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Foster kids play and learn at St. Pete robotics camp


Published:   |   Updated: June 11, 2013 at 09:16 AM

ST. PETERSBURG - A vehicle made of Legos sped alongside a yardstick before suddenly veering left.

A disappointed child picked it up, eager to tweak the vehicle's computer programming and build to make it move straight.

After fewer than four hours of work, most groups of kids had assembled functioning robots on the first day of Camps for Champions "Summer of Innovation" Lego robotics camp at the Science Center of Pinellas.

Austin, 12, studied the programming on the computer screen in front of him as he and his group worked to improve its robot, which would later compete with the others in a drag race.

Austin, who lives with other foster children at the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch in Safety Harbor, said he has been building robots for a while, such as the robotic arms he made out of scrap with some of the boys he lives with.

The Florida Department of Children & Families started the Camps for Champions program to provide youth in the foster system a free day-camp experience with peers who can relate to their life experiences. It also provided foster parents a camp they could send their foster children to without having to jump through as many legal hoops.

The so-called "normalcy bill," which goes into effect July 1, will make it so foster parents, rather than the legal system, can give foster children permission to do things such as attend summer camps, spend the night at a friend's house, obtain a driver's license or go on school-related trips.

"We really hope this will allow for the further recruitment of foster parents," said DCF spokesman Whitney Ray. "We hope that this will make their experience easier."

Rachel, 14, said she was excited for the camp because it gives her a chance to get out of the house and learn something. "Otherwise I'd just be sitting at home," Rachel said. "These [robots] are really complicated but fun."

The Lego robotics camp, which was organized by Eckerd Community Alternatives - the community-based care provider for foster services in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties - runs through the week. The children will program their robots to have more advanced functions throughout the week, eventually moving from remote-control technology to robots that move autonomously.

About 30 foster children from Pinellas County are attending the camp.

The Camps for Champions program has expanded from seven camps around the state in 2011 to 22 camps this year. Each camp has a different focus - from horseback riding to music to outer space - but each is supposed to at least touch on all of the STEM focal points: science, technology, engineering and math.

This is the second year St. Petersburg has hosted a camp and the first year at the Science Center in St. Petersburg.

sdrumm@tampatrib.com

Twitter: @saradrumm

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