Engineers, educators and students meet at Wadsworth camp

Summer camp sounds fun. Summer STEM camp sounds a bit more complicated — and challenging. In summer 2015, when Wadsworth City Schools, in northeastern Ohio, created a summer STEM camp from the ground up, teachers and administrators discovered just how challenging it can be. Fresh off the district’s second STEM camp, and benefiting from the experience gained, Michele D. Evans, director of instruction and professional development with Wadsworth, provided us with insights about the nuts and bolts of pulling off such a camp. And, Lori McIlvaine, a presenter at the camp, added her perspective.

First, Michele:
Q: What were the goals of the STEM camp held at Wadsworth High School on July 25 to 29?

Image of Michele D. Evans
Michele D. Evans, director of instruction and professional development with Wadsworth City Schools, spoke with us about creating a summer STEM camp.

A: Two years ago, we came up with the thought of having a STEM camp to allow our teachers to learn more about design-cycle thinking (ask-research-plan-create-improve) and the engineering/inquiry standard. The research on elementary teachers and STEM/engineering is that they are hesitant about these areas. We wanted to devise a creative and fun way to help them. We thought that if we provided high-quality professional development and then gave teachers the opportunity to use their new skills in a positive, fun, low-risk environment like a camp, they would be more likely to use their new skills in their classroom.

Last summer (2015), we trained two groups of teachers; one taught in camp, and the other did not. Our results were exactly what we expected — teachers who taught in camp used their skills more in the classroom following their camp experience.

Q: What was your role in the camp? How were other tasks divided up?

A: I work with the instructional and professional development pieces. I typically coordinate the PD, work with the teachers in identifying a camp theme and work with Susan Kohler, a NASA Glenn Research Center education specialist, to prepare the teacher training and then work with teachers on the design challenges we use.

Kip Shipley, a Wadsworth High School teacher, and I work on the purchasing of materials, and Kip recruits high school kids to help. One of our STEM camp teachers (Joe Shalala, a fourth-grade teacher from Lincoln Elementary in Wadsworth) designs the camp shirt, and Kip contacts a company to have shirts produced. Roger Havens, one of our elementary principals, coordinates logistics (drop-off, pick-up, collection of recyclables, etc.). The secretary in our office, Terri Doherty, keeps tabs on health plans, emergency medical forms, coordination of payments or waivers, etc. It takes a team to make such a large event happen efficiently and safely.

Image of a leader helping campers
Fourth grade teacher Joe Shalala works with students on the construction of their wind turbine as they study wind energy.

Q: How many students attended, and what grade levels and districts, or towns, did they represent?

A: We had 430 students (K-8) attend STEM camp this year, and 215 students attended our new coding/computer science camp (see details below). Last year, we had 400 kids attend STEM camp. This year, we extended an invitation to Barberton, Norton and Copley, which are part of our Four Cities Career Tech Compact, to train teachers for both camps. For every teacher trained, the district could bring 10 students to camp. Wadsworth, Barberton and Norton participated. We hope to get Copley in next year.

Q: How was the camp funded?

A: STEM camp was funded primarily through a grant from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation for the teacher-learning part (teachers received a stipend for participating in training, camp planning and the camp). Each camp participant paid $25 to help cover additional costs. We also had contributions of training from NASA Glenn and financial support from Alcoa, SME Education Foundation’s PRIME initiative, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Mike Foreman (a former NASA astronaut and a Wadsworth High School graduate), and National Carpet Mill Outlet (donation of lanyards for students).

Q: Was this a projects-based camp? How was that carried out? What was the theme? And what projects did specific grade levels undertake?

A: Our camp is all project-based learning. Our theme this year was “What’s the matter with energy?” and we studied matter and energy. Teachers participated in two days of learning and a day of planning with NASA Glenn’s Susan Kohler, and then they had five days of camp to practice their skills and see how their work came to life with students.

They used and adapted design challenges they learned in training (and added some, too). Design challenges focused on kinetic and potential energy (ball runs, eggs drops and lunar-lander drops), wind energy (kite design and wind turbines) and solar energy (radiation, protection from solar energy and creation of solar cookers).

Q: Lori McIlvaine participated. What was her role? Do you think showcasing a woman with technical experience might have inspired girls who participated in the camp?

A: Our district has a K-12 STEM initiative, and our STEM camp is representative of our district population (52 percent male/48 percent female). But, in middle school and high school, we do not see the same distribution of male/female in our elective STEM courses. We have been trying to influence those numbers, and I absolutely believe that allowing girls to interact with female engineers and women in technical occupations is influential.

Lori did a presentation on a solar autoclave she created and used in Third World countries without access to electricity. She also demonstrated a hyperbolic solar cooker (she cooked eggs — it was awesome). One of our high school interns is studying biomedical engineering at The Ohio State University, and she is a great role model for the kids, too. We also had Ryan Snitil, a design engineer from Moen, talk with students about how he uses the design cycle in his work.

