- Estes Hills Elementary
ECHHS Engineering Teacher Hosts STEM Camp for Middle School Students
By Stuart Phillips, CHCCS Communications Specialist
At East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS), students enrolled in the very popular and rigorous Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Engineering courses have always skewed male and White. In 2020, nearly 80% were males; only 6.3% were Hispanics and 5.2% were Black. For years, William (Bill) Vincent, one of the engineering teachers at the school, has been committed to expanding interest and ultimately enrollment of underserved and underrepresented students in the acclaimed Career and Technical Education program. This spring, with the significant support of a Public School Foundation Achievers Grant, Vincent led four Saturday STEM sessions for selected middle school students, assisted by a number of his current engineering students as mentors. He hopes this is only the beginning of a multi-tiered approach to increasing recruitment and retention of underrepresented students in engineering courses throughout the district.
As noted in the Strategic Plan 2027 Portrait of a Graduate, “Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is committed to providing all of its students with the knowledge, experiences and opportunities necessary for them to develop the competencies required for success in school, the workplace, and in life.” Increasingly, opportunities in STEM education help pave the way to success in the workplace, in North Carolina and beyond, and Vincent and his colleagues are deeply committed to extending opportunities to CHCCS students.
Attending school on a Saturday in the springtime could be a hard sell, but Vincent skillfully pitched the activities on the agenda – programming robots, building and launching rockets and building model solar cars! He worked with AVID teachers and the Blue Ribbon Mentor program to recruit and encourage students. Eleven middle school students decided to give it a try.
“My goal for this camp was to extend an opportunity and invitation to students who traditionally have not participated in STEM elective classes or pursued careers in STEM fields,” Vincent said. “This was my first effort to share STEM concepts with underrepresented middle school students through a ‘near-peer’ interaction with high school students.”
For his master’s work in STEM education at NC State University, Vincent co-wrote a paper on “Game Changing Research in Technical Education,” and posed this question: “Would middle school students from traditionally underrepresented demographic populations be inspired to enroll in STEM elective engineering courses as a result of participation in a Saturday STEM camp conducted in an engaging informal learning environment with hands-on activities and near-peer mentoring from high school PLTW engineering students from similar underrepresented populations?” Vincent applied that question in the design of his inaugural camp, and though his survey results have not yet been tabulated, he knows the general attitude and assessment by students was strong.
An eighth grade participant from Phillips Middle School said, “I think STEM camp is a great way for people like me to engage with each other and communicate while getting experience with STEM!”
One of the high school engineering mentors, Margaret Sept, shared her thoughts on the camp experience. “I chose to participate in the STEM camp because as a female taking engineering classes, I understand being intimidated by being a minority in the STEM field. Throughout the camp, I really enjoyed watching the students open up and their interest in STEM fields grow. I think the program will increase interest in engineering because it was very hands-on and showed how many different paths you can take through engineering.”
The Saturday camp sessions ran from 9 a.m.- 3 p.m., with transportation and lunch provided for all students, thanks to the PSF grant. Each session focused on different principles and practices in STEM: coding, rocketry, density and buoyancy, electricity and solar cars.
Sept said, “I enjoyed the electricity camp we did the most because there was a lot of student interaction, and they could take several different approaches to the topic. I think the most engaging activity was when we brought in the Van de Graff (electrostatic generator) and the students got to experiment with electricity. Whether it be watching their hair stand on end or their friends get shocked, the students really seemed to enjoy using it.
“A total of 11 middle school students attended at least one of the camps and four attended all of them,” Vincent said. “Throughout the four sessions, we also had more than 20 high school students volunteer to help. I collected important experience and data that will hopefully reveal how students, middle and high school, aspire towards STEM education and careers. I know that several of the campers have indicated that they want to study PLTW engineering when they get to high school.”
“The most immediate feedback I received during the camp were the smiling happy faces of the campers and high school counselors as they engaged in the STEM activities,” said Vincent.
CHCCS District Headlines stories are written on a regular basis by the CHCCS Division of Communications, with assistance from a network of school-based “storytellers” who share tips and ideas throughout the school year. The goal is to share real-world examples of the CHCCS Strategic Plan in action. Know about a story worth telling from your school? Contact the CHCCS Communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.