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Adventures in STEM: 3 Research Centers at the University of Tennessee Host a Summer Camp For Local Middle Schoolers

KNOXVILLE, TN - With summer in full swing, The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis

(NIMBioS), the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE), the Center for Ultra-Wide-Area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT), and the University of Tennessee (UT) collaborated on July 10-14 to host “Adventures in STEM”, where middle school students learned Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) related concepts linking math, engineering, and sustainability through fun, hands-on activities, teamwork, and field trips to Ijams Nature Center and by engaging with scientists and engineers.

The camp for rising 6-8 grade students involved fun and educational activities focused on specific questions from ecology, biodiversity, electric circuitry, renewable energy, solar and wind power, and more. Generous financial support Emerson Electric and Emerson Process Management, Knoxville, a sustainability, technology and engineering company enabled three centers at UT to come together to host this active learning experience.

The week kicked off with ice breaker activities and science journal decorating, followed by an outdoor activity that used observations, inferences, and data collection, to help students draw conclusions about the world around them, led by Ms. Erin Canter, from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Mr. Miller Callaway, from Webb School of Knoxville, led the afternoon portion where students learned about circuits, magnetism, magnetic fields and forces, and electric motors through group based, hands-on activities.

The camp established a collaborative model between academic, industry, and community partners, including educators, STEM graduate students, public school teachers, and field experts. Campers had the opportunity to learn about real world applications and how science and technology might shape their future and their career path.

NIMBioS project manager, Kristen Mecke and Dr. Chien-fei Chen, the Director of Energy and Environmental Justice at ISSE are the key players for organizing Adventures in STEM with the expert support from two middle school STEM educators: Miller Callaway and Erin Canter.

“Camps allow time for kids to investigate questions and explore subjects without the pressure of being graded and things can be more "go with the flow" and we can really tailor the experience to individuals rather than a strict curriculum. I am excited to see what types of activities spark interest in students throughout the week,” Mecke said.

Callaway taught the engineering and technology portion of the camp, where he helped students to understand basic concepts of electrical energy, renewable energy,and solar energy through hands-on projects.

Callaway said that the students were excited about the interactive aspect of the camp. “It’s summer camp, so we try to keep it as light and as interactive as possible, so I am sure they are happy to not be taking notes and not have an exam at the end of the day. They do seem to be genuinely excited about the possibilities this week.”

CURENT and NIMBioS have worked together on hosting Adventures in STEM from 2013-2018, with new additional support from ISSE this year, with the goal to reach to more boys and girls from local communities about sustainability and renewable energy topics, using hands-on projects. The staff, including UT students from math, engineering and sustainability majors, educators, and parents, were excited to relaunch the camp after being on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Chien-Fei Chen, with more than 10 years’ experience of hosting STEM education outreach programs, said “The goal is very simple: we want to provide opportunities for students to engage in fun engineering and math activities,”. “I think it is critical to expose children to these types of opportunities when they are still young, especially middle school aged students. Early exposure to STEM education is the key to get the children interested, I wish I had this opportunity when I was young.” she said. She emphasized the gender imbalance in engineering and other science fields; “Engineering and Math are not just for boys. It is for women and anyone who might be interested.”

As the camp progressed, activities included exploration related to ecology and biology, building circuits, solar cars, wind power, and clean energy and sustainability. To wrap up the week, campers explored the Ijams Nature Center and learned about clean energy access from ClearLoop, a Nashville based clean energy solution company to learn more about how solar energy impacts our life. Additionally, campers got the chance to talk with an engineering PhD student at UTK, and with undergraduate and graduate students to learn about their career path. The last day consisted of poster presentations, a pizza party, and handing out completion certificates. 

For more information on upcoming events and future camps, please visit: https://curent.utk.edu/education/precollege/summerprograms/ Contact: Chien-fei Chen cchen26@utk.edu or Krirsten Mecke kmecke@utk.edu