U.Va. Engineering School Youth Camps Inspire Future Scientists

July 31, 2008 — A growing concern among U.S. educators, policymakers and business leaders is that K-12 students' diminishing interest and performance in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called "STEM" fields — could lead to a shortfall of the  skilled, tech-savvy workers needed for the United States to remain a world leader in science and innovation.

Recent summer camps held at the U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science are addressing this concern. By introducing youth to engineering through fun, engaging experiences, these camps aim to inspire greater numbers from younger generations, to study engineering in college and eventually pursue science-related careers.

"The Engineering School is in an excellent position to help promote education in STEM fields among all K-12 students in our region, especially underrepresented minority students," said Carolyn Vallas, director of the Center for Diversity in Engineering. "During our recent camp, you could see the proverbial light bulbs go off when these students were able to have fun with hands-on scientific experiences."

Vallas is referring to the annual ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Camp, which welcomed a diverse group of more than 50 middle-school students to the Engineering School in late July.

During the two-week camp, students experienced everything from the construction of a solar vehicle to learning about the wonders of space exploration from the camp's founder and first African-American to walk in space, Dr. Bernard Harris Jr., the president of The Harris Foundation Inc., a non-profit organization he founded in 1998 to develop math/science education and crime prevention programs for America's youth. Among other activities, campers were able to build an altimeter, learn cryptography and visit an observatory. 

The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Camp was offered to campers at no cost thanks to the support of the ExxonMobil Foundation. Additional support for the camp was provided by Lockheed Martin.

At the annual Systems Robotics Design Camp, also held in July, 25 middle-school students were introduced to the world of systems engineering by building their own robots and then completing various challenges. The campers experienced systems engineering by observing complex behaviors emerge from robots programmed with a simple set of rules.

"This camp allows kids the opportunity to apply systems engineering in creative and exciting ways, whether they were programming robots to collaborate in creating colorful artwork or to compete in robotic soccer matches," said Reid Bailey, assistant professor in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering. "In terms of introducing these concepts to young people, or adults for that matter, nothing beats having the kids apply the concepts through open-ended, hands-on projects."

With the support of Northrop Grumman, Sperry Marine and Lockheed Martin, the camp offered need-based scholarships to nearly 40 percent of this year's campers.

Other examples of K-12 outreach activities at the Engineering School include:

•    The annual Engineering Open House, which welcomes hundreds of K-12 students to visit Thornton Hall each February and learn about the various opportunities offered in SEAS nine departments.

•    The Introduction to Engineering program that each summer brings qualified rising junior and senior high school students to Grounds to learn about engineering, math and science, and also the requirements to study these subjects at U.Va. While the program traditionally reached out to in-state students, it is now attracting students from around the country.

•    A High School Visitation Weekend presented by the Society of Women Engineers, which invites rising female junior and senior high school students to the Engineering School to learn from women faculty and participate in hands-on engineering experiences.

•    Juntos Podemos, a weekend Engineering School visitation program organized by the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineersand geared toward Hispanic and other underrepresented minority interested in pursuing engineering. 

•    Various tutoring programs that reach K-12 students, such as the National Society of Black Engineers' support of the Computers4Kids program, and GEMS: Girls Excited about Math and Science, a middle-school tutoring program that connects female students at the Engineering School with local female middle-school students.

"Concerns about the shortage of students pursuing STEM fields are very real and we are actively addressing them," James H. Aylor, dean of U.Va.'s Engineering School, said. "Reaching out to younger students furthers our mission to educate the next leaders in technology and society."

— By Zak Richards