SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — It looks like a crafts class, as students slice Styrofoam cups in half and thread strings so they cross into a peace sign, but they are really building a robotic "grappler" for space stations.

Latrell Franklin, 12, shows how he twists his two cup pieces so that the strings intertwine and grab a marker like a noose.

"Mine isn't tight enough," Latrell admits. "I didn't put the tape on tight enough."

OK, so the materials don't meet NASA specifications. But the curriculum in this NASA Ignite Summer Camp does -- at least as an introduction to science, technology, engineering and math (known as STEM) careers.

The series of weeklong camps began Monday with "Robotics Unplugged" at Navarre Intermediate Center and runs through July 19 at various sites, the South Bend Tribune reported ( ).

Latrell's "end effector" -- the official name for the tool -- had its downside. And Salima Oudghiri, an eighth-grade science teacher at Jackson Intermediate Center, says that's part of the actual engineering process.

"They do make mistakes," she says. "Sometimes you have to make modifications. You talk with your group and see how you can get the best results."

The students work in small groups.

Latrell says he's been nosing through the computer to dig up and learn more about NASA stuff since, in his everyday classes, he said, "I never learned about a robotic arm."

Not all students will go into a STEM career, says Leslie Wesley, a local consultant to the 21st Century Community Learning Centers at South Bend schools.

But, she notes, STEM plays a role in other jobs, too. The camps also plant a seed to attract more STEM resources in the future, Wesley says.

They are open to any local fourth- through ninth-grader, with 50 and 80 students attending each day so far.

The camps are paid for through the same grant that drives the 21st Century centers, based at Riley and Washington high schools for remedial and before- and after-school learning.

Eight certified South Bend teachers receive a stipend for leading the camps, says lead teacher Celeste Anthony, who teaches business and marketing at Greene Intermediate and Clay High.

With help from a local nonprofit, nPOWER, the project is holding mini-camps at the summer feeding lunch tables at South Bend parks, teaching small STEM lessons as a way to recruit students for the larger camps.

"It's fun," said Raymond Pryor, a math and science teacher at Navarre. "They don't have to worry about: We're going to take a test."

They also make cardboard hands and attached strings that they could pull to move each finger -- just like a robot hand.

They made a small "rover" wagon, powered by a balloon. Just blow up the balloon through a straw that's attached, then let it deflate like a rocket.

Jathen Spicer, 12, learned about astronauts and "how they can stand nongravity." This sort of stuff, he says, gears him up for science classes next year -- on his way, he contemplates, to a career in engineering or biology.

Karlissa Wheat, 14, learned how people venturing deep into the earth have to breathe through a mask.

Was she interested in STEM careers before this week's camp?

"No, not really," she says. "I really was wanting to go to Washington for the medical magnet. But now I think I want to do a little science."

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the South Bend Tribune.