Loudoun STEM Camp Raises the Bar on Hands-On Learning

By TJ Davis

You might think kids would avoid science and math during summer vacation, but not these kids. Students taking part in Loudoun’s STEM Camp this month were immersed in science, technology, engineering and math as they learned about neutralizing acids and bases, 3-D printing, and even got a lesson in how to survive during a zombie apocalypse.

Despite tackling topics such as biomimicry, programming, and building computers, STEM Camp Director Patricia Herr emphasized that the camp’s primary objective isn’t about the information. She said the top objective is for kids to become accustomed to enjoy learning, which means the camp is all about the fun.

“I love seeing the kids be so creative and enjoying learning—they really do love the learning,” Herr said. “We try to act like this is not school. When we train the teachers we [tell them]: We don’t want to see lines in the hallway. We don’t want to see kids being told to be quiet. We don’t want sitting around. We want to see active learning and for [the kids to have] the freedom to explore and fail.”

Loudoun STEM Camp, now in its ninth year, enrolls about 250 students in grades five through nine. The camp was put on as two one-week sessions, with the first at Sterling Middle School and the second at Smart’s Mill Middle School.
Students are primarily selected by their principals based on those who show interest in STEM, and a few spots are saved to students who apply on their own. The camp is funded by a grant from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which leaves students with a fee of only $50 to enroll.

Throughout the week, students faced challenging scenarios that had them practicing their decision-making and team-building skills.

In one classroom, students were tasked with preparing for a zombie pandemic that progressed over each day of the simulation. The teachers used a map of the 2017 flu epidemic as the map of the “zombie outbreak,” and they even implemented a newscast that warned viewers to “stay inside, lock their doors and prepare for the worst.” During the zombie apocalypse module, students learned the process of mapping as they charted the spread of the virus over multiple days. They also designed protective bunkers with a $25,000 budget using real prices of materials and they later constructed models of the bunkers using cardboard.

In another classroom, students learned the basics of programming as they interacted with Dash robots, which they programmed to respond to voice commands, navigate objects, launch projectiles and dance. Campers also tried their hands at flying drones, 3D printing, building a fishing net with limited resources, and toying with robots.

Many students acknowledged that the camp gave them a newfound appreciation for learning.

“I like how camp makes learning fun,” said Olivia Harney, a rising sixth grader at Harper Park Middle School.
“Camp is amazing. I like how there’s always projects and it’s not like school where you sit around all day,” added Giray Uzon, a rising sixth grader at Harper Park Middle School.

Some students like Madi Whitt, a rising sixth grader at Simpson Middle School, admired the camp’s creativity. “I like the theme of zombies,” she said.

But it’s not just the students who learn and have fun at the camp. This year’s STEM Camp had 38 student counselors and 35 teachers working on staff to help lead the program. Both the student volunteers and the teachers mentioned how they enjoy both learning at the camp and also interacting with the students.

Gertrude Okyere, who teaches at Creighton’s Corner Elementary School, said when it’s fun for the students, it’s fun for the teachers. “It’s only a week, I want them to enjoy themselves. I want them to find something they feel excited about.”

“I love seeing the kids, but I also love seeing the transformation of the teachers,” Herr said. She noted that the laid-back camp environment allows teachers to try out different teaching methods that they might implement later in their classrooms.

“Usually the first year the teachers go through and their heads are spinning and the second year they’re like: ‘why can’t school be like this?’ And my response is: ‘This is the way school should be—this is the way learning and teaching should be.’ It’s nice to see the teachers buying into it.”

TJ Davis is a summer intern at Loudoun Now, studying journalism at Liberty University.

STEM campers Maddie Binkley and Sebastian Laughlin-Ferry work their creativity muscles to try to design a fishing net that can catch enough fish to keep them alive for three days. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]

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