'Star Wars'-Style Droids Boost Natl. Capital Wing Unit's STEM Approach
These are the droids they're looking for ... as close as a Civil Air Patrol squadron meeting.
That's the case at the National Capital Wing’s Challenger 1 Cadet Squadron on a STEM night. In the mix, after all, are 1st Lt. Justin Strait’s personally built R2-Q5 droid and Capt. Rachael Norberg’s Sphero BB 8 droids, along with various STEM Kits provided by Civil Air Patrol’s Aerospace Education program.
“We’re opening up their eyes to another world,” said Norberg, who is the squadron’s aerospace education office as well as its deputy commander. “We showed cadets that they can program them and your imagination is your limit. They get really excited and understand. We just have to push them.”
“We give them something fun and foster their natural curiosities,” added the unit’s commander, Strait. “I love to share it with cadets who will be building the next thing.”
Every fifth meeting night of the month is devoted to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities, with the whole focus on exploring STEM Kits. “We bring out all the droids, drones and flight simulator,” Norberg said. “It’s like a mini open house, and anyone interested in joining CAP can come out.”
The Challenger squadron has 46 members – 27 cadets and 19 senior members. It recently moved its meeting place to 3,500-student T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, made famous by the 2000 movie “Remember the Titans.”
Strait and Norberg are huge “Star Wars” fans, enjoy fan conventions and have built their own costumes and props. They were friends through fandom before joining CAP.
Both have built careers in technology. Strait is an information technology manager at the Department of Justice; Norberg is a cyber security specialist for the federal courts.
“We made it a point to enhance STEM with ‘Star Wars,’” said Norberg, who also taught biology at the university level for several years. Now she loves teaching principles of programming to cadets.
“People love 'Star Wars,'” Strait said. “It sparks conversation and the interest.”
“Droids can be very complex or very simple,” said Strait, who said he knew nothing about robotics when he started building his own R2.
Still, his background – always into computers, Strait built his first one while in high school in the 1990s – enabled him to go in and modify code. So he did a lot of reading and sought input from the helpful network R2 builders.
Therein lies another lesson. “I tell cadets that nobody builds by themselves," he said. "We rely on others.”
Strait, an R2 Builders Club member, built his own R2 series astromech droid in 2018. His droid rolls on three legs controlled by Bluetooth remote control, lights up, makes sounds and spins its dome.
It has entertained and educated four of the National Capital Wing’s six squadrons.
“It’s the attention-getter,” Strait said. After introducing his R2, he teaches cadets the basics of robotics using CAP’s "Introduction to Robotics" textbook.
He also asks cadets to look inside his R2 and tell him what they see. “I open him up and show the components,” Strait said.
“If you’re not familiar with it, you think it’s super-complex,” he said. But once the dome is off and cadets peek inside, they can see familiar things, like parts of Razor scooters and MP3 player amplifiers.
“We get them questioning,” Strait said. “And I always say, ‘You never know where your hobbies will lead you.’”
Fun with a purpose
About three years ago, Strait and a buddy of his who’s also in a Star Wars fan group visited a children’s wing in a hospital with a droid the friend built.
“We met a little girl there, who was maybe 2 or 3 years old and in isolation,” Strait recalled. His friend got the droid making music and dancing. Eventually, the girl stood up in her bed and started laughing and dancing along.
As the two moved on to meet more children, nurses came up to them in tears, saying it was the first time in six months the little girl had laughed or smiled.
“And that was it,” said Strait, who immediately thought, “OK, I’m building one of these.”
He finished his own R2 droid in January 2018 and took it on hospital visits about once a month. “The kids love it, from toddlers to high schoolers,” Strait said. He also interacts with staff, to share a bit of light fun with them.
Several droid builders reside in the D.C. area, Strait said. The R2 Builders Club has been around for about 25 years. The approximiately 3,000 active members all over the world share information and templates for fun rather than financial gain.
Strait and Norberg encourage other squadrons to build droids or contact a local R2 Builders Club. Its members are enthusiastic and would probably love to visit a CAP unit, they say.
CAP offers STEM Kits in part to enhance the cadet program’s aerospace education mission. Expertise isn’t necessary.
“STEM Kits come with a curriculum, and the information is there in the kit,” Norberg said. “As a senior member, I think it’d be great exercise. Or you could treat it as a leadership exercise and empower someone to learn and do it.”
The Challenger squadron placed fourth overall in CAP’s 2019 National Cadet Competition. Not surprisingly, the cadet team took first in the event’s robotics portion.
Norberg said she and Strait “don’t want to take credit on that. I feel like we’re fanning the flame, but they’re doing the work.”
Looking ahead, Norberg is contemplating the Rover-style robot from Sphero that she bought for the squadron. She could add an arm or maybe teach it to roll, and it should be able to interact with the Sphero robots the unit already has.
“The interest is there,” Norberg said. “Whether finding resources or providing it themselves, we can take that extra step to show what STEM can do.”