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At Camp STEM, students get a taste of college life

Camp STEM students.

In WVU Tech’s Robert C. Byrd Learning Resource Center there’s a near-constant buzz of whirring motors and clicking keyboards. It’s punctuated by bouts of laughter and the exclamation that the little machine zigged when it should have zagged. It’s the sound of Camp STEM’s popular robotics class. It’s also the sound of high school students learning that a fascination with STEM can be a very good thing.

Camp STEM was hosted at WVU Tech June 18-23. The program is a weeklong immersion in career exploration and STEM concepts ranging from civil engineering to biology and everything in between.

The camp has been around for more than a decade and it has connected hundreds of students to concepts and careers they never imagined were within their reach.

"The camp is intended for high school students to learn all about science, technology, engineering and math,” said Dr. Kimberlyn Gray, a professor of chemical engineering at WVU Tech who has been running the camp since 2009.

“They get to take classes in a wide variety of subjects. We want them to find out what they like and what they don't like; maybe narrow down what they want to do in the future and find out some of the things that they need to do to be able to get there," she said.

Over in the Innovation Building, another group of students tears masking tape in long strips to fasten a plastic bottle to a paper towel tube. Others gently balance a row of dominos along the edge of a table. They’re building Rube Goldberg devices for the camp’s problem solving class.

Andrew Stanley, a 14-year-old rising sophomore from Fayetteville, West Virginia, took a break from his construction to reflect on the week’s activities. He wants to be a Biosystems engineer one day, and said that he was fascinated by what he learned about water purification and wastewater management during the program.

"I want to help the environment as best I can. As a biosystems engineer, you would have to deal with water a lot, so knowing how water systems work and how to clean water is very important to that role," he said.

Thomas Packer is a 14-year-old freshman from Wellsburg, West Virginia. He wants to be an engineer, too. But Camp STEM is all about exploration, and Packer found another interest he didn’t know he had: forensics.

"I've really enjoyed all the forensic science and investigation stuff,” he said. “Especially touring the house with fake crime scenes in it. It was really an amazing experience."

Camp STEM is about more than robots and bridges, however. Students attend college-style classes and lectures. They live in residence halls and eat at the Bears Den dining hall. They work with current WVU Tech students and professors who specialize in particular fields. It’s a true-to-life college experience.

"I think that fact that they have a chance to sit down and talk to college students who are in these majors is important,” said Gray. “For a lot of these kids, we see that it's the first time they get to realize that being interested in science or math is a really good thing and that they can make a career out of it."

Camp counselor Logan Dudley, a sophomore electrical engineering student at Tech, agreed. The Elkins, West Virginia native knew she wanted to be an engineer at a young age, but said that a program like Camp STEM would have helped her along the way.

"I'm still trying to figure out what exactly it is I want to do, so I wanted to help these kids see all the different types of fields they can go into. If they like one aspect of it, it might make them realize they have to take classes in a certain area. It gives them something to go by while they're figuring out what they want to do,” she said.

Campers also met with presenters and speakers from regional businesses and industries to find out more about STEM careers – speakers like John Lester, Director of Lifecycle Services at Emerson; Dr. Andrea Stark, a physician at the Charleston Area Medical Center; and Bill Keaton, Director of Municipal Services at the L.A. Gates Company.

The camp drew in students from throughout the state, as well as a few from Virginia, like 16-year-old Shane Gibbs from Glen Allen. Gibbs attended an Open House at WVU Tech and found out about the program during his visit.

"I've learned so many things. It's been pretty amazing,” he said.

Gray said that she plans to expand the camp in Beckley and begin offering day programs for younger students in the future.

Camp STEM was made possible by support from The Dow Chemical Company Foundation. Two students also attended the camp on scholarships provided by the Kanawha Valley Mining Institute.

Check out photos from this year’s camp on Flickr.