In 2013, a few Jr. Billikens were tinkering in a small, modest robotics workshop in SLUH's basement when they talked about building something greater than a package-toting quad-copter or a punkin-chuckin' trebuchet. They wanted to get out, beyond their four walls, to share their passion and knowledge in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) with the community—specifically, by mentoring urban middle school students.
After meeting with teachers and administrators, they developed a plan and secured funding from several sources to start the Clavius Project in 2014. Named after Christopher Clavius, a German Jesuit mathematician and astronomer, the program trains urban middle school students in STEM fields, ultimately addressing a critical need of the community—one starving for more trained professionals in STEM, particularly in underserved areas.
"The Clavius Project encourages students to problem solve and collaborate to finish tasks while teaching them basic coding rules," says Mary Loux, Principal at St Cecilia School. "It provides them with basic problem solving skills that they can transfer directly into their academics and into their daily lives by identifying a problem, thinking through a response or methodology for solving that problem, and then fixing any kinks along the way."
The fledgling program began with Jr. Bills in the robotics club (aka, RoboBills) mentoring students at a handful of urban, Catholic middle schools. They brought EV3 Lego Mindstorm kits into the middle schools, showing both the students and teachers the mechanics and process of building the mini plastic robots.
Their effort was rewarded with overwhelming interest, engagement and gratitude. Shortly, more middle schools were contacting SLUH. They wanted to participate.
Each year since its inception, the Clavius Project has more than doubled in participation and programming. What began as simply building Lego robots has blossomed into something far more robust, with far more potential.
Currently 500 students from 27 middle schools are participating in the Clavius Project via curriculum, after-school programs and summer camps. Eight more schools are expected to start in the fall. Last year, the Clavius Project helped launch six middle school teams to compete in FIRST FLL qualifiers (a competitive STEM event) and will host a 24-team FIRST FLL qualifier event next year at SLUH. In addition, after successfully piloting Robot C program language in two middle schools, the Clavius Project will introduce 'coding' to participating schools next year.
The program's marquee event is the Robotics Jamboree, held annually at SLUH in January. The Jamboree features robotics competitions and mastery demonstrations. In 2017, the event tripled in participation from the previous year, with 21 schools and 240 students participating and more than 50 student volunteers.
To handle the program's demand, SLUH has recruited the help of four other high schools—DeSmet, Rosati-Kain, Bishop-DuBourg and Cor Jesu—to provide additional mentors.
Jeff Pitts, a parent volunteer and club moderator who has contributed immensely to the program's success, says addressing the demand continues to be the Clavius Project's biggest challenge. "When you look at the impact the Clavius Project has on middle schools, it's critical that we find a way to accommodate their needs and continue to make it work."
Holy Cross Academy, which is located in South City and has participated in the Clavius Project since 2015, continues to benefit from the program. "The Clavius Project provides our students with something exciting and challenging that they wouldn't normally get to do in some school systems," says Travis Tompson, a teacher at Holy Cross who sponsors the school's robotics teams.
Holy Cross incorporated eight robotic kits donated by the Clavius Project into its curriculum in the form of electives. In two years, Tompson says "more than 50 students have had the opportunity to relate math and science into solving challenges with the kits."
According to Sarah Heger, Principal at Marian Middle School, all of their fifth and sixth graders are now taking robotics, thanks to the school's partnership with the Clavius Project. Many Marian students participated in the Robotics Jamboree.
"The Clavius Project donated a shop full of tools our students are using to refurbish furniture," says Heger. "They learned to strip and sand, paint and stain. The furniture is donated to women transitioning into new housing. Our students are learning to love STEM, to consider STEM careers, and to make a difference in our world today."
Mary Loux tells a touching story of a St. Cecilia student who took the initiative to create a Jamboree challenge on his own. "He spent so much time and effort on this one challenge but he was so engaged in what he was doing. This student had so much confidence in his abilities when he was working on robotics and coding.
"At the Jamboree, his mother was nearly in tears with pride for her son to be competing in a robotics competition. She shared that no one in her family has gone to college and no one works a job that doesn't include hard labor, so to see her son excel at something that requires some technical knowledge, she said that she couldn't be more proud and was extremely thankful that we were able to participate in the Clavius Project. She says that her son is excited about STEM and thinking about going to college for engineering, thanks in large part to his participation in Clavius."
ON THE HORIZON
While the Clavius Project's primary hub of activity is at middle schools—mentoring students and educating teachers to jumpstart their own STEM programs via curriculum, clubs and after-school activities—its spokes span in several directions.
The Clavius Scholars program offers summer academy and camp scholarships, thanks to the generosity of the Berges Family Foundation, which provides much of the funding for the Clavius Project, and Ranken Technical College. In 2016, the scholars program provided $5,000 to 39 students for SLUH robotics camps, and 31 at Ranken's STEM Summer Academies. The scholarship budget will double in 2017, offering more opportunities to more students.
Looking ahead, possibilities abound for the Clavius Project:
- Plans are underway for a Rockets Day with Saint Louis University's rocket propulsion lab team;
- Jr. Bills are developing and writing a 40-hour curriculum for EV3 Robotics for implementation in middle schools;
- The program now provides math and science tutors to schools seeking this help;
- A Day of Service is slated to help schools participating in the program; and
- SLUH's Upward Bound will include the Clavius Project as part of its program this summer, when the school hosts four robotics camps.
Based on feedback from the middle schools, the Clavius Project will continue to grow and evolve to fulfill its mission with more middle schools. Meanwhile, Jr. Bills will continue to make an impact in the community.
According to RoboBill Robby Esswein '17, "I would have really enjoyed a robotics club at my grade school. Giving the middle school students the opportunity to join robotics has been very rewarding for me."
Eric Berg '15, a driving force in the birth of the Clavius Project, says he is "very proud to have been a part of the program's establishment and even prouder to see how many schools and students the program has impacted."
Currently a sophomore at Cornell University, Berg participated in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit for his startup skateboard company, XBoard. His team was one of just six to pitch in the Blackstone Launchpad Pitch Competition at Forbes in Boston. In addition, XBoard, based on Berg's slick, electric design, was accepted in Cornell's top startup accelerator program called eLab.
Berg, ala 2013 in a small robotics workshop at SLUH, is still tinkering today.