ALMA — For many young people across the country considering their futures, college doesn’t seem like an option.
The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) summer camps at Alma College work to make learning—and college—come alive for young students.
For roughly the past five years, hundreds of students, some as young as 5, have gathered on campus for a week of fun-filled, educational projects and friendship. But the lessons don’t stop on the last day of camp, said organizer Carolyn Studley ’73 — often, they end with a participant sitting in a college classroom.
“It’s about normalizing a college experience, making it seem like this is something that’s possible for them to do,” said Studley, a retired teacher and administrator from the Alma Public Schools. “In some cases, these students might not have had that [experience] otherwise. It really shows us, as organizers, the power of keeping students engaged through the summer months and bringing them on campus to see what we’re about.”
Studley is joined in organizing the summer camps by Alma College professors Brian Hancock, Victor Argueta and Jessie Store, chair of the education department. The camps cost $25 for young students and $50 for older, which can be waived if requested. They are largely funded by a grant from the nonprofit Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation.
Camps are divided into three age groups, essentially dividing elementary, middle and high school-aged students, and college students. In the “Science Explorers” camp, students between ages 5 and 12 are taught by Alma College professors and graduating seniors, as well as local school teachers, in different areas of STEM. One day they may build a small model roller coaster to test their knowledge of engineering, and the next, they might create a classic volcano eruption as a science experiment to learn about chemistry.
“For the little kids, we try to show them that science is not scary or boring,” Argueta said. “Math is not just about addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Science is not just about elements. The idea is that after a couple of years, they’re willing to go more in-depth and have fun with it.”
Camps get a little more focused at the middle and high school level. As part of “Research Week,” a group of students living on campus work with a professor on a single project, toward a particular solution or goal. Store said her own children have participated in Research Week, which has allowed her to see the upside of the program first-hand.
“Math and science make students anxious in school. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s graded,” Store said. “This program takes away the anxiety about grades and makes it about the content. Even those who aren’t super-excited about science can get into it, because it’s not so high-stakes. They can make mistakes without having to worry about their GPA.”
The advanced program, Argueta said, usually involves a small number of college students working with a professor on a project where the students earn a stipend and the opportunity to work with faculty for 10 weeks.
Argueta said that seeing the campus full of young learners provides a nice change of pace from the normal semester schedule.
“They have such an awe about everything they do, and it reminds you why you do this. Sometimes, when you’re dealing with college students, it can be hard to surprise them, but with little kids, you get that all the time,” he said.
Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from summer camp. Store uses the opportunity to work with local public school teachers on programs to benefit their classrooms for the upcoming year, mostly involving technology. For taking part in the program, teachers receive a stipend to spend on classroom supplies.
This summer, camps were far from ordinary, the organizers said. Due to restrictions brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic, only essential workers were allowed on campus. The summer camps still continued, however, thanks to remote learning software and toolkits that were prepared by organizers and mailed to participants’ houses.
The organizers received good feedback, Argueta said, but it’s not something they will seek to recreate next summer, if they can avoid it.
“Following a recipe from a box is not something we really strive to do,” he said.
Summer camps have “absolutely exploded” in popularity since they were first started, according to Studley — especially the “Explorers” camp. The first year they were introduced, organizers capped the number of elementary-aged students at 40. Now, it’s capped at 140 — and there’s a waiting list to get in.
Thankfully, Studley said, the grant that organizers use to pay for the program has been well managed and should be able to pay for summer camps for a very long time.
“Jessie and Victor were on the committee that governed the grant to begin with. A portion of that money was put into a trust, so now we’re working off the interest, which means we should be able to continue (using the grant to pay for summer camps) for a long time, if not forever,” Studley said.