineering and math.

Arianna Otero, a WLRN newsroom intern, is a senior studying Digital Journalism at Florida International University.
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