A STEM-Filled Summer Helps Build Next-Gen Scientists

Summer camp is a time-honoured tradition in Canada, one that usually involves canoeing and campfires.

But tradition isn’t the only option kids have these days. Actua — Canada’s largest STEM outreach organization — is working hard to make Canadian summers about science, technology and the adventure of innovation, as well.

A national charity aimed at preparing youth from all backgrounds to be the next generation of innovators, Actua supports more than 1,700 STEM summer camps in 500 locations each year delivered by Actua’s cross-country network of 33 university and college based members. Aimed at kids aged five to 15, the programs are tailored to individual regions and communities and, in addition to camps, include school workshops and after-school clubs.

Campers in Whale Cove, Nunavut, learn how to convert the potential energy of an elastic balloon into kinetic energy. During this activity, campers learned basic engineering design principles and build their own balloon-powered all-terrain vehicles — a popular mode of transport in the Arctic.

A young camper in Rigolet, Labrador, uses Makey Makey to change the controls for an open-ended Scratch game that she created while learning how to code.

What sets this network of science-and-tech camps apart is its impressive geographical reach. With supporters that include GE Canada, Google, Suncor, NSERC and others, the programs take place in just about every corner of Canada — including remote and rural locales that often aren’t served by other STEM offerings. That scope is coupled with highly customized content — for girls, Indigenous youth, northern communities and more — to make sure each program has the greatest impact.

“We focus on engaging under-represented youth and we do this through partnerships and relationships with communities and organizations that already engage these hard-to-reach youth” says Jennifer Flanagan, Actua’s President and CEO. “These relationships allow us to customize our content to meet the unique needs of youth across Canada.. In Indigenous communities for example we work with local leadership to deliver content that bridges Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge with western science in a way that relates to kids lives”

A young camper in Rigolet, Labrador, uses Makey Makey to change the controls for an open-ended Scratch game that she created while learning how to code

Campers in Whale Cove, Nunavut, learn how to convert the potential energy of an elastic balloon into kinetic energy. During this activity, campers learned basic engineering design principles and build their own balloon-powered all-terrain vehicles — a popular mode of transport in the Arctic.

Camps are set up for hands-on learning including projects designed to show kids how to identify problems that affect their lives and come up STEM solutions. “What that does is get them really engaged in relevant learning,” Flanagan explains.

The focus is on showing kids that an innovator isn’t something you become, it’s something you can be right now. “It’s about getting kids to recognize that they can actually be innovators,” Flanagan says. “Yes, they absolutely will be leaders of tomorrow but the emphasis is on the potential they have to lead right now.”

A local elder and artist in Iqaluit, Nunavut, shows Actua campers how to select and carve soapstone. The campers had spent the morning doing geology activities and were quick to connect the elder’s selection process to techniques they had learned earlier in the day.

A local elder and artist in Iqaluit, Nunavut, shows Actua campers how to select and carve soapstone. The campers had spent the morning doing geology activities and were quick to connect the elder’s selection process to techniques they had learned earlier in the day.

For Chloe Girvan, who’s seven-year-old daughter attended Actua’s member camp,Virtual Ventures, at Carleton University in Ottawa last year, the chance for girls to experiment without the fear of getting it wrong is a huge part of the program’s appeal. “It’s about giving girls an opportunity to play, to explore, to make mistakes and to build on them as opposed to walking away,” she explains. “That learning from failure is where greatness comes in and where discoveries get made. She now knows what it feels like to develop her own solutions”

How do Actua supported camps create the kind of safe space where kids can experiment, have fun and learn all at the same time? With the help of more than 1,000 highly committed undergraduate instructors hired each year by Actua’s network members. These STEM students use their real-life experience to help build skills and instill confidence in campers of all ages.

“These young role models are relatable, they’re excellent with kids — people that are really passionate about STEM,” says Flanagan. “They’re sharing that enthusiasm and their own personal story, and that has a big impact.”

Campers race sailboats of their own design at a “Geering Up” event held at the University of British Columbia. Earlier in the day, the campers learned about the parts of a sailboat and then designed their own. The name of the event comes from the term “geers,” an old nickname for engineers.

Campers race sailboats of their own design at a “Geering Up” event held at the University of British Columbia. Earlier in the day, the campers learned about the parts of a sailboat and then designed their own. The name of the event comes from the term “geers,” an old nickname for engineers.

Girvan agrees. “It’s great to see the female role models at the camp. My daughter got to interact with young women who are in engineering and are going on to do amazing things.”

Girvan’s daughter got involved almost by accident. An injury meant her planned tennis camp had to be shelved. A spot in a STEM camp was admittedly second choice — at first. “My daughter said it was the best camp she’d ever been to,” Girvan says. “She loved it so much. It’s changed me, too. It’s made me less afraid of technology.”

That’s exactly the kind of transformation Flanagan is aiming for. “We want to change their view so that they can start to imagine themselves as someone who could do science, now and in the future.”

And what’s the future for Actua’s summer STEM programming? For Flanagan, 1,700 camps in 200 locations is just the beginning. “We have major plans for scaling up,” she says. “There’s a whole bunch more kids who could benefit from these programs. More Indigenous youth, more girls, more communities across the country engaged.”

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