10 Years Strong, Learning Comes to Life for Kids at STEM Camp

By Beth Goins

 

STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – is not silent. It certainly isn’t still or stoic.

That much becomes clear within a few minutes of visiting See Blue STEM Camp, Robotics Camp, and Chem Camp at the University of Kentucky in June. The hallowed halls of higher education, normally fairly quiet in the lull between semesters, ring with excitement as hundreds of elementary, middle, and high school students become budding engineers, mathematicians, chemists, scientists and computer programmers.

Exclamations such as “Wow!” “Oh no!” or “Yay!” echo from room to room, punctuating evolving stories of problem-solving, teamwork and perseverance through trial and error. In many rooms, students are at work with heads leaning in together to get a closer look at a tablet, circuit component, crayfish, microscope or storyboard.

For the past 10 summers, a growing village of teachers, professors, college students, staff, and community volunteers have made the STEM Camp experience enriching and memorable, immersing students in the real-life application of STEM subjects.

See Blue STEM Camp began in the summer of 2010 with just eight middle school students gathered at a local school. By the next year, the program quadrupled. In 2012, the camp moved to the University of Kentucky campus and grew exponentially, with collaborations forged between the colleges of Education, Arts and Sciences and Engineering. The robust program now serves children in grades two-12, with a targeted Robotics Camp and Chem Camp added to the mix.

“Our goal is to expose students to a variety positive learning experiences and career options in the STEM fields,” said College of Education Associate Dean Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, also a STEM education professor. Mohr-Schroeder is a co-founder of the program with her husband, Craig Schroeder, and College of Engineering Professor Bruce Walcott. “STEM Camp is a soul-filling activity," she said. "Bringing the kids in and seeing them grow in their love of STEM and the relationships they form — there’s nothing better.”

A high school physics teacher, Schroeder was concerned about students’ struggle to retain STEM concepts during the summer and the opportunity gap that exists for many of our K-12 students. Mohr-Schroeder was keenly aware of the shortage of disparity in STEM careers. Their goal: Help students explore and integrate the STEM disciplines through authentic hands-on projects and real world applications. Through this exposure, they hope that students will be able to visualize themselves in a STEM career — especially females and students of color, populations that are often underrepresented in STEM fields.

This year, the camp hosted more than 500 students, many of them returning campers, along with newcomers from around the state and beyond. Joy, a ninth grader and budding biochemist, found her way back after moving to Pennsylvania. Her family made arrangements with friends for Joy to stay with them so that she could attend STEM Camp. Next year, she plans to come back to Kentucky for Chem Camp. “I think it could really help with my future career,” she said.

This is a camp that stretches horizons and imaginations. Learning comes to life from the first day. Campers build robots (and make them dance), create virtual reality short films, extract DNA and analyze it, learn how to use physics to make aerodynamic paper planes, and create 3-D objects in ways both high-tech and low-tech — with pens and printers, or geometry and paper. Much of what they are learning crosses disciplines within STEM. As students study the nervous system of a crayfish, in addition to studying physiology, they learn to collect data, create charts, analyze the data and compare results.

“It’s a really nice representation of how biology and mathematics work hand in hand,” Schroeder said.

Working shoulder to shoulder with colleagues across campus is an enriching experience for faculty and staff as well. Chemistry Professor Robert B. Grossman attributes it to the structure of the program. “Our partnership with College of Education was exemplary. They have the infrastructure for the camps already in place, so all we needed to do was design a curriculum and hire staff,” Grossman said.

For more information about See Blue STEM Camp, visit education.uky.edu/stem/camp.

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