Mechanical Engineering summer camps open young eyes to a future in STEM

Photo showing middle school students in a 3D printing lab
Summer camp students work in the Idea2Product Lab and learn about different types of 3D printing.

Think about some of the most impressionable moments in your lifetime; moments that lead you down the path you are on today, in terms of career choices, life decisions, and your future. For many of us, these defining moments occurred in our youth.

That’s why Mechanical Engineering held two summer camps this year – to get young people excited about engineering.

Photo showing a young student controlling a jet engine throttle as Doug Frankell looks on
Fankell looks on as student from the Engineering Your World camp “drives” a jet engine.

Doug Fankell, an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Mechanical Engineering who oversaw both the camps, credits his own career to his exposure to the profession at a young age.

“I grew up with engineers. My grandpa was an engineer, my uncle was an engineer, and my mom was an applied math major,” he said. “Even when I meet with my freshman students, I always ask them, ‘Why did you get into engineering?’ and every single one of them says they either knew an engineer or they were exposed to engineering way before they were even picking a major.”

Fankell knows the true value of helping middle school and high school kids see opportunity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.

Albert Maldonado, a 21st Century Grant Manager for the Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6 and a Migrant Education Program Manager, also sees the importance of providing students educational opportunities, especially those at a financial, situational, or educational disadvantage.

The 21st Century Grant is a federal program that provides funding for after-school programs to districts that typically have low-performing schools or come from high-poverty areas. The purpose of the grant is to provide funding for enriching academic opportunities for students outside the classroom to increase academic performance and engagement.

The Migrant Education Program is a federal program aimed at ensuring migratory children from agricultural families don’t slip through educational cracks by providing them with educational opportunities to keep them on the path to success.

The two camps, Engineering Your World and Designing Your World, were created to get students to come to the CSU campus and learn all about engineering—from civil and electrical to mechanical and biomedical engineering.

The Engineering Your World summer camp was a week-long camp for middle school-aged students. “Our goal was 15 students and we ended up getting around 70,” Fankell said.

During this camp, students learned about engineering through activities such as building and testing the strength of bridges made from spaghetti noodles; designing, developing, and testing a prosthetic leg from PVC pipe and duct tape; “driving” a real jet engine; and a creating a “Mars rover” for an egg that was sturdy enough to withstand a drop off the building’s roof.

The second camp, Designing Your World, was created for high school students and took engineering to another level. During this camp, students designed and built 3D printed robots as well as engineered and raced submarines.

Over the course of the week, students in both programs completed a plethora of projects from a diverse range of STEM backgrounds. A big part of the camps was about prioritizing student engagement through hands-on activities.

High-angle view of a model submarine in a test tank as students and camp leaders look on.
Students from Designing Your World gather around a pool to race their submarines

“I think students are talked at a lot,” Maldonado said. “There’s usually a lot of instruction and lecture, but kids really learn best when they’re doing hands-on things. At the summer camps, the students were encouraged to see and touch everything. It really exposed them to things beyond the scope of what they learn in a classroom at school.”

Fankell and Maldonado both acknowledge the importance of these programs, not only for the future of engineering but for the future of the kids who participate in them. Introducing students to the idea of college from a young age sets them on the path to success.

“We had about five to 10 students who came to campus and were like, ‘what is this place?’ They had never been on a university campus before or didn’t really know what one was. It’s important to plant the seed of future possibilities at that age,” Fankell said.

“These summer camps got those students on a college campus and introduced them to college culture. It has those students believing that they can go to college because they can,” Maldonado said. “I feel that a lot of times college is seen as the exception when it should be the expectation. So, the goal is to try and embed that idea into these students. They need to step foot on these campuses and see themselves there.”

The hope is that these summer camps will be the defining experiences these students reflect on later in life as the moment they knew what they wanted to do when they grew up.

“If we can get those kids on the campuses to have these experiences, it might be some of their most memorable moments,” Maldonado said.