When it became clear the COVID-19 pandemic would prevent STEM camps from taking place at universities across the U.S. this summer, faculty began exploring how the limitations could create new opportunities for elementary, middle, and high school campers.
During the past decade, the University of Kentucky’s STEM Camp has given students the chance to learn in university classrooms and access hands-on activities in subject matter typically only available in college courses. This summer, Virtual STEM Camp opened new doors, providing opportunity and access for students to explore and discover career options in STEM fields across six states.
Being online made it possible for camp to be taught by university faculty, graduate students, and preservice teachers at UK, Iowa State University, California State University Long Beach, University of Central Florida, Bellarmine University, Bowling Green State University, and Auburn University. Colleagues at the partnering universities knew one another through research and academic connections.
“We had some big ideas, but limited time, so we pooled resources to see if we could pull off a virtual experience for the students who had signed up to attend our in-person camps,” said Dr. Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, the UK College of Education associate dean and professor in the Department of STEM Education who co-founded UK’s STEM Camp in 2010. “Not seeing the students in the hallways of our buildings was difficult, but being able to interact with them, virtually, through our regular programming and adding additional career connections such as viewing research labs and work sites of employers in the STEM fields was exciting.”
By merging camps and collaborating on content, university STEM colleagues made it possible for students to spend three weeks building, creating, exploring, inventing and playing in their home environments while virtually collaborating with fellow students in their age range. A diverse group of budding engineers, mathematicians, chemists, scientists and computer programmers in grades 2-8 logged on to camp three days a week, with separate sessions for elementary and middle school campers. Each Friday, the students took a live tour of a business partner in Kentucky, California, or Iowa. They were able to ask questions, get live answers and a live look inside real STEM facilities.
As the country responds to both a pandemic and nation-wide protests against racism, the reasons behind the need for universities to offer STEM camps became amplified.
“Our camps have always worked to disrupt systems that consistently tell non-White, non-male people they do not belong in the STEM community,” Mohr-Schroeder said. “Our camp experiences seek to foster an inclusive sense of belonging for each and every participant. We emphasize empathy and collaboration as important tools to build trust, create relationships, and apply STEM concepts to real-world problems and to challenge unjust systems. As facilitators, we strive to bring a strengths-based, student-centered approach so that each and every student feels supported to show their brilliance in STEM.”
Those contributing to the camp from UK represented the colleges of Education and Engineering.
Faculty are hopeful UK’s STEM Experiences can be offered in-person next summer, but will build additional virtual opportunities for future camps and school year programming.