At the University of Kentucky, STEM Experiences Camps have become an enduring opportunity for university faculty to engage with school-age youth to increase their interest and knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Educators and others who seek to grow students’ interest in STEM are celebrating National STEM Day, which takes place annually on Nov. 8. Recently, the faculty, students, staff and community partners who collaborate on UK’s STEM Experiences Camps reflected on the impact of making positive STEM experiences accessible to youth.
“STEM is all around us, everywhere you look. In schools, we are seeing more integration between these subjects and that’s great because that’s real life,” said Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, PhD, professor of STEM education and current STEM Experiences Camps co-director. “By seeing how content studied in these subjects is integrated in real-world applications, young people are growing up knowing how to collaborate and communicate around STEM issues, and they are going to have a content knowledge they can apply to solve real-world problems or challenges they see in communities.”
During UK STEM Experiences Camps, students in grades 2-12 have an early opportunity to picture themselves on a college campus and a chance to build confidence in their abilities to use STEM in careers and everyday life.
The day camps’ hands-on experiments and engaging activities are a collaboration among UK's College of Education, Stanley and Karen Pigman College of Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences and College of Medicine. The camps were founded in 2010 by Craig Schroeder, PhD, STEM education director at Fayette County Public Schools’ Rise STEM Academy for Girls; Mark Evans, robotics teacher at Fayette County Public Schools’ Jessie Clark Middle School; and Bruce Walcott, PhD, professor in the UK Pigman College of Engineering.
The camps open students’ minds to the possibilities they can pursue as mathematicians, health care providers, educators, chemists, engineers, researchers and computer programmers, to name only a few of the career possibilities in STEM-related fields.
“Recasting STEM as something that happens outside of school and for fun in the summer is a great way to help children and teens build those strong STEM interests and identities,” said Jonathan Thomas, PhD, professor and chair in the UK College of Education Department of STEM Education. “They get to meet many different leaders in STEM fields and have some really positive experiences on a university campus. It’s not too often you get to build a robot or extract DNA from a strawberry with a world-renowned professor, but at STEM camp, that’s a daily occurrence.”
The research Mohr-Schroeder and her team have conducted shows students are less likely to lose interest and motivation in STEM subjects when they are given exposure, access, and affirming experiences in STEM and shown why the subjects are important tools for problem-solving.
“Working with students at camp is very rewarding in many ways, as one sees the excitement in them when they are learning new concepts,” said Robin Cooper, PhD, a professor of biology in the UK College of Arts and Sciences who, in addition to working with STEM Experiences Camps, has been involved in developing science outreach to youth, both in Kentucky and globally. “The kids are so excited to tell you what they know and to guess what they expect to happen in the experiments. Also, it is rewarding to see undergraduate helpers interact with the kids.”
Youth are often inspired by mentors at the camp and see them as role models — particularly when they meet mentors who look like them or think similarly to them, or who are following a similar path.
“Our mentors are critical for our young people,” said Mohr-Schroeder, who is also senior associate dean for academic programs and partnerships in the UK College of Education. “All too commonly, we hear from students who grew up feeling they do not belong in the STEM community, particularly among non-white and non-male people. We need to disrupt the systems that make some feel as if STEM is not for them.”
Likewise, being part of STEM Experiences Camps helps mentors see the importance of spreading positive messages about STEM to young people. The Summer STEM Camps partner with UK START, building upon the STEM ecosystem it has created and cultivating a pay it forward model. For some mentors, engaging with school-age youth and witnessing the joy of learning provides inspiration to go into teaching careers. For those already majoring in education, working with campers helps them gain teaching experience, receive mentorship from faculty, develop content knowledge in STEM subjects, and witness the powerful impact of the camps’ hands-on teaching approaches.
“By giving them an informal, low-stakes environment to explore, every student can show their brilliance in STEM and mentors can gain confidence in their ability to facilitate this type of learning," Mohr-Schroeder said.
