The virtual advantage: Summer Engineering Academies expand access and programming

by Catalina Myers  |   

UAA’s College of Engineering Summer Engineering Academies have always been a staple in the community’s camp lineup, but now that they’re virtual, they’re reaching more youth across the state.

Each summer, hundreds of students from Anchorage and Mat-Su sign up for a week-long summer camp with UAA’s College of Engineering (CoEng) Summer Engineering Academies. The week-long camps are geared toward students from third to 12th grade, provide hands-on instruction in STEM, and are designed to encourage local youth to explore the field of engineering. Like last year, this year’s camps are being hosted online and offer campers some brand new programming.

UAA’s Summer Engineering Academies also welcomed brand new major sponsors, ConocoPhillips Alaska and MTA Alaska Foundation. The support of sponsors makes it possible to keep the cost of the camps affordable for all students wishing to participate, allowing youth across Alaska to discover a diverse range of topics from robotics and computer programming to building structures and engineering fundamentals.

“With the virtual camps, we have a wider reach across Alaska,” said Joe Selmont, UAA Summer Engineering Academies’ director. “We've had participants from Unalaska, Fairbanks and the Mat-Su. In that sense, virtual camps really open up the possibilities for kids to participate from all across the state.” In addition to the camp's broader reach and participation, he said they shortened the normally six-and-a-half-hour camp day to four-and-a-half hours and provided a mandatory “no-screen” 30-minute lunch to combat Zoom fatigue for both the campers and instructors.

“We’ve really been able to hone in on the individual experience of the campers,” said Selmont. Now that students and instructors have a year’s worth of virtual learning under their belts, the program is better equipped to engage students on a virtual platform, and they can provide a more tailored experience.

Kenrick Mock, dean of CoEng and professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, led the Minecraft Coding camp, a new program for middle and high schoolers attending the Summer Engineering Academies. He said he was excited for the opportunity to add something new to the program lineup — especially a program he knows many kids enjoy in their free time.

“It’s nice to have a platform that the kids are already familiar with — it’s something totally new — and it was a good hook,” said Mock. “This particular platform is based on Microsoft Code Connection and allows the students three different ways to write a program. Which is great for students who’ve done robotics and other block-based coding, like scratch; this program is a really nice one to follow because it allows them to progress on the skills they have learned in earlier camps.”

Introducing youth across Alaska to the possibilities of careers in engineering is the camp's primary goal, and one of the most significant advantages to providing a virtual camp is the wider reach CoEng has to introduce students across the state to STEM.

“ConocoPhillips has been a proud sponsor of the University of Alaska Foundation for more than 40 years, supporting important educational programs, including engineering,” said Erec Isaacson, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska. “We believe strongly that educating and providing opportunities for Alaska’s youth will strengthen and enhance our state.”

Both Selmont and Mock echoed Isaacson’s statement saying that UAA’s Summer Engineering Academies are a fun and engaging experience for youth wanting to explore STEM and provide them an opportunity to see if this is a possible career path for them later in life.

“The engineering program is an important part of our community,” Isaacson said. “We are pleased to contribute to UAA's Summer Engineering Academies, supporting children in their exposure to critical thinking and hands-on STEM programming.”

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