Adolfo Novela Maciel held a dry erase pen below a sensor on a Lego robot he built last week, triggering the robot to speed forward after recognizing the green color of the cap Thursday.

Seconds later, he swept a red marker cap below the same sensor, and the robot came to an immediate stop.

The 12-year-old had never done programming before last week. Neither had the majority of elementary and middle school students in the four-day STEM Academy camp being piloted in five districts in Washington this summer.

“Our real goal here is to grow these students from being consumers of technology into creators of technology,” said Randy Steele, Senior STEM Adviser at the West Valley edition of the camp. “We want them as young as possible to start envisioning STEM and computer science as a part of their future. So we’re intentionally starting young with a very diverse group of students.”

Steele is an instructor with educational nonprofit Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, which partnered with local tech education organization FIRST Washington to put on the pilot program.

The club uses EV3 Lego Mindstorm, a robot building and programming system in which students use pictures to code the robots, rather than text coding. They might drag a picture that indicates the power of the motor into the coding panel on their computer, for example, and then slide a bar up and down to increase or lower the robot’s pace once it’s disconnected.

“It’s a great way to introduce students to coding,” Steele said. “All the computational pieces (are) there, but if they forget a semicolon, their program doesn’t crash.”

In the West Valley School District last week, 37 elementary and middle school students, including Maciel, learned how to build and program robots to do everything from racing to coordinated line dancing. The camp took place at West Valley High School.

This week, Wapato School District will host another 23 students to do the same program.

Across the two programs, 87 percent of students are on full ride scholarships to participate in the camp, something made available to anyone interested.

Bellevue, Puyallup and Kent are the other districts hosting the camp this year, with 206 enrolled in Washington this summer.

If the pilot is successful in getting kids excited about STEM work while preparing them for curriculum taught during the school year, AVID hopes to continue and expand the program in future years, said Thuan Nguyen, the organization’s COO.

High school mentors

One of the highlights of the program was offering paid mentorships to high school students who work with the younger students to help them build and code their robots, said Nguyen.

West Valley had 10 high school mentors last week, most of whom were new to programming.

Cesar Severino, 14, was one of them.

“To be honest, it’s astonishing, because when I was little, I had never done this before,” Severino said. “But looking at these kids, just by looking at them you could learn a thing or two from them, or maybe more, just (by) seeing how far they’ve come from starting to work on these robots,”

The two students he was mentoring, Oskar Swanson and Omar Ramirez, both 10, had never coded before last week, but had already learned how to make their robot complete tasks.

Severino said he was “not a robotics kind of person,” but might have been had he learned these skills at such a young age.

For Jackson Jamieson, 17, who was mentoring Maciel, the weeklong camp solidified his desire to become a teacher and made him want to pursue a minor in computer science in college.

Getting a robot to move

In the next room, three third-graders huddled around their robot on the ground, brainstorming why the wheels weren’t spinning when they commanded it to move forward.

“It’s kind of complicated because if you don’t do it right, it’s not going to move at all,” Kylie Omta said.

She and her two teammates, Janira Espino Loza and Isabella Sim, all 9, were trying to get their robot to move forward in slow motion before spinning around and returning to where it started.

Eventually, the trio returned to their computer to rework their coding.

“Power, 100,” Sims said, instructing Omta to increase the robot’s speed command. “Actually, we have to make it slow-mo, guys. Slow-mo. So let’s do like 20. No, 30.”

Omta said she became interested in coding because it reminded her of the wiring work her dad did in the air conditioning industry.

Sim said she’s always been mesmerized with wires, forcing her mom to hide them high up and out of sight for fear of her playing with them, she said. Someday, she added, she hopes to program robots to fight fires or do things humans aren’t capable of. For now, her hope is that the camp will help change her mom’s mind.

“My mom can finally believe me that I’m good at wires!” she said.

Reach Janelle Retka at or on Twitter: @janelleretka