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Summer camps aim to get kids excited about science and technology

Eric Peterson instructs a group of children last summer at TechPlayzone in Brandon, which offers science and tech classes for elementary-age kids.
Published Jun. 12, 2013

When Stephan Athan judged a local science competition last year, he could tell which projects had the extra parental help, with huge poster board presentations and elaborate banners.

But one of the projects that drew in Athan, an engineer and 20-year educator, was a simple poster with black marker handwriting. The 13-year-old boy who'd drawn the graphs stood in front of his project with his hands folded in front of him and his eyes at his feet.

"I asked him, did you do this?" Athan said. The boy said yes.

"Did anybody help you?" he asked. The boy said no.

The boy had written an algorithm for predicting the stock market in a programming language called Python — the same kind that Mark Zuckerberg used to create Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2004.

"I asked him, when did you start using Python?," Athan said. "A couple of years. Since he was 11."

It's these passionate science and technology students, like the engineering students he's mentored one on one for years, that led Athan to develop a new engineering program he's launching this summer.

Athan's Engineering Minds, is a two-week program that will run Monday through Thursday beginning July 15 at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa. It's for high-achieving middle school students with more than a passing interest in science.

"I don't care about their age, I don't care about their grade," Athan said. "I do care about their passion."

STEM-based science camps — science, technology, engineering and math — have become more prolific in Hillsborough County as passion has arisen among students. Private schools in the area like Tampa Preparatory School and Corbett Preparatory School of IDS offer summer camps with science and technology components. So do places like MOSI in Tampa.

Athan began mentoring students 20 years ago. He worked in the departments of electrical engineering, computer science and engineering, and the Center for Microelectronics Research at the University of South Florida. His former students have gone on to get engineering dream jobs at places like NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

The two-week program is a natural extension of the kind of adaptive face-to-face mentoring he's done for years, and the kids who take his program are engineers first.

"When we start treating them like engineers, they start acting like engineers," he said.

Engineering Minds is career-focused. It's about showing kids the very real opportunities out there for them if they throw themselves feet-first into engineering.

Engineering Minds targets the students who already have an intense passion for engineering. But other camps introduce kids to the world of STEM, kids who might otherwise write off math and science.

The Florida Advanced Technological Education Center summer robotics camp at Hillsborough Community College's Brandon campus begins Monday and offers week-long introductory and intermediate robotics classes for middle school students, and a week-long session for high school students.

Each week-long session has room for about 20 students. A few years ago, the camp set aside a week specifically for middle school girls. Before the girls-only session, some girls would sign up for the classes, but not as quickly as the boys, said Desh Bagley, outreach manager for the camp and owner of TechPlayzone in Brandon, which offers science and tech classes for elementary-age kids.

"If I don't leave some space for my girls to really explore what they want to do, historically the boys will fill the camp," she said.

The first summer they had 10 girls, then 15. Last summer it was 19, and this year they have a full class.

"Girls are starting to think of robotics as something they can see themselves doing, something they can enjoy and have with team building," Bagley said.

STEM has become a major push in schools in recent years. Getting kids into STEM outside the classroom is essential, not just to help them learn the concepts, but to pique their interest in science, said Larry Plank, director for K-12 STEM education for Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Plank was formerly the district's supervisor of high school science, but he took on the STEM position when it was created two years ago. In the last few years, the district has built partnerships with schools like HCC and the University of South Florida to expand STEM education. Summer programs are an important component, Plank said. The district has been working to expand what it offers in the summer, whether grant-funded or tuition-based.

It's especially important when students get to middle school. That's typically when kids start getting into the mind set that they're just not that good at math and science.

A big gap starts to occur with girls and minority students, particularly black males, Plank said.

Kids are generally excited about math and science in elementary school, but "somewhere in middle school is where we start losing them," he said.

Bagley opened TechPlayzone eight years ago, and she's seen some kids who began coming there in elementary school go on to chose STEM academies once they got to high school. Summer programs that are recreational and entertaining, she said, help math and science seem attainable, accessible and acceptable.

"The word nerd has a bad connotation," she said, "but when you're a kid making his own apps, that whole nerd thing takes on a cool feel."

Keeley Sheehan can be reached at ksheehan@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2453.

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