Saturday, July 29, 2017

Summer STEM Academy 2017 - Not That Horrible

For six years, I have facilitated my school district's Summer STEM Academy (originally Summer Technology Academy). There are two, two-week sessions, and kids entering grades 3-8 attend. It is a great learning experience for the participants, and for me, as I am always looking for ways to challenge participants and get them excited about the STEM disciplines. Additionally, in the last couple of years, the program has seen more "repeat customers," which means I need to change each session a bit to accommodate those who have already attended. It's an ever-evolving program.

During each two-week session, I learn about the participants, their skills, and their interests. Then I create experiences that are new for the group, I work to build upon the skills some already have, and I create mini training sessions for anyone who is interested in a certain topic. For example, this year we had a mini 3D pen session and an Arduino session. About half the time we work together on specific activities. The other half the time the participants work on something of their own choosing. This routine works well and creates a community of learners who are working because they want to, not because they have to. Some participants will work by themselves, rarely asking for help, others work in groups on massive projects. Participants can be seen teaching each other new skills, collaborating across grade levels, and working through what might seem impossible so they can create their vision.

This year, we had two high school volunteers join us who were past STEM Academy participants. It's wonderful to have these amazing young people return to the program in this capacity. It's also exciting to hear current participants already making plans to return as volunteers when they are in high school. At the end of each session, some of the participants already began to make plans to come back next summer, and there were some participants who were making plans to stay in touch after the program ended. There is a sort-of "camp culture" feel to it when kids are truly enjoying themselves and making memories and friends that last beyond the program. It's great to see kids from across our big school district and across grade levels finding others with whom they have things in common.

At the end of each STEM Academy, I always reflect on how I can bring some of the STEM Academy routine to the regular classroom during the school year. I couldn't create an identical program, but I think about ways I could build community, inspire independent learning, and encourage our students to be both teachers and learners. It takes some creative planning, but it is possible to bring the "camp culture" to the classroom.

One of my favorite quotes from the program came from an 8th grade participant. He wasn't convinced at first that learning in the summer was for him. When we chatted about the program, he admitted, "Well, it isn't that terrible here." We laughed and I told him I think this might be the best customer testimonial for summer learning ever!