NEWPORT NEWS – Electronic beeps echoed across rows of lockers at Heritage High School Thursday morning.
Even louder were the noises of frustrated but determined students, who were trying to figure out how to wire wheels and circuits to follow commands.
The groups were programming small robots as part of the school's CyberCamp, a state-funded program that teaches cyber security and computer skills.
Twenty-six Heritage students are taking part in learning how to "hack" computer systems in order to protect them, as well as to program robots that can turn around after running into an object. The program — the only one on the Peninsula — is funded through a $62,500 grant from the state Department of Education to try to steer students toward cyber security career paths.
Nijeárà Buie and Wallace Harding, both 17, were working Thursday to combine two commands for the robot they built.
"For some reason when I do this, I'm having the time of my life even though I'm really frustrated, mad and bored at some times," Buie said. "I guess I'm just a person who loves doing things that are hands-on and making it work and at the very end, you get to see what you created. And that's the part that I live for, just the creation and watching it move around. You have that bit of achievement, like 'I did this.' It's really awesome."
Schools in Newport News and Hampton tackle the issue of "summer learning loss" by offering several programs like the CyberCamp to enrich and enhance students when they might otherwise be losing sight of academic goals.
Both school divisions offer remedial courses, allowing students to make up credits they did not earn during the school year. Newport News offers an outdoor physical education class – canoeing and hiking during the summer frees up space in students' schedules for more electives during the regular school year.
Newport News' biggest summer offering is SPARK — Summer Program for Arts, Recreation and Knowledge. The program served 2,000 students in its first year, and expanded to about 6,000 across the city this summer.
"A lot of times you envision extended learning as remediation or catching up," Brian Nichols, chief academic officer for Newport News, said in February during a presentation to the School Board. "We're really looking at it differently in Newport News Public Schools because we offer fantastic programs ... during the regular school year from September just after Labor Day until June. Why would we stop doing that in June and send kids home until September again?"
Hampton's STREAM – Science/Technology, Recreation/Redirection, Engineering/Engaging Academics, Arts and Mathematics – program served around 600 students from three elementary schools and three middle schools this summer.
The program focused on project-based learning, allowing students to figure out the solution to a problem with hands-on activities. Two weekdays were focused on academics, Tuesdays on enrichment and Thursdays on academic-based field trips.
"Every year we've seen academic growth in our students that have participated, not just in reading and math, but also in STEM-concepts and learning those critical skills," said Daryle Rodgers, coordinator of the division's programs that fall outside of the traditional school day. "They built tiny houses with math equations. In language arts they had to write mini-books depending on what lessons they were working on. In science, a lot of things where students had to build bugs. They also did a lot of history projects."
This week, teams from each school presented product ideas to a panel of hypothetical investors, similar to the TV show Shark Tank.
A group of third-graders from Bassette Elementary School showed off the multi-compartment backpack they designed and built. It was covered in dangling glow sticks to allow for late-night camping.
The girls told the panelists how they had to work together to come up with their prototype, using both math and teamwork to put together the finished product.
Most of the design was made of cardboard and construction paper – materials that are not necessarily water-resistant. School Board Chairman Jason Samuels hesitated before asking the girls a question which drew boos from the assembled parents and teachers.
"If you take this on camping trips, is it weather-proof?" Samuels asked.
After a long pause and glances around the cafeteria, the group figured out an answer.
"When we make it and we sell it, it will be leather so it will be weather-proof," was the answer as the crowd of teachers and administrators clapped and cheered in celebration that the group solved a final unexpected problem of the summer.
Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951.