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UGA, Chess & Community launch new partnership


UGA Engineering student Cuthbert Fonjungo (right) works with Hilsman Middle School rising sixth-grader Christopher Chatmon on a robot project as part of the Pawn Accelerator program. (Photo courtesy of Chess & Community)

By Greg Trevor/UGA Today

The University of Georgia and the local nonprofit Chess & Community have launched a new partnership that uses robotics to enhance STEM education opportunities for promising Clarke County students.

Over the next three years, the university will provide financial assistance and on-campus space to support Pawn Accelerator — a community-centered robotics and chess program that educates students about the foundations of technology and innovation, nurturing skills that they will need for future careers in STEM fields, including literacy in robotics and engineering.

“The Pawn Accelerator program helps Clarke County students develop a wide range of essential skills,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “This new partnership will further strengthen our relationship with our community partners across Athens-Clarke County and expand the impact of STEM education in our local community.”

“The next technological innovation to transform this community and the world could be buried in the mind of one of these kids, but we’ll never know if we don’t at the very least expose them to available resources,” said Lemuel “Life” LaRoche, executive director of Chess & Community, which piloted the program in fall 2020. “This is what Pawn Accelerator does. It allows youth to interface with the latest technology and challenges them to reimagine the world.”

The program has three progressive tiers that ultimately promote design thinking and innovation. These tiers are:

  • Tier 1: Middle school students will unbox and build a robot alongside college student facilitators. After building the robot, students will code the robot and prepare for the robotics competition. Chess & Community hosted the inaugural robotics competition in fall 2020.

  • Tier 2: Students will take their project to the next level using a 3D printer and learning to recode the robot for new features and actions. Drone technology will also be introduced.

  • Tier 3: This stage focuses on Design Thinking and Innovation. With the knowledge they have received, select rising ninth and 10th graders will participate in Innovate U, a weeklong summer residential program for high school students in the Clarke County School District.

As part of the partnership, the university will make space available for students in locations dedicated to sparking innovation – such as the new Innovation Hub and Studio 225, the home of the UGA Entrepreneurship Program.

Founded in Athens, Chess & Community is dedicated to empowering young leaders in Northeast Georgia. It provides real-world knowledge through positive youth engagement in critical thinking, civic engagement, peer learning and cultural experiences.

The new initiative joins nearly 50 existing UGA programs and partnerships launched in recent years that support the Clarke County School District. Others include:

  • Grow It Know It – an innovative year-round program that helps middle school students, school staff, university partners and community members learn about poverty, food insecurity and environmental sustainability through school gardens, hands-on educational activities and workforce development initiatives. Jointly funded by the school district and UGA, the program has raised more than $15,000 through school gardens, community grants and private donations.

  • Georgia Possible – a collaborative program between Clarke County schools and UGA that prepares students for postsecondary education and career decisions by providing participants with tools and resources on career exploration, personal awareness, soft-skill development and leadership. Students in the three-year pilot program complete team-building exercises, participate in a mentor program, attend workshops on professional skills and the college application process, take the PSAT, meet with industry experts and learn about financial planning, emotional intelligence and conflict management.

  • Gear Up 4 College – UGA hosts Gear Up 4 College for Clarke County School District eighth graders. The program focuses on dual enrollment classes, scholarships, the college application process, and other challenging topics students will encounter throughout high school and as they begin making choices about postsecondary education and careers. Students attend 15 events throughout the year on UGA’s campus, where they receive information on essay writing for applications, courses to consider in high school, and what it means to attend a public, private or technical school.

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