STEAM Camp piques interest in math and science for Flint’s youngest students

STEAM camp children work with toothbrush robots.
Students explore the world of robotics by making tiny “BristleBots,” using a battery, a pager motor and a toothbrush. Photo: Mayberry Media

Future scientists, engineers, mathematicians and creative thinkers had some fun over the summer at the Flint Community Schools’ first-ever STEAM Camp. The two-week, jam-packed experience blended academics and the arts with fun-filled, hands-on activities designed to increase elementary-age students’ exposure to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). By adding art as a time for creative thinking and reflection (and, thus, turning STEM to STEAM), campers had space to internalize what they learned each day.

“We tried to create an experience that was fun and structured in a way that the kids could learn by doing. We call it ‘sneaky’ learning,” said Elizia Artis, Community School Corps program manager, who led a group of AmeriCorps members as they planned the camp.

Capturing the interest of students as early as possible is one of the greatest drivers encouraging future success in STEM subjects. According to a study published by Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal, achievement gaps in science begin to emerge before kindergarten. Early exposure to basic scientific techniques — observation, asking questions, experimentation — is critical to increasing student interest and performance in science in the later grades.*

While Flint, like many school districts, is making an effort to immerse students in these subjects at the early elementary level by opening the Brownell-Holmes STEM Academy for students in kindergarten through 5th grade, afterschool programs and summer camps can provide an extra boost to learning by providing time for hands-on, project-based learning — activities that are not only educational, but fun.

STEAM campers took the responsibility for tending their gardens very seriously, and learned about how important vegetables are to a good diet.
STEAM campers took responsibility for tending their gardens very seriously and learned how important vegetables are to a good diet.
Photo: Mayberry Media

“Afterschool and summer learning are really wonderful for this kind of exploration,” said Anita Krishnamurthi, vice president of STEM Policy for the Afterschool Alliance in Washington, D.C. “These hours provide time for open-ended experimentation — and learning that it’s okay not to get something right the first time. Students have the opportunity to understand something because they want to, not because they have to. You need that to become a good scientist or engineer. The sheer joy of understanding, discovering something for the first time — that’s incredibly important.”

To that end, Flint’s STEAM Camp offered learning activities ranging from earth science to computer coding to astronomy and space. Each day’s thematic focus also included plenty of outdoor activities to keep both bodies and minds active. About 120 children from several Flint elementary schools attended the camp, organized into age-appropriate classrooms at Brownell-Holmes STEM Academy.

Plenty of local organizations jumped in to help, said Artis. “Sloan Museum, Raise It Up, For-Mar, 4-H — those are just a few of the partners that visited us and led sessions.”

Recycling plastic bottles — a plentiful commodity in Flint — to create small terrariums was one of the most popular activities at STEAM Camp.
Recycling plastic bottles — a plentiful commodity in Flint — to create small terrariums was one of the most popular activities at STEAM Camp.
Photo: Mayberry Media

Operating from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, the STEAM Camp lived up to its name — running through two of the hottest weeks of the summer.

“It really didn’t seem to bother the kids,” Artis said. “We worked hard to alternate quieter activities with group activities.”

Art as a reflection tool played a very important part in each camper’s daily routine. Musical activities worked well as a “calm down” after more physically or mentally demanding tasks. The children used spoken word, poetry, drawing and a big graphite wall to help them think through and summarize what they learned.

Professional mentors took time to visit the STEAM Camp to show how science, technology, engineering and math can lead to good jobs
Professional mentors took time to visit the STEAM Camp to show how science, technology, engineering and math can lead to good jobs.
Photo: Mayberry Media

Five months in the planning, the camp was operated by AmeriCorps members currently working in Flint’s four community schools, as well as a new team of National Civilian Community Corps members in Flint to assist the community in recovering from its water crisis. In addition to the Corporation for National & Community Service, organizing partners included the United Way of Genesee County, Crim Fitness Foundation and Flint Community Schools. Through its grants to the Crim and United Way, the Mott Foundation provided financial support for the camp.

The camp culminated with a Career Day fair that included games, food, classroom visitations and other family activities.

“It was an awesome day, so interactive and fun,” said Artis. “Our goal was to use each day of camp to reinforce the idea that careers in science, engineering and technology aren’t beyond our students’ reach.

“We’ve already come up with some ideas to make next year’s camp even better.”

* “Science Achievement Gaps Begin Very Early, Persist, and Are Largely Explained by Modifiable Factors.”