Friday nights were like graduation at Stevenson Towers this summer.
The cafeteria tables were draped in red and black cloths. Parents arrived after work in sundresses, suits or coveralls and steel-toed boots, on time so they wouldn’t miss dinner and the ceremony.
As campers showed off their week’s worth of accomplishments and received their certificates and NIU T-shirts, audiences cheered, graduating campers and their counselors hugged each other tight, and parents embarrassed their kids by following them to the front of the room with cameras.
Nearly 160 students from Rockford Public School District 205 learned how to live and work like college freshmen this summer. From dorm culture and cafeteria food to advanced curriculum and problem-based learning, eighth through twelfth graders previewed university life.
Each week, a new group of 25 to 50 Rockford high-schoolers arrived at NIU and began the journey that organizers hope will eventually lead to a college diploma.
“We are delighted to be working in partnership with the school district, students and their families to provide an on-campus experience that we believe will be life-changing for the students,” said Rena Cotsones, assistant vice president of regional engagement in Rockford.
At dinner one Friday night in Stevenson, Ciara, who is entering 11th grade this fall, showed her mother the maze-like video game she created in the video game design track of camp. Ciara enjoyed the camp’s focus on “entrepreneurship and skill building for college.” She said that the camp helped her realize the importance of reviewing and reinforcing concepts she had learned in high school.
“You have to make sure you understand these things,” Ciara said of the reading, writing, and math lessons she attended during the week, “because they are going to come up again and again in life.”
Her mother was particularly interested in having her experience dorm life. “Being an only child, she needed to get used to that atmosphere,” her mother said. “It was good for her to experience living with someone who had very different opinions on things.”
The Rockford campers experienced an entire week of different opinions and new experiences.
The Rockford camp program’s mission was two-fold: to increase campers’ academic skills and introduce them to college life. Students also had the opportunity to explore possible career paths. The camps showed students that they can go to college and change the course of their lives.
During morning sessions at the NIU camps, the students participated in math, reading, and writing to strengthen their foundational skills and raise their achievement levels. In the afternoons, students chose one of three week-long programs: video game design, health careers, or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Afternoon sessions made use of problem-based learning.
Students were presented with a challenge and spent the week applying their new skills to create solutions. Throughout the camp, organizers planned several hands-on activities to fully engage the students.
In the STEM sessions, students learned about engineering and electricity in a university lab and then designed sculptures that moved. NIU STEM Outreach coordinator Patricia Sievert, who organized the STEM activities, applauded the sculptors.
“These campers were highly imaginative. They developed interesting sculptures that demonstrated their new grasp of physics and engineering,” Sievert said.
Students in the health careers sessions saw many different sides of the health industry with the College of Health and Human Sciences.
They visited clinical labs and conducted tests, such as saliva swabs, with clinical students and faculty.
They also participated in physical activities that stimulate the mind and planned and prepared brain-boosting meals with help from energetic Public Health and Health Education students and staff.
In NIU’s food labs, the students learned about food science and nutrition and dietetics from students in Family, Consumer and Nutrition Science. Some Rockford students studied personality and behavior in a mental health lab by taking a color-based personality quiz.
In the Physical Therapy lab, students raced on crutches and learned about human muscle and skeletal structure. Students interested in becoming nurses visited the School of Nursing’s lab and enjoyed what they described as a “creepy and cool” hands-on experience working with simulation mannequins.
In the game track, future video game designers created games that were fun to make and play.
Jason Underwood, senior instructional designer at the Digital Convergence Lab, was excited to see students developing their own unique concepts. “I’m always surprised at the end of the week to see just how good the games are,” Underwood said.
One student, who designed a game about a race of super-soldier bunnies, said, “This is my first experience with game design and it’s very cool. I love it because it’s all about being creative.”
Staff members helped students move beyond simple design concepts by incorporating math and basic programming techniques. Another student perfected equations for the “boss level” of his video game by calculating the steps per second that the boss, a rattling skeleton that shot fireballs, would need to take to give his players a real challenge.
On Friday nights, campers demonstrated their creations for their families. Their parents excitedly played video games; flipped through scrapbooks, meal plans and personality quizzes; and watched the kinetic sculptures twirl and spin.
Many of the Rockford campers had not considered college as an option for themselves. On campus at NIU, they were exposed to many new ideas and possibilities.
“You just never know what kind of seed you’re going to plant,” said Stacy Jackson, program coordinator for the College of Health and Human Sciences health careers track.
Throughout the camps, Rockford students were mentored by current NIU students who accompanied them to classes, meals, and overnight stays in dorms, all the while sharing their stories about becoming university students and preparing for careers.
Joy Newman, an NIU senior in public health, spent five weeks as a residential counselor in the Rockford camp program. Her tool for motivating campers was persistent encouragement.
“Sometimes kids don’t want to do the work or participate, but we just keep encouraging them and encouraging them and they get more into it,” Newman said. “It wasn’t like pulling teeth anymore. They seemed to start enjoying the work.”
Several counselors reported that one of the most frequently asked questions was, “What if I don’t know what I want to be?” The counselors reassured students that college is about learning new things and “finding out what you really like.”
“Students are really able to see themselves in their residential counselors,” camp director Felicia Bohanon said. “By the time they end the week, they’ve really gotten to know the counselors and see the success they’ve had and the challenges they overcame. These NIU students are great role models.”
Throughout the Rockford Camps program, organizers encouraged parents take an active role in their student’s college preparation.
During camp orientation sessions, parents received information about scholarships, state and federal financial aid programs and educational requirements for incoming freshman and transfer students. These tools help families navigate through the often-confusing world of financial aid and provide practical tips for motivating students to succeed. Organizers hope to continue reaching out at the high schools throughout the school year with additional college preparation and tutoring sessions for students and financial planning sessions for their parents, many of whom did not attend college themselves.
For NIU, the Rockford camps were truly an “all hands on deck” effort.
Faculty, staff and students from four colleges – Health and Human Sciences, Engineering and Engineering Technology and Liberal Arts and Sciences – planned and supported the educational sessions. The College of Education’s department of Educational Technology, Research & Assessment (ETRA) donated the use of computer labs.
The office of the Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Development donated 180 zip drives. TCF Bank contributed book bags for the camps, and the Center for P-20 Engagement filled the bags with school supplies and provided other support for the camps throughout the summer.
Bohanon, who is also director of the NIU Office of Precollegiate Programs, reported the camps were very popular with students. In evaluations from parents and students, the sessions received a 90 percent approval rating. More than a few campers asked to come back for additional weeks.
“You can be successful academically,” Bohanon said. “That’s the message to campers. You can definitely go to college and you can succeed.”
by Gillian King-Cargile