In Summer 2023, young people participating in the camps got to experience engaging expertise from:
- Robin Cooper, PhD, professor of biology, UK College of Arts and Sciences
- Jonathan Thomas, PhD, professor of mathematics education, UK College of Education
- Sahar Alameh, PhD, assistant professor of science education, UK College of Education
- Kishonna Gray-Denson, PhD, associate professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies, UK College of Arts and Sciences
- Lin Xiang, PhD, assistant professor of science education, UK College of Education
- Rosie Lanphere, PhD, associate professor of exercise science, UK College of Education
- Bruce Walcott, PhD, professor of electrical and computer engineering, UK Pigman College of Engineering
- Luke Bradley, PhD, Chellgren Endowed Professor and acting chair, UK College of Medicine Department of Neuroscience
- Margaret Mohr-Schroeder, PhD, professor of STEM education, College of Education
- Rebecca Krall, PhD, associate professor of science education, College of Education
- Mark Evans, robotics teacher, Jessie Clark Middle School, Fayette County
- Robbie Randall, science and technology teacher, Beaumont Middle School, Fayette County
- Shane Ware, robotics teachers, Bryan Station High School, Fayette County
- Rusty Wilhoite, engineering teacher, Bryan Station High School, Fayette County
- UK Sustainability Officer Shane Tedder
- Reece Turner, robotics teacher, Northern Middle School, Pulaski County
- Melissa Merscham, PhD, assistant professor of exercise science, UK College of Education
- Hannah Brown, health promotion graduate student and #iCANendthetrend college facilitator, UK College of Education
- Julia Estes, #iCANendthetrend program coordinator, UK College of Education
- Michael Samaan, PhD, associate professor of biomechanics, UK College of Education
- Sarah Lanham, Kinesiology and Health Promotion doctoral student in exercise science, UK College of Education
- Jamal Thruston, Kinesiology and Health Promotion student in exercise science, UK College of Education
- Erica Hill, Kinesiology and Health Promotion doctoral student in health promotion, UK College of Education
- Haley Bergstrom, PhD, associate professor of exercise science, UK College of Education
- Brigitte Perkins, graduate research assistant and doctoral student in digital geography, UK College of Arts and Sciences
- Ken Graham, PhD, associate professor of chemistry, UK College of Arts and Sciences, with graduate students Kyle Baustert, Harindi Atapattu and Augustine Yusuf
- Ann-Frances Miller, PhD, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, UK College of Arts and Sciences, with undergraduate students Olivia Poczatek and Hena Kachroo
- April French, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of chemistry, general chemistry lab coordinator and CHEMCamp coordinator, with graduate assistant Ellie Jull, UK College of Arts and Sciences
- Doo Young Kim, PhD, associate professor of chemistry, UK College of Arts and Sciences, with graduate students Prakhar Sharma and Nadeesha Kothalawala
- Aron Huckaba, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry, UK College of Arts and Sciences, and graduate student Stephanie Sorensen
UK’s STEM Experiences Camps have been replicated in seven states through partnerships with university faculty. Each has created their own version of what camp should look like based on the needs of schools and communities in their region. Together, faculty across the replication sites are studying the impact of STEM camps — such as whether camps help students gain increased interest and confidence in STEM and the camps’ effectiveness in recruiting teachers to the field.
As an engineering professor, Walcott’s first camp experience was the National Science Foundation Young Scholars Engineering Ahead summer program in the late 1980s. He taught a group of regional high school students about robotics and engineering.
“Since then, I have led or assisted with many other summer programs but none as rewarding as our UK STEM Camp,” Walcott said. “In addition to helping young minds learn about the ‘E’ in STEM, I thoroughly enjoy working with fellow faculty and local middle school and high school teachers as well as the undergraduate and graduate students who are an essential part of the camp. Our STEM camp is developing talent for the engineering, science, technology and mathematic challenges that our world will encounter in the future.”
The university has been a longtime innovator, incubator and leader in STEM. UK received National Science Foundation funding for the Appalachian Rural Systemic Initiative in 1993, led by Wimberly Royster, PhD Twenty years later, UK continues to develop robust opportunities and break down barriers for access and high-quality experiences in STEM, Mohr-Schroeder said.
Community members of all ages can celebrate STEM during an upcoming STEM movie matinee. Register now to watch a free screening of the film “Gravity” 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Lyric Theatre. The event will include free popcorn, drinks and snacks, as well as a discussion with STEM Education professors about which details in the film are scientifically accurate. The film is rated PG-13. The showing of "Gravity" is hosted by the Department of STEM Education in celebration of the UK College of Education’s 100th anniversary.
For information on 2024 STEM Experiences Camps registration opportunities, look for updates at https://education.uky.edu/stem/camp/. For information on applying for STEM START for 2024-25, look for updates at https://start.uky.edu/start-students.