July 18, 2014

For the fifth summer, kids from Worcester and the surrounding area will immerse themselves in a two-week STEM-oriented experience at the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp, hosted by WPI’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.

From July 20 to August 1, some 48 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students will attend the residential, co-ed camp, living in campus dorms, exploring science, technology, engineering and math with hands-on activities, and forming the groundwork for future STEM studies and careers. The students attend free of charge.

A Media Day will be held on July 24 to show WPI and the greater community how younger students are learning and using their STEM knowledge, and how the camp helps foster and nurture that interest. From 9 a.m. to noon, Alden Hall will host speakers and activities, such as the Mars Lander Challenger Activity, where visitors can get a taste of what campers will be doing.

According to Lauren Monroe, director of the Worcester Think Tank and academic program director for the camp, the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp will show students how pervasive STEM applications are in day-to-day life. “My ultimate academic goal is to inspire an awareness to how prevalent and connected STEM disciplines are to everyday experiences and challenges,” she says. “I hope to inspire students to consider viable answers to ‘far-out’ questions, missions, and dreams.”

In addition to attending guest lectures, faculty panels, and field trips, campers will practice concepts in solar energy, heat transfer, system dynamics, computer modeling, project budgeting, and engineering design under the instruction of faculty from WPI and area schools. Using their knowledge, students will even design and prototype a Mars shelter to live and work in. For a different twist, an acrobat will teach the students to form a human pyramid.

“I am a huge advocate for supporting the underdog and underrepresented populations,” says Bonnie Hall, executive director of the camp and director of multicultural affairs at WPI. By offering the camp, WPI is able to give back to students who may not otherwise become exposed to science and technology, or be encouraged to go on to college, says Hall. Perhaps their families didn’t go to college, don’t have the inclination to support college goals, or aren’t sure what guidance to offer, she said.

The students are chosen through WPI’s outreach networks. All campers must have a grade average of “B” or better and submit a 250-word essay, and be recommended by their teachers. A crew of 12 WPI student camp counselors oversee the students throughout the program.

The WPI camp, one of only 20 sites selected nationwide, helps expose the students to STEM fields and shows them how it’s not only fun but a real career possibility. Founded in 1994 by former astronaut, Dr. Bernard Harris Jr., the camps grew with a 2006 corporate sponsorship by ExxonMobil. This year’s theme, Materials and Methods for a Sustainable World, shows students concepts that mix engineering and science, while also offering a far-reaching view of world issues.

Additionally, offering this kind of opportunity to middle school students helps increase the pool of potential STEM professionals. “The earlier the better,” says Hall. Getting them involved early has not only proven to be most impactful cognitively, socially, and academically, she says, but it also gets students on the right academic track if they think any of the STEM fields could be a potential educational path.

The firsthand experience is eye-opening. “The thread through the entire camp is a systems science view of the world, stressing that things are interconnected,” says Oleg Pavlov, associate professor of social science and policy studies, and WPI’s lead faculty member for the camp. “The camp curriculum will not just be a physics module, a biology module, and a math module. We will integrate them all and talk about how different parts work together.”

“They come to camp and blossom in new ways, and pretty quickly,” says Hall. She hopes that when the campers leave, they will have gained the confidence, knowledge, and self-esteem to know they can do whatever they want – including seeking a career in the STEM fields.