School of Education assistant professors Christa Jackson (left) and Mollie Appelgate developed the curriculum for and will host the first-ever STEM InCYte Camp at Iowa State. Photo by Ryan Riley.

New Iowa State STEM camp aims to excite children about learning

Fifty-two incoming fifth- and sixth-graders will next week engage in hands-on experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at the first-ever STEM InCYte Camp at Iowa State University.

Students from King and Moulton elementary schools in Des Moines will learn about virtual reality at Iowa State’s Virtual Reality Applications Center, build their own high-tech model cars, and visit the Iowa Department of Transportation as part of the camp, which will be held June 19 to 21.

“One of my main goals for the camp is to give kids authentic experiences,” said Christa Jackson, an assistant professor in the School of Education, who along with assistant professor Mollie Appelgate developed the curriculum and will be hosting the camp.

The camp, which is free for the students attending, was made possible by a $107,226 National Science Foundation subgrant that was part of a larger $225,000 grant to Parametric Studio, Inc., a startup company in the ISU Research Park that develops and sells K-12 STEM educational game software. The grant aims to integrate STEM curriculum into upper elementary grades.

“They will be involved in the authentic lab experiences that faculty are doing in their research lab,” Jackson said. “It’s not just, ‘This is what we do.’ It’s not a show and tell. They’re actually getting engaged in that authentic learning experience.”

Applying all aspects of STEM to solve problems

The camp is a chance for students to learn in a relaxed, informal setting without being evaluated or assessed. It’s generating excitement among students and their parents who say they can’t wait to learn about subjects that are sometimes taught in a dry way.

“To have that type of excitement and enthusiasm among middle-level students is just amazing, to really want to learn more about STEM and to spend part of their summer doing so,” Jackson said. “When they’re in an informal environment, they have an opportunity to really relax and be themselves, and really explore.”

Research shows that catching students in middle school is most effective for expanding students’ career options. By the time students are in the eighth grade, they’ve already been turned on or off to STEM subjects.

The camp will use what’s called a “transdisciplinary model,” using all aspects of STEM to solve real-world problems. The experience will be more career-oriented than going to a science center because students will visit researchers where they work. They’ll also meet and talk with Iowa State students and professionals who are role models in STEM majors and careers.

“We really want science, technology, engineering, and math to be equal parts in solving a design challenge,” Appelgate said. “One of the things we’re really excited about in designing that curriculum is that technology isn’t just an add-on. It’s helping them solve the problem. It really is a true integration in a way that most kids have never experienced.”

Partnering with central Iowa schools

Jackson and Appelgate actively partner with local elementary and middle schools to improve the teaching of STEM education. They’re also innovative in their approach, with the help of several grants.

Last fall, they worked with Gilbert Intermediate fourth-graders to design boats using new software, and see if they would float across the Forker Building pool carrying freight. They’ve also used text messages with parents of kindergarteners to overcome language barriers in math education.

The STEM camp aims to provide experiences to those who have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM, and to show them the collaboration needed to solve problems. More girls than boys have registered. Female undergraduates from Women in Science and Engineering, or WISE, who are majoring in biology and other sciences will serve as team leaders.

“We want them to get out of this that learning is fun, learning is exciting,” Jackson said. “We want them to say, ‘I can see myself doing this. I can see myself as an engineer. I can see myself as a technician. I can see myself as a scientist.’ I want to open up their world view.”

Iowa State has an ongoing partnership with King and Moulton elementary schools through ISU 4U Promise, aimed at promoting college-going in these schools. Students who complete fifth grade at King or Moulton are eligible for tuition awards to Iowa State. ISU 4U Promise is helping to provide transportation to students attending the camp.

While this is the first such STEM camp at Iowa State, Jackson has hosted the See Blue STEM Camp at the University of Kentucky for the past seven years, which is also supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Iowa State hopes to continue its STEM camp each year.

“Our 21st century workforce has to be STEM literate,” Jackson said. “In order to solve the different problems and challenges that are faced by our society, and to make advances in our society, they have to be able to use STEM and to problem-solve.”