UChicago camp teaches middle-schoolers STEM skills, perseverance

STEM Education program helps South Side students build growth mindsets

What makes a faster homemade race car—CD wheels on a straw axle or washer wheels on a dowel rod axle? This summer, local fifth- and sixth-graders tested their hypotheses at a UChicago-led camp aimed at building students’ STEM and critical-thinking skills.

Nearly 40 students from seven Chicago Public Schools attended UChicago STEM Education’s South Side STEM free day camp, held in July at Wadsworth Elementary School. Each day, students spent their mornings practicing fractions through a curriculum designed to build confidence and excitement around mathematics. In the afternoons, they studied cryptography and engineering.

“Our team wanted to provide a camp for kids who don’t have regular access to rich STEM opportunities outside of school,” said Denise Porter, UChicago STEM Education’s director of education outreach. This is the first year UChicago STEM Education has offered the camp as a full-day program on the South Side.

Throughout the two weeks, students learned that making mistakes and feeling frustrated when something is challenging is part of the learning process. Teachers helped students recognize when they needed to seek help or employ other strategies.

“As we worked on fractions, we’d ask: ‘What was the mistake you made and what did you learn from it?” said Rachel Muren, UChicago STEM Education school support manager.

“By the end of camp, students have grown comfortable saying when they don’t understand something and can articulate what they don’t understand,” added school support manager Ellen Dairyko.

The camp also taught students to work in groups so that they were learning from each other as much as from teachers. During the engineering period, students worked in groups of three to test axles and design race cars made from cereal boxes and plastic bottles.

While students all agreed that they wanted to win the race, they were unable to agree on their favorite part of camp.

Student Adarsh Nair’s favorite part was engineering. “Practically everything in this room is made by engineers.”

Student Evelyn Wilson liked cryptography and learning to use new tools like a cipher wheel—an ancient encryption device. “I like being able to do more hands-on things and use different tools,” she said.