Summer of STEM adds fun learning to students' carefree months out of the classroom

Mini-grants make program available to all
Posted at 12:00 PM, Jun 28, 2016

CINCINNATI – Exploring circuits, 3-D design and robotics may not seem like typical summer pastimes for local kids, but that’s changing this year thanks to a new K-12 initiative that’s sweeping Greater Cincinnati.

It’s called Summer of STEM, and the first-year program is bringing hands-on lessons in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to a growing number of young learners – including those who are economically disadvantaged and underserved.

The initiative, facilitated by the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative, is the answer to a widespread problem: summer learning loss. Commonly known as the “summer slide,” the struggle is real for American students who are out of the classroom each June, July and August, according to Mary Adams, program manager for the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative.

“Studies show this is a real problem for our kids, and, unfortunately, it disproportionately affects low-income students,” she said. “One of our big goals with Summer of STEM is accessibility. We want exciting summer STEM programs to be available to every student.”

The Erpenbeck STEAM Academy, part of the Summer of STEM initiative, was open to students of all income levels across the region. Provided

The initiative aims to transform the region into “a classroom without walls” this summer in an effort to create opportunities for students to explore not just STEM learning, but also careers in the wide range of fields that fall under the STEM umbrella.