Florida Summer Camps Innovate To Meet Urgent STEM Needs

Richard Peck has more than a little interest in programs designed to encourage students to explore science, math, engineering and technology fields. The chairman of the Florida Manufacturing Extension Partnership (Florida MEP) says his industry's future livelihood may depend on them.

"Manufacturing has been ignored by the school system because of budget cuts and cultural changes for the last 30 years," Peck says. "Kids don't know about the trades, and I'm talking about senior engineering college students who have never stepped into a manufacturing plant. We've neglected the trades and now we have a worldwide shortage of quality people in manufacturing."

With the Florida MEP estimating just 4.3 percent of the Florida workforce employed by manufacturing, students simply have no exposure to these career possibilities, Peck asserts.

"They never realize that there may be more engineering jobs in the manufacturing sector than in the rest of the engineering field," he says.

Inspiring Tomorrow's Workforce

To help expose students to careers in technology and manufacturing, the Florida MEP has partnered with the Science and Technology Education Innovation Center (formerly the Science Center of Pinellas) to offer free 4-hour summer workshops introducing middle school and high school students to the science of advanced manufacturing. Workshops have already been held mornings and afternoons at the St. Pete-based center June 30 and July 14, with a remaining workshop scheduled Saturday, August 11. Sessions reproduce the fast-paced, dynamic setting of manufacturing. Using role-play and lean manufacturing simulation, students can experience being an employee firsthand across different manufacturing stages, such as ordering, product assembly and distribution.

Shelly Puckett, business development manager for the center, says she anticipates as many as 1,000 students participating in the workshops, which they plan to extend into the fall and are in the process of scheduling additional dates. She is excited about painting a true picture of modern manufacturing.

"The industry floor is not a dirty place. It's high-tech and computerized. There are misperceptions out there, especially among parents, and they don't understand how important it is to get manufacturing back to the United States and that we need engineers to be in this field," Puckett says.

Further collaboration with the Florida MEP will be unveiled later this year when the center launches a new manufacturing lab that attempts to replicate a traditional manufacturing setting with standard machinery, and which will provide a learning environment for students to train with manufacturing experts and earn industry-recognized certifications.

"We obviously have a challenge in this country with little being manufactured here," says Nancy Hatch, project manager for the science center. "We need to plant that seed in this young generation now that manufacturing is a great thing to do."

Using Art To Bridge Science, Math

For aspiring artists, subjects like math and science may not appear to hold personal relevance, but a unique specialty summer camp in its second year at St. Petersburg College, offers one strategy to help these Pinellas students make that connection. SAM (Science-Art-Math) Camps for grades 3-7, being held July 23-27 and July 30-Aug. 3 at the SPC Tarpon Springs Campus, are part of the school's popular College for Kids program and weave science and math through fun art and construction activities.

"The camps are designed to open the eyes of kids that science and math are everywhere," says Cecilia O'Dowd, coordinator of lifelong learning and the College for Kids program at St. Petersburg College. "At its most basic level, there's science behind a painting. If a painter is trying to give us the illusion of a background, he has to know how to make colors and understand lighting and he needs to understand math for creating perspective and dividing a master work into segments so the final piece makes sense."

SAM Camp activities can vary from designing indoor roller coasters to studying the ascent and descent of rolling balls to constructing solar ovens to learn the art, science and math behind the ability to create heat and bake cookies. As with other College for Kids programs, the focus is on acquiring knowledge by doing.

"There's a lot of hands-on learning. Kids have the opportunity to take away a better understanding, because they are 100 percent involved in it," O’Dowd says.

Engaging Minds, Building Confidence

For Desh Bagley, nothing is more gratifying than witnessing kids get excited about technology. She coordinates a series of week-long robotic summer camps for Tampa Bay area middle school and high school students as part of a partnership between the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center (FLATE) and Hillsborough Community College, where camps are hosted by the college's Brandon campus. Offered since 2007, the summer camp series uses Lego® Mindstorms® Robots to teach kids about product design, the importance of teams and real-world use of science, math and technology across many high-tech industries as kids work in teams to perform challenges with the robots through programming and configuring tasks.

"We try to give them a better understanding of how what they're learning will be used in everyday society," Bagley says. "If kids know how they can use it in the future, then they become career-minded."

Bagley says it's not uncommon to see young female students in co-ed sessions pull back and let male teammates take the lead. For this reason, FLATE offers one robotics camp each summer designed for girls only.

"When we hold an all-girls camp, they appear equally engaged and comfortable," says Bagley. "Robotics is a nice niche for girls, because it is hands-on, there's socializing and they can pair up to problem-solve."

This year, the center conducted an educators' camp during the same week as girls camp focused on helping teachers identify barriers which may discourage girls from participating in STEM-related curricula.

"In middle school, girls are trying to figure out who they are and what their role is in the world, and there aren’t a lot of role models for them in STEM areas," says Marilyn Barger, executive director of FLATE. "It is our responsibility -- educators and parents -- to help girls understand that they can do whatever they want to do, be anything they want to be."

Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer living in the 'burbs of Tampa with her husband and her assistant, a 14-year-old dachshund-Chihuahua. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Chris Kuhn.

Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer, editor and blogger who resides in the northern ‘burbs of Tampa with her husband and a rambunctious Shih Tzu. She is a frequent contributor to area print and online publications and previously served as editor for a local women’s publication. A graduate of Florida State University, Chris has been published nationally and written two books, her most recent, an anthology celebrating public art as a central focal point for storytelling across various Florida communities, including Tampa. When she is not writing, Chris loves checking out art, movies and museums, and discovering new Thai restaurants.