The students are participating in the fourth annual Camp Launch, a two-week STEM summer program for high-achieving, low-income middle school students. The program is hosted by the College of William & Mary and is operated by the School of Education’s Center for Gifted Education.
During the camp, students attend three-hour blocks of classes, some focusing on academics and some on personal development.
The academic classes cover a range of subjects in classrooms and labs across the Williams & Mary campus. In one class, rising seventh-graders learn how to build and program robots. Using Lego Mindstorms parts and software, the students construct simple robots and program them to move and complete simple tasks.
“We present them with a series of challenges,” said Penny Brown, who leads the Lego robotics class. “We’ll start with one task, and next week, they’ll have multiple tasks to complete.”
Those tasks for the robots range from the simple to the complex — using a light sensor to distinguish between light and dark objects, reacting to sounds in the environment and moving a set distance.
While building the robots is fun for the students, Brown said they also learn analytical and critical thinking skills.
“They get the same pieces, the same parts, and they come up with different solutions to the problems they’re presented with,” he said.
In an engineering class in Morton Hall, rising eighth-graders learn about force and motion by building rubber band race cars. As the twisted rubber bands unwind, the force spins the wheels of the small model cars. Next week, the class will build hovercrafts out of CDs and PVC pipes.
For Jeff Fry, who oversees the engineering class, the camp offers more than academic lessons.
“A lot of the kids come from tough neighborhoods and might not have a lot of parental support,” he said. “I spend a lot of the time talking to them, trying to build those relationships.”
While the engineering and robotics classes offer students a chance to learn and play, another class combines those lessons with real world situations. Called, “Acid, Acid Everywhere,” rising eighth-graders examine a hypothetical chemical spill on Jamestown Road.
Rob Whitehead, who leads the class, says the students are presented with basic facts of the scenario at first: a tanker truck overturned on Jamestown Road, it is leaking an unknown liquid, and police and fire units have been called in.
As the course progresses, students learn more about the scenario: the truck was carrying acid, and it is leaking into College Creek and Lake Matoaka.
Whitehead said, as more of the scenario is unveiled, students have to consider the wider implications of the spill — how will it affect the creek? What if the acid reaches the James River? Should residents be evacuated?
The class also incorporates tangible elements — a letter from Mayor Clyde Haulman, videos of witnesses on the scene — to enhance the sense of realism.
“For a lot of them, they’re not sure it didn’t actually happen,” Whitehead said. “At that age, they still have that suspension of disbelief.”
During their time at the camp, the students also participate in a personal development class. For Dr. Jennifer Cross, who oversees the class, it is one of the most important experiences for the Camp Launch students.
The course helps students discover their identities and build resiliency – and plan for the future, Cross said. The goal is to help the students think of college as an option.
“A lot of their peers get that kind of advice, especially on college, from college-educated parents,” she said. “We try to level the playing field, in that respect.”
Without support at home, Cross said, many students doubt their own abilities. This class tries to change that.
“They sometimes have ‘fixed intelligence,’” Cross said. “They won’t try a difficult task because they don’t think they can do it. The lesson is they just need to try.”
That idea is present throughout the program. Back in the robotics class, Brown talks to a student whose robot successfully completed the task of moving a plastic cup.
“You seem surprised,” Brown said to the student. “You seem surprised, but I knew you could do it.”
For the last four years, Camp Launch has been funded by a gift from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, but Dr. Mihyeon Kim, the camp’s director, said that funding ends after this year. The Petters Family Foundation provided the camp with additional funding for this year. The School of Education, which handles Camp Launch’s funding, hopes it will be more than a one-time gift. Kim also hopes other donors will help the camp continue in the future.
“Academics are not the only issue,” she said. “[Camp Launch] helps them understand themselves, their capabilities and to focus on the future.”