FLEMING ISLAND – As circus music blasted from the center of the stage in the Paterson Elementary School cafeteria, more than 20 children sat backstage, anxiously awaiting the show to begin.
This show would be different from the typical circus. These animals weren’t alive – they were robots. Not only were these animals robots, but they were hand drawn and designed by elementary students from Clay County. Despite the amount of work each child put into their project, the show would not have been possible without the help of their two ArtBotics Summer Camp leaders, Paterson robotics teacher Jennifer Seco and Paterson art teacher Denise Madonia, though.
Three years ago, Seco discovered a way she could not only host a summer camp with one of her best friends, Madonia, but entice more girls to join her robotics camp. While some girls participated in previous robotics camps, the majority of participants were boys. Hoping to create the robotics spark found within herself as a young Clay County girl, Seco discovered that art was the answer.
“I knew art was very popular among girls [at Paterson] and I wanted to see if by including art, we could recruit more girls to join us for the summer camp,” Seco said. “And it worked.”
Now, three years later, Seco is happy to say that the Artbotics camp is made up of both boys and girls, but most importantly, kids who are thrilled to mix art with science. None of this would be possible, though, without the help of Madonia. Seco teaches the kids the robotics portion of the camp, which employed a circus theme and culminated in a circus with animals powered by robotics and coding.
When the circus began the week of June 14, Madonia called out a student’s name as they rushed to the stage to power on their robotic creation. Sometimes this creation was a pig that shot out of a cardboard cannon. Other times, it was a monkey tossing bananas into the air, but always, it was something each kid could be proud of – a creation of their own.
While Seco was busy working with the kids in an effort to help them understand how the robotic engines worked all week long, Madonia spent her time with the kids determining what animal they wanted to create and how they wanted it to look. Some animals were poster board. Some were a mix of what appeared to be papier mache` and more. But most importantly, all of the art featured in the circus was created by the kids.
“I help them in the rough sketch stage but after that, these kids really take off with it,” Madonia said.
Most of this year’s participants were Paterson Elementary students but one student, Garret Johnson, was a fourth grader from Fleming Island Elementary, but that made no difference to him. He was happy to be involved, despite not knowing any of the kids beforehand.
“I didn’t know anybody really when I got here but it was still fun,” Johnson said.
Johnson was responsible for a monkey who clapped two cymbals together. The monkey was, of course, the art portion of his project while the robotics made the cymbals clap together. While Johnson was happy to see his monkey come to life during the show, what excited him most was the code he learned to make his monkey perform.
“I learned a lot about coding,” Johnson said. “I kind of knew some stuff about it but not really. It’s much more advanced than I thought and it was cool to learn about it.”
Johnson’s mom, April Johnson, was excited to see something her son learned in just a week come to fruition.
“He would come home from camp and tell us about it and that was neat, but it was really awesome to see the thing he actually made,” Johnson said.
For Seco and Madonia, that’s what this camp is all about – watching kids learn something new, find interest in it and create something they want with that new knowledge.
“That’s why we do this, you know,” Madonia said. “We hope it grows into something bigger, and better, for them.”