NIU’s STEM camps foster creativity, career exploration

Campers-by-BusLearning is happening year-round at NIU.

Over the summer, the next generation of innovators explored career options at NIU’s STEM summer camps.

“Starting as early as middle school, students begin defining their career possibilities,” says Pati Sievert, director of NIU STEM Outreach. “Research shows that serious career interests motivate students to work harder in middle school and high school to develop their knowledge and skills. This summer, we saw them become deeply engaged with a rich diversity of STEM fields.”

NIU’s STEM Outreach hosted a record-breaking number of campers at its residential summer camps. Nearly 300 students in fifth- through 12th-grades came to campus from all over the United States and from Asia to explore concepts and careers in science, technology, engineering and math. This was triple the number of campers who participated in last year’s smash summer season.

Jeremy Benson, STEM Outreach’s assistant director of summer camps, was excited about the wide variety of topics the camps covered this year. “Whether you wanted to learn how roller-coasters work, understand the science of art, design video games, or even prevent future wars between humans and robots,” Benson says, “STEM Outreach offered a camp for you.”

Students in Engineering Amusement learned about the physics of thrill rides by constructing their own roller coasters.
Students in Engineering Amusement learned about the physics of thrill rides by constructing their own roller coasters.

STEM Outreach’s camps included:

  • “Engineering Amusement,” where middle school students studied roller coasters, amusement parks and even carnival confections, and then spent a day doing experiments at Six Flags Great America
  • Exploring STEM,” where middle school students investigated STEM concepts through activities with art, nature, waterbotics, LEGO EV3 Robotics or chemistry
  • “STEM Career Exploration,” where high school students worked with experts in health care, engineering, science or video game design, and participated in activities that professionals would do on the job
  • “Preventing the Robopocalypse,” where high school students used Daniel H. Wilson’s best-selling novel “Robopocalypse” as a focal point for exploring robotics, ethics, art and design and creative writing.

STEM-Through-ArtFor one of the activities in Exploring STEM Through Art, SMARTspace@NIU coordinator Mary Baker led campers in creating an image that defied the laws of physics and then using a variety of computer programs to create tessellations. Their pieces are similar to the work of M.C. Escher.

Additional departments joined in the fun and engaged even more students in STEM learning.

The Digital Convergence Lab hosted several day camps where students explored both the technical and creative side of game design. DCL staff guided students in animation, virtual worlds, character design, story development, logic and sound effects. The College of Engineering and Engineering Technology offered camps in nanotechnology and green energy as well as an Engineering Summer Academy, where high school students participated in intense, hands-on challenges and experiments while working alongside faculty, alumni, and current NIU students in CEET’s state-of-the-art laboratories. Other offerings included the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences External Programming’s popular Archeology Day Camp and the College of Education’s “Argue Like a Scientist: Alternative Energy Camp.”

All of the STEM camps emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of current and future careers. “Our camps are interdisciplinary because life is interdisciplinary,” says Gillian King-Cargile, who coordinates NIU’s STEM Read and helped plan Preventing the Robopocalypse.”

“It was great to see the campers who came to learn about robotics interacting with the campers who came to learn about writing. At first, they didn’t know if they would have anything in common, but they bonded over their favorite sci-fi books and shows and collaborated throughout the camp to help each other grow and learn.”

King-Cargile says that the students also had a blast meeting Daniel Wilson, who visited the camp and gave students tips on programming their robots and working on their sci-fi stories. “This experience of working collaboratively and interacting with experts is something that will help students get excited about learning as well as prepare for life after school.”

Group-RobowlingIt’s not all labs and laptops. During one hands-on activity, campers at “Preventing the Robopocalypse” created a robot costume for one of their counselors and then took turns giving him simple commands to “program” him to bowl.

“We had a very diverse group this year,” Sievert says. “We had local and regional students from rural and urban backgrounds as well as 50 international campers from China, Taiwan, France and Costa Rica. We also had NIU students from Taiwan, Germany, France and Bulgaria acting as counselors and interpreters.”

Many of the NIU students who served as instructors and counselors are teacher candidates.

“This was also a rich learning opportunity for the NIU students who worked at our camps,” Sievert says. “These weeks of intense, collaborative work with young learners have been like teacher boot camp for our NIU students. I’m sure the experience will help them prepare for career success.”

Sievert says she was impressed by the students’ spirit of cooperation, creativity, and engagement throughout the summer. “Within a day, the Taiwanese students and the U.S. students were completely integrated.”

“Watching the students work through their challenges and improve their abilities both in and out of the classroom was a reward in and of itself,” says counselor and NIU student Jon Newman. “Getting to do so in STEM is just a bonus.”

STEM Outreach plans to expand summer camp offerings with more weeks and additional topics coming in summer 2015. Until then, students in fourth-grade and beyond can continue to explore STEM by registering for STEM Saturday classes.

These classes at NIU’s DeKalb and Naperville campuses will cover everything from participating in the LEGO EV3 Robotics Space Challenge, to programming Arduinos for use in homemade high-tech gadgets, to becoming a STEM Diva by exploring the chemistry of lip gloss and creating 3D printing jewelry.

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