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Adventures in STEM: 3 research centers at UT host camp for local middle schoolers
Published August 28, 2023

KNOXVILLE - During the summer, The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE), the Center for Ultra-Wide-Area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT), and the University of Tennessee (UT) collaborated to host “Adventures in STEM”. During the adventures, middle school students learned Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) related concepts linking math, engineering, and sustainability through fun, hands-on activities, teamwork, field trips and engaging with scientists and engineers.

Adventures in Stem students
Adventures in Stem students. Photo courtesy UT

The camp designed for rising 7-9 grade students involved activities focused on ecology, biodiversity, electric circuitry, renewable energy, solar and wind power, and more. Generous financial support given to ISSE and CURENT from Emerson Electric and Emerson Process Management, Knoxville, along with additional support from NIMBioS, has enabled three centers to host this active learning experience.

The week kicked off with ice breaker activities and science journal decorating, followed by an outdoor activity that used observations, inferences, and data collection to help students draw conclusions about the world around them, led by Erin Canter from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Miller Callaway, from Webb School of Knoxville, led the afternoon activities about circuits, magnetism, and electric motors through hands-on activities.

The camp established a collaborative model between academic, industry, and community partners, including educators, STEM graduate students, public school teachers, and field experts. Campers had the opportunity to learn about real world applications and how science and technology might shape their future.

NIMBioS project manager, Kristen Mecke and Dr. Chien-fei Chen, the Director of Energy and Environmental Justice at ISSE are the key players for organizing this camp, with support from two middle school educators: Miller Callaway and Erin Canter.

“Camps allow time for kids to investigate questions and explore subjects without the pressure of being graded and things can be more "go with the flow" and we can really tailor the experience to individuals rather than a strict curriculum. I am excited to see what types of activities spark interest in students throughout the week,” Mecke said.

Callaway taught campers engineering and technology portion of the camp. He says that the students were excited about the interactive aspect. “It’s summer camp, so we try to keep it as light and as interactive as possible, so I am sure they are happy to not be taking notes and not have an exam at the end of the day. They do seem to be genuinely excited about the possibilities this week.”

“Science can relate to a lot more things than I thought, like going outside and seeing the biodiversity of ecosystems, but also getting to learn more about the engineering and building part. The camp helped me expand my definition of science,” Kevin, a rising 8th grader said.

CURENT and NIMBioS have worked together on hosting Adventures in STEM from 2013-2018, with additional support from ISSE this year, with the goal to reach more boys and girls from local communities. There was lots of excitement from staff, educators, and parents as the camp was relaunched after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Chen-Fei Chen, with more than 10 years’ experience of hosting STEM education outreach programs, said “I think it is critical to expose children to these types of opportunities when they are still young, especially middle school aged students. Early exposure to STEM education is the key to get the children interested, I wish I had this opportunity when I was young.” she said. She emphasized the gender imbalance in engineering and other science fields; “engineering and math are not just for boys. It is for women and anyone else who might be interested.”

As the camp progressed, activities included exploration related to ecology and biology, building circuits, solar cars, wind power, and clean energy and sustainability. To wrap up the week, campers explored the Ijams Nature Center and learned about clean energy access from ClearLoop, a Nashville based solar company to know more about how solar energy impacts our life. Additionally, campers talked with engineers, and undergraduate and graduate students to learn about their career path.

For more information, please visit: NIMBioS and CURENT.


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