From designing roller coasters to developing biodegradable plastics, high school students received an introduction to an array of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at STEM Summer Camps at Foothill College.
The camps, featuring hands-on and experiential lessons, concluded last week on the Los Altos Hills campus.
Free for students, the annual camps proved to be in high demand. This year’s program enrolled more than four times as many students as last year’s – from 90 to 480 – with an additional 1,000 on the waiting list.
Organizers added two classes for middle school students to pique students’ interest in STEM at an even earlier age, according to organizers.
The Foothill-De Anza Foundation, which funds the STEM Summer Camps, expanded the program through donations from SanDisk Corp., the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund and Los Altos residents Hon Mai and Joe Goodman.
The camps are only one piece of a program Foothill College offers via its Science Learning Institute (SLI). Under the SLI umbrella, the college is undertaking a major push to increase STEM literacy and its number of STEM graduates by engaging the large and untapped talent pool of female and underrepresented students.
“This camp is an attempt to answer Silicon Valley’s request for more skilled workers in STEM fields,” said Laura Woodworth, associate director of the Foothill-De Anza Foundation. “We know when we introduce these students to STEM and they enjoy the activities, they are likely to stay engaged in STEM learning.”
Mountain View Los Altos Union High School students made up approximately 11 percent of attendees at this year’s camps.
Offerings and goals
Over the four weeks of camps, students could select from several classes – including 3D Printing, Robotics, Biomedical Engineering, Biotechnology, Forensic Technology, Understand Your Health, Astronomy, Nanotechnology, Green Chemistry, Amusement Park Physics, Build Your Own Radio, Build an App and Video Game Design.
“This year the students had so many more classes to choose from,” said Oxana Pantchenko, who co-coordinated the STEM Summer Camps in addition to teaching the Biomedical Engineering course. “We had so many more instructors this year with so many different backgrounds and it was so amazing to be able to work together.”
The students had access to all of Foothill’s SLI offerings, including cutting-edge 3D printers. Even middle schools students got in on the 3D printing action.
Former Foothill student Cole Neilson led the middle-school Robotics class. He took an unconventional path to earning two degrees from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. After dropping out of middle school, he earned his GED at 18, took general education courses at Foothill over a four-year period and transferred to Embry-Riddle.
After facing what he called “intellectual chauvinism” in his university classes, Neilson wanted to make sure that students at the STEM camp felt valued in their educational explorations.
“I really wanted to enable students to know that the things they are doing are awesome and we are celebrating and valuing what they learn,” he said, “because the value of your education is really what you put into it.”
Neilson added that he wanted to inspire students to create things. He assigned each of them the task of building a robotic hand with unique fingerprints. The students were then asked to use those hands – featuring four controls in the fingers – to operate four propellers on a robotic helicopter.
Students in the Green Chemistry class engaged in their assignments as actively as the Robotics students.
Green Chemistry student Nathan Van Eck of Los Altos High worked with his group to create a biodegradable plastic.
“When you think about plastics, you typically think of materials that aren’t biodegradable,” he said. “And right now, we are making a plastic that is actually biodegradable. It is giving me an idea that maybe this issue isn’t so black and white and there is more than you generally think.”
Van Eck took away from the class just what Foothill instructor Mary Holland had intended.
“The goal of this camp is to develop an understanding of how we can use chemistry in a way that is sustainable so that we don’t damage the environment,” she said. “I would like them to walk away with the message that their generation is the one that is going to have to use their resources more conservatively than the baby boomers have and incorporate that into all aspects of their lives.”
For more information, visit foothill.edu/sli/STEM_summer_camps.html.
Foothill College hosts summer STEM camps - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier