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Alumni Magazine

Summer on campus

K-12 engineering camps return to in-person activities

Summer camp students participate in competition.

At 9 a.m. on a July Wednesday, more than 70 middle school students filed into a classroom, waiting to be assigned the real-world problem they’d be solving that day. Clustered together, campers tackled complex problems like how to construct a moving boat or how to stop a viral outbreak. Using cardboard, aluminum foil, balloons and more, these campers were trying to solve some of the fundamental challenges in engineering.

These students were just a few of nearly 1,000 rising kindergarteners through 12th-graders who participated in one of the 26 American Camp Association Accredited summer camps at the College of Engineering. Summer camps are run annually by The Engineering Place in the Office of Academic Affairs, as well as by several other departments in the College.

After two years of virtual camps, children and parents were excited for the return of in-person activities.

“While the virtual camps went well these past two years, nothing takes the place of in-person, hands-on work,” said Susan D’Amico, coordinator of engineering K-12 outreach extension for The Engineering Place. “We’re replicating the work that engineers do out in industry with different angles of interest that children can connect with.”

Since 1999, The Engineering Place has invited students to investigate and solve engineering-related challenges each day during residential and day camps.

“It’s exciting for the campers to return to our campus where they can solve fun challenges together throughout the week as they learn about engineering and engineering careers,” said Leah Bug, assistant director of The Engineering Place. “We like to show campers that engineering isn’t scary, but really fun and it’s something they can do.”

Activities encouraged students to learn about the engineering habits of mind — systems thinking, creativity, optimism, collaboration, persistence and conscientiousness.

“These engineering habits of mind are a mindset engineers utilize in solving the world’s problems, but it also translates well for campers in everyday life, both at home and school,” Bug said.

Departments host camps for high schoolers

The Engineering Place collaborated with engineering departments to host 16 residential camps for rising high school juniors and seniors. Camps were available in biological and agricultural engineering; biomedical engineering; chemical and biomolecular engineering; civil, construction and environmental engineering; electrical and computer engineering; industrial and systems engineering; materials science and engineering; mechanical and aerospace engineering; and paper science and engineering.

The UNC/NC State Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) hosted a week-long camp, “The Human Machine,” which introduced 20 rising high school juniors and seniors to challenges in the field.

Two female summer camp participants work on a project together.

Students brainstormed, prototyped and pitched innovative ideas to counselors, family and peers. Final projects included self-sterilizing syringes, shopping carts able to hook onto wheelchairs and motorized vehicles, and exoskeleton arms that reduce astronauts’ muscle mass loss.

To expand who would be able to participate in the camp, Aryssa Simpson, a third-year biomedical engineering Ph.D. student and a camp lead, secured five seats as scholarship positions for students from underrepresented communities. These scholarships were provided by a corporate donor.

“I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to expose myself to engineering growing up,” she said. “Last year’s camp didn’t have much diversity and that became a main motivator to try to
expand access.”

With assistance from the North Carolina Mathematics and Science Education Network Pre-College Program, Simpson connected with five local high school students.

Simpson sees the summer camp as a chance to give future college students the confidence to pursue a degree in science while addressing the hesitations around medicine that exist in underrepresented communities.

“There’s a natural hesitancy in minority communities regarding medicine, and many minority students don’t allow themselves to investigate their interests in science because they don’t feel smart enough,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for students to see what the world could provide for them.”

Through the Department of Nuclear Engineering’s (NE) three-week Young Investigators’ Summer Program, 18 rising high school juniors and seniors explored nuclear engineering’s global impact.

“We’re introducing students in a more holistic way to various elements of nuclear science and technology,” said Lisa Marshall, director of outreach, retention & engagement and director of the Young Investigators’ Summer Program. “They see some aspects of nuclear engineering in high school physics and chemistry courses, but there’s not enough time to explore their interests.”

During lectures, graduate students and faculty members presented on topics including reactors, power plants and nuclear engineering’s role in health and environmental sciences. Lab projects in radiation detection and light sensitive monitors for NC State’s PULSTAR reactor and plasma facilities allowed students to operationalize their classroom instruction. Students got to see concepts in action during field trips to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Biomedical Research Imaging Center and to the Framatome Technical Training Center, an advanced training center located in Lynchburg, Virginia, focused on nuclear site maintenance.

These experiences showed students how interconnected the field is with daily life, and how they might be able to contribute.

“I’m interested in learning more about energy, like nuclear batteries and generators,” said a student from Raleigh, NC. “I want to figure out solutions that help the world.”

While familiarizing students with the world of nuclear engineering, the program also helps them acclimate to a university environment.

“Exposing students to a very exciting and integral field while helping them navigate ‘university life’ before they get here is my favorite part,” Marshall said. “Seeing some of these students in the future on campus, you can tell they walk with a bit more confidence.”