So what happens at a big university when all the college students are out fishing or working and playing for the summer?
Well, UAA still has some university students on campus—taking either a 10-week summer course, or maybe one or two of the 5-week summer sessions.
But the truth is, the campus empties out—making room for some amazing summer camps aimed at exposing middle and high school students to hands-on science and health career opportunities.
During the last week in June, over on the ground floor of the Engineering Building, evidence of one science summer camp was easy to find. In the hallway leading to Room 109 (ground zero for this Engineering Camp), tiny solar thermal ovens heated up under powerful lights and handmade wind turbines faced blowing fans to test blade design (could the little wind turbine spin fast enough to generate energy and light an LED bulb?)
Another project involved carving a fist-sized pink Styrofoam rectangle into a boat shape and attaching a tiny solar-powered circuit that could turn a little black rubber wheel on the boat bottom—propelling it through water and over land. Day five of this weeklong camp would be spent outside, learning how GPS works.
UAA’s School of Engineering is hosting three different camps this summer, all with different themes—robotics, rapid prototyping and GPS tracking (which also included the wind turbines, solar thermal ovens and solar-powered amphibious vehicles.) This is the third year the school has hosted these enrichment opportunities.
The engineering camps began in 2010 with some federal funding to support STEM education initiatives—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As electrical engineering professor John Lund remembers it, for that first year, the School of Engineering invited faculty to pitch camp ideas. His little solar-powered boat project was funded and he was off and running. He always employs a handful of engineering students to help him run the camp and work with campers on some of the technical challenges.
After seeing the interest and success from the first year’s camp, leadership in the School of Engineering approached BP for future support, and that corporation has financed the last two years of Engineering Camp at UAA. While the school did a lot of marketing the first year, now word of mouth quickly fills the camps. This year, more than 400 students pre-registered, according to computer systems engineering professor Jeffrey Miller, a camp organizer who will be running the robotics camp.
Here’s another scene from the hallway right outside Room 109. An electric desk fan blows down the hall, spinning a small hand-built turbine many feet away. Abby Thomas, 9, is pleased. Her turbine is out-performing all the others in the camp. She’s managed to place it the farthest away from the fan—30 feet—and it is happily spinning and lighting up the LED. If her success holds, she’ll take home a prize—a hydrogen fuel cell model car valued at about $100.
A student from Northern Lights ABC, she’s taking this camp with her 13-year-old sister, Kelli, a student at Romig Middle School.
The two girls had recently returned with their family from a trip to Northern Europe where they viewed life-sized Dutch windmill blades. Kelli mimicked their design on her four-blade turbine, but also added weight by painting each blade a different, bright pattern.
But the younger sister noticed that Kelli’s turbine—while very attractive—didn’t turn so fast. She shortened the blades for her own design, and instead of adding paint, she used markers to add color without extra weight. Victory seemed close at hand.
But then Vasily Soloview, 13, from Hanshew Middle School, said he wanted to test his turbine design against the leader’s. His turbine had larger blades than hers, but only three instead of four. Most students had found their inspiration for blade design through an Internet search.
When we left the two and UAA engineering student Justin Jurica in the hallway Thursday, Vasily’s turbine wasn’t yet able to duplicate or beat her success—brightly lighting an LED bulb while spinning 30 feet from the fan. Vasily had to keep inching closer to the fan, trying to get his turbine spinning and lighting the LED. By lunchtime on Thursday, he was still working on it.
Engineering professor appreciates young campers’ creativity
Leaving his engineering students in charge of the humming classroom, John Lund took a break from supervising the busy camp to share his observations.
Since he’s organized this camp three years running, Lund has learned a few things. For one, kids move more quickly through their projects than he had imagined. While he originally planned a week for campers to carve a small Styrofoam boat, solder a solar-powered circuit and install the circuit and a spinning wheel in the vehicle’s bottom, he’s had to add more projects to fill the week. Now there are four—the boats, the turbines, solar thermal ovens and a day spent learning GPS.
“Sometimes it’s surprising how quickly they pick things up,” Lund said, shaking his head. “There will be a seventh grader soldering better than the college juniors and seniors I usually work with.”
He’s also impressed with their creativity. “I’ll show them a basic turbine design, and tell them to go look for more blade designs online. Not one of them duplicated my design. With a college class, you’d certainly have students doing a variation of my design.”
Lund laughs out loud remembering an especially creative blade design. “One student made a turbine where all the blades were stars. It beat the pants off my turbine! I still don’t know why it worked so well.”
Of course, the atmosphere is relaxed and there are no grades. Lund thinks the camp is a great opportunity to fill in gaps left in busy elementary and middle school science classrooms.
“It’s difficult to dedicate this much time to a project during the school year. We run the camp eight hours a day for a week. That’s 40 hours. That would be two months in a science classroom.”
The turbine exercise is especially good, Lund thinks, because it involves counterintuitive thinking.
“Students thought that a bigger blade would naturally work better. But bigger blades do not spin as fast or produce as much voltage. Smaller blades work well for providing power. Balance matters more than size. It’s great to have learning opportunities like that.”
The camps draw a mixed audience from schools near UAA. While the first week of camp was filled with boys, the second week was almost evenly split between girls and boys. That mix has a calming effect on the classroom, Lund noted.
Lund says he finds that girls are more likely to ask for help; boys power through, whether they fully understand the project or not.
To get the kids going on their project, Lund says he uses the same explanations and metaphors that he employs with any introductory class.
“Teaching younger students, you get immediate feedback. It’s a vivid reminder of the way people perceive things they don’t fully understand,” he said.
Even though there are differences between elementary and college students, Lund says successful campers have the same qualities as successful college students.
“Those who do best at the college level are those who want to do well for their own benefit. They expect a lot of themselves. It’s not just for a good grade or to pass.
“Here, it’s the same. There’s no grade or paycheck, but they have the same high expectations of themselves.”
Before Lund’s two one-week camps, the School of Engineering offered a four-week rapid prototyping camp. Coming up: Robotics, beginning July 9.
Professor Lund reported some final results for his engineering campers. Vasily pushed ahead to win second place in the wind turbine competition, while Abby’s sister, Kelli, placed first and took home the much-coveted hydrogen cell model. No slouch, younger sister Abby rebounded with a second place in the solar oven competition. “They were all very good participants in the camp,” Lund said.