Image of campers at Wadsworth camp
Students in 5th-8th grade work on a design during the camp.

Q: Tell us about your camp on computer coding. Who attended, and what was covered? How was the material presented?

A: We held a coding/computer science camp the week before STEM camp. We had 215 students come to that camp (first through 12th grades). We used the same model as STEM camp (two days of teacher training, one day of planning, five days of camp) with the same end in mind — if teachers have a great, fun coding experience, are they more likely to use coding in their classrooms once they return to school? We’ll be following up this fall to see.

We used a combination of curriculum for first- and second-graders and Google CS First materials with third- through 12th-graders. The Google materials are produced in levels of difficulty and arranged by themes kids really like: music and sound, friends, animation, game design, fashion and design, etc. Each day we did at least one “unplugged” activity where kids learned the logic behind coding and computer science (binary numbers, directions, etc.).

Joe Shalala and Joe Snyder, a third-grade teacher from Valley View Elementary in Wadsworth, were the co-leaders of this camp. They did the teacher training and coordination of camp activities. I was the camp administrator, and, again, our office provided logistical support.

Q: Will you be holding these or similar camps next summer? If so, how might you change things up?

A: We hope to hold both camps again next summer. We will be looking for funding for both endeavors again. We want teachers to own their learning, so the camp themes will be teacher driven. Our teachers said this is great learning for them. We want to keep giving those opportunities to learn and keep moving forward in terms of depth and complexity of learning, both for teachers and kids. Camp is a great way to allow teachers to have fun, learn and try new things but also for kids to have an awesome STEM summer experience. We have a few other ideas for new STEM camps, and if we could obtain a larger funding source, we think we could add two camp ideas to the mix that kids and teachers would love.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about the camps?

A: Our camps are extensions of what we do in our classrooms every day. It is just a different environment, and it’s a way for teachers to feel confident in taking risks with their teaching. I have seen tremendous growth from our teachers as they create the design challenges for camp.
The first year was hard. We had no idea what we were doing, but we had 400 kids coming, and we had to figure it out quickly. We have learned a lot, and our teachers are much more skilled at design thinking and teaching. After we planned camp, one of the teachers said, “This was so much easier this year!” Their learning and teaching have advanced so much in STEM that it is much easier — it is the way we think and teach now.

We have worked throughout the year to provide ongoing training and opportunities for teachers to collaborate and create design challenges together. Camp is an unconventional way to do teacher professional development and learning, but what we have been doing here in Wadsworth with STEM has been unconventional, too. We haven’t adopted a model from anyone — we have listened to our kids and our community and created what they need and want.

I think the organic nature of what we are doing and where we are going is one of the most exciting things about our STEM initiative. It has been really gratifying, as an educator, to be a part of something that has been team driven and so much fun. And it’s never done; there are always ways to improve or to raise the expectations and create a new path. We are fortunate to have awesome teachers and a wonderful community that has supported our STEM work. We have enjoyed sharing our learning with our colleagues from other districts, too.

Image of Lori McIlvaine
Lori McIlvaine, a project engineer from northeastern Ohio, told us about her role as a keynote speaker at the camp.

Next, we contacted Lori McIlvaine, a project engineer from northeastern Ohio, to tell us about her participation in the Wadsworth STEM camp:

Q: What was your role at the Wadsworth STEM camp?

A: I was a “keynote” speaker at the beginning of the day. And then groups of students came outside to see me demonstrate solar cooking — I cooked an egg on a solar grill (to demonstrate) an understanding of, and appreciation for, direct solar.

Q: As a woman with an engineering and technical background, did you hope to inspire girls to consider STEM-based careers? What, if any, challenges have you faced, and what might you counsel girls who could follow in your footsteps?

A: I think it is very important to make sure girls feel like they can become engineers if they want to. I’ve had a few interesting experiences — once, a man told me I was too giddy to succeed in the department I was in. But otherwise, I’ve felt very accepted and appreciated in my work. I didn’t really think about it that much, and I would advise girls to do the same.

Q: How do you think educators can keep more students, both boys and girls, interested in STEM courses and STEM-based careers?

A: Concrete applications are important. Otherwise, math and science get very abstract as you advance, and it is hard to see how they’re applicable.

Lori McIlvaine at Wadsworth STEM Camp 2016 second photo
Lori McIlvaine demonstrates solar power to a group of campers.

Q: On a separate topic, tell us about your idea for a solar-powered autoclave to sanitize medical equipment in Third World countries.

A: I actually adopted the idea from a stalled project at the National University of Engineering in Nicaragua. I worked on it at the University of Dayton in my senior design clinic, as my senior thesis and in UD’s Business Plan Competition.

Q: Where does it stand now?

A: The project was passed to MIT’s D-Lab, which works on medical devices for developing countries. There are a few working prototypes there and in Nicaragua, and they continue to collaborate and work on it, but only as funding becomes available. I worked on a box cooker design, but now the design is a parabolic, with (basically) a pressure cooker at the focal point.

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