July 14, 2014, BY Christina Masciere Wallace

Engineering Camp

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Engineering was an enigma to Katie Warfel '17 when she was a high-schooler thinking about a career in math and science. The field sounded interesting, but she had no friends or family with the professional connections that could help her explore her options. After attending Bucknell's engineering camp, she knew that she wanted to major in chemical engineering — and that she wanted to do it at Bucknell.

"No matter how good your high school is, you might not have a concrete idea of what engineering is. The camp really focused my interests," said Warfel. In June she returned to camp — as a counselor.  "I wanted to help kids learn about all of the different opportunities in engineering."

Started in 2008 with just 26 students, Bucknell's weeklong summer engineering camp has grown to enroll 184 campers this year. Rising 8th- through 12th-graders come from all over the country, and as far away as England, to experience the residential camp taught by College of Engineering faculty.

"The main goal of camp is to introduce kids to engineering disciplines in a way that motivates them and prepares them for undergraduate majors," said Professor and Camp Director Erin Jablonski, chemical engineering, who founded the program with support from the National Science Foundation. "We're removing the mystique of going to college and majoring in a technical field."

Campers live in McDonnell Hall, eat in Bostwick Cafeteria, go to class and laboratory sessions each morning and afternoon, and enjoy an active "social life" of supervised extracurricular sports and games. Thirty-five hours of hands-on lab sessions and classroom instruction give participants a remarkably accurate preview of college life.

"That's what really sets our program apart," said Jablonski. "Many of the campers, especially those from under-resourced urban or rural schools, may be the first in their family to go to college. We want to reduce their apprehension about college in general, and give them the confidence to tackle difficult subject matter."

The students are exposed to every discipline in the College of Engineering through carefully designed classes that challenge them and engage their interest in fun and collaborative ways. Faculty members must get creative when designing the age-appropriate curriculum.

"Everyone brings their best stuff — the flashiest thing they can teach in an hour and a half," said Professor and Associate Dean Margot Vigeant, chemical engineering. Vigeant's challenge was to translate her Bucknell food science and engineering course into a hands-on session for young teens, keeping in mind their attention span and varying abilities in math and science. Her solution? A game in which teams of students compete to design a tasty, nutritious, affordable granola bar that is low in calories and could be easily manufactured. They begin with discussion of FDA regulations and potential markets for granola bars before moving on to choosing and "paying" for ingredients, creating a product and calculating caloric values.

"I want the kids to understand that manufactured food is a designed product," Vigeant said. "At the end of the class, we discuss what they learned. Every summer, they realize that you can't hit every objective. You can't create a bar that tastes great, is low in calories and high in nutritional value. They can usually reach two of those goals, but not three."

To make the camp as accessible as possible, the University reaches out to several under-resourced schools in Baltimore, Los Angeles and New York. Nearly 20 percent of this year's campers came from these institutions.

Last fall, Kirsten Heinemann '81, P'12, P'15, a University trustee and graduate of the College of Engineering, used a personal contact at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, N.Y., to connect Bucknell with the nearby Westbury Public Schools' STEM-focused Magnet Academy, which operates out of the museum. She and her husband, Steve Heinemann P'12, P'15, made the first gifts toward camperships at the museum's annual fundraising gala. The generosity of donors allowed 20 Westbury students to attend camp this summer.

Brumsic Brandon, who coordinates Westbury's STEM program, was thrilled with the outcome. "The camp absolutely increased the students' interest in engineering, and they were excited to meet other kids with similar academic interests and motivation, all in a college setting," he said. "I think this camp will have a lifelong effect on these kids. It will definitely shape their decisions later in life."

Dave Lacroix, a rising senior at Westbury, plans to pursue a STEM career and is spending much of the summer doing research projects at the State University of New York-Old Westbury. His camp experience opened his eyes not only to engineering disciplines and materials, but also to what it's like to live on a college campus. 

"The Bucknell professors and counselors made the experience really heartwarming," he said. "They recognized us as individuals with our own passions. It made me realize I'm more than just an SAT score. And it was neat to see how every student at camp had a unique perspective. We were all different but shared a core interest in engineering."

Exit surveys of the 2014 campers attest to the positive impact of the program. Sixty-two percent reported being more likely to pursue an engineering major; 94 percent could imagine themselves as engineers; and 92 percent are confident in their potential to solve engineering problems.

For Professor Katsuyuki Wakabayashi, chemical engineering, camp isn't about selling engineering. It's about equipping teenagers with the information they need to decide whether they want to become an engineer, and giving them a sense of what a real college class is like. So although he uses Cocoa Puffs to demonstrate nanotechnology principles, he doesn't dumb down the concepts.

"I want to show them that engineering is not about using the most expensive tools but being creative and open-minded about solving problems and doing good science," he said. "Anything is possible, as long as you have good critical thinking skills, a 'doer' mentality and some luck. That's what Bucknell teaches. It's not just about technology — it's about being well rounded and having a liberal arts education that makes you creative around every aspect of life."