Jewish Camp: Forget Color War; It’s Time to Build Robots

For campers at the JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood in southern Maine, a very hot summer just got very cool. The camp invited a team of Israeli high school students and their teacher to bring their technical and scientific expertise in robotics to the camp and teach campers between the ages of 12-15 how to build small programmable robots that follow commands and complete assigned tasks.

Working in two and three person teams with their Israeli student teachers, campers use computer software to develop and program their robots and construct motors that propel them toward a set destination. Based on the computer programs the students create, the robots “learn” to respond to light, ultra-sonic and touch sensory commands so they can follow a color-coded path, anticipate obstacles in their path, change direction, and plot a course to a destination.

The campers create a smart, working robot and enjoy the process of collaborating with each other to brainstorm and create solutions to the technical problems before them. They showcase their newly-developed robotics skills at the end of the program when they put their robot creations through their paces.

The program is taught by two 15 year-old 11th grade Israeli high school students, Gil Geker and Ksenia Barabash, who attend the Israel Sci-Tech Habonim High School in Bat Yam during the school year. Ksenia immigrated to Israel from Siberia in 2002.

They traveled to the JCC camp with their teacher, Tsafrir Shlomo, who is head of the school’s robotics department and an expert in artificial intelligence and neural network systems. He is leading this initial robots program with the JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood and looking to expand the program to other camps next year.

Kathy Jonas, JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood director, was attracted to the idea of bringing the Israeli robotics team to the camp as a way to broaden its programming and attract a new kind of camper.

“Campers and their parents, especially older campers, are looking for something different and challenging in their selection of a summer camp. We see the Israel Sci-Tech Schools robotics initiative as a wonderful way to give campers something fun and exciting to do and, at the same time, have the opportunity to get to know their Israeli counterparts in a very personal and enriching way.”

The idea for the Israel/US camper robotics program started with Dr. Lynne Harrison, a longtime supporter of Jewish camping in the U.S. who saw the value of bringing Israeli’s science and technology expertise into the camp environment. She recognized that a robotics program could help create important ties between Israeli and American Jewish youth.

Through her efforts, plans for the robotics program collaboration between Israel Sci-Tech Schools and the JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood started in the fall of 2009 and led to the launch of the program this summer.

About: Israel Sci-Tech Schools is the largest independent network of science and technology schools in Israel serving 100,000 students in 165 schools in 45 cities across Israel.

JCC Maccabi Camp Kingswood is an overnight camp of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston serving boys and girls entering grades 3-11 from the Eastern U.S., Canada and Israel.

image: camper Eve Laden-Mauro of Boston assembling her robot