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Afterschool program focuses on robotics and nutrition

Puentes al Futuro program introduces Willimantic Hispanic youth to STEM

(WILLIMANTIC) Twenty-six students from Eastern Connecticut State University volunteered this spring semester with local schoolchildren in the Puentes al Futuro program (Bridges to the Future). This year’s Puentes program involved approximately 40 elementary and middle school children who participated in a curriculum focused on nutrition and wellness and STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Broken into two groups, the children participated in the afterschool program twice a week in two-hour sessions. While the three-month program was cut short due to the coronavirus outbreak, organizers at the Center for Community Engagement (CCE) plan to resume the program this coming fall.

Leading up to Eastern’s spring break, fourth and fifth graders from Windham Heights Learning Center went on a variety of field trips related to nutrition and wellness. At the same time, middle schoolers from Barrows STEM Academy discovered the world of robotics and computer programming.

The elementary schoolers went to Mansfield’s Mountain Dairy farm, where they learned about dairy cows and how food makes it from the farm to the grocery store. Another trip brought them to the CLiCK commercial kitchen, where they learned about healthy recipes and cooked in CLiCK’s teaching kitchen. The children also went to Big Y, where they learned how to read nutrition labels on food packaging.

“The focus of the program is healthy eating and the effect that sugar has on our body,” said Rose Hernandez, program coordinator for the CCE. The children also learned about wellness and participated in yoga sessions.

The middle school group participated in STEM activities on Eastern’s campus, led by Marc Cournoyer, a 4H educator with UConn Extension. This technology-based program was divided into three blocks – LEGO STEM, robotics and computer programming. The group concluded the LEGO block prior to Spring Break, using LEGO Mindstorms Education EV3 kits. After building their LEGO robots, they used an iPad program to code and animate their creations.

“I’ve taught this program for many years,” said Cournoyer. “The most interesting thing for me this year is that the girls are most motivated (by the robotics). It’s also one of the largest groups of girls I’ve had. They’re all very invested in their LEGO builds.”

Concluding this block, the children put their robots to the test in a series of challenges. Animated by code, the robots navigated an obstacle course, drew with a marker and “battled” by pushing each other out of a ring.

The CCE has engaged student volunteers in Puentes for nearly a decade. Each session takes a different theme or focus, but one thing is constant – mentorship. More than robotics or wellness, “This is a mentoring program,” said Yoshua Gonzaga, a CCE student leader who is double majoring in Spanish and health sciences. “It’s about kids developing relationships with college students.” He added that the program is geared toward Willimantic’s Hispanic youth.

This semester’s session of Puentes al Futuro was supported by the Windham Public Schools Extended School Hours Grant. When the program resumes in the fall semester, the children will go home with their LEGO and robotics kits, as well as yoga mats.

Eastern Connecticut State University is the state of Connecticut’s public liberal arts university, serving 5,000 students annually at its Willimantic campus and satellite locations. In addition to attracting students from 162 of Connecticut’s 169 towns, Eastern also draws students from 34 other states and 19 countries. A residential campus offering 41 majors and 65 minors, Eastern offers students a strong liberal art foundation grounded in an array of applied learning opportunities. Ranked among the top 30 public universities in the North Region by U.S. News and World Report in its 2019 Best Colleges ratings, Eastern has also been awarded ‘Green Campus’ status by the Princeton Review 10 years in a row. For more information, visit

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