Erica Guelfi | Dec 15, 2022
For many students, STEM is a lifelong journey, often one that starts early in life. Children who are exposed to STEM in hands-on, positive environments are more likely to pursue a career in a science field in their future. Therefore, it becomes important for young students to have positive experiences with science that presents it as a fun challenge to pique their interest. Many camps and programs have emerged in recent years to address this need, with many being affiliated with museums and universities.
Many such programs exist at Vanderbilt, and these programs provide STEM experiences that span a large range of ages. The STEM Exploration Experience for Kids allows elementary school students to participate in summer science camps and exposes them to fun projects covering biology, chemistry, and engineering in an age-appropriate context. The Vanderbilt Summer Academy focuses on middle and high school students, and is more academically focused, preparing students for continued studies and careers in STEM fields.
Formal programs such as the Dyer Observers Space Science Camp allow students to explore specific science disciplines in a fun setting. These programs allow students with a specific interest such as astronomy to dive deep into that interest and see what a prospective career in that field could entail.
As children progress closer to college, they also can take a deep dive into research through programs such as the Research Experience for High School Students. These allow students to have a “test-run” of what a STEM education could look like for them. Exploring research can also help students to explore a different facet of the scientific experience, as most high school students have not yet been exposed to research.
Plenty of these initiatives can be found off of Vanderbilt’s campus as well. Groups like Vanderbilt Student Volunteers for Science (VSVS) simultaneously provide a taste of teaching experience for college students and allow younger students to receive a more informal and fun science lesson from teachers closer to their own age. Other classroom experiences include the Resident Scientist Program, which partners middle school teachers with research scientists to create lesson plans rooted in real-world science techniques. Another example is the Scientist in the Classroom Partnership, which partners graduate students with elementary and middle school teachers to create lessons around hands-on research projects.
Beyond providing a positive introduction to STEM, these camps also seek to reduce the gender and race gaps in science education. Years of stereotypes have portrayed STEM fields such as computer science and engineering as more “masculine,” while simultaneously downplaying the difficulty of studies in “soft” sciences such as psychology. Despite computer science starting in the hands of women due to the draft in World War II, it is now an overwhelmingly male dominated field with 74% of all CS jobs being held by men. Racial disparities in STEM are also rampant and occur at all levels, from education to employment. Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in degree attainment and job placements, while Asian students are overrepresented in both. Early exposure to STEM through camps and programs can allow underrepresented students to imagine themselves in roles that previously felt unattainable, and connect them to a support network of older mentors who can help them navigate the system.
For students from all walks of life, these camps and programs provide immersive exposure to science and technology fields. Unfortunately, many of these camps have been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. These delays help to keep children safe from illness, but deprive them from integral science experiences. As regulations slowly begin to relax due to local laws and the increased availability of coronavirus vaccines, hopefully these camps and programs can return and help spark passion into the hearts of the next generation of scientists and researchers.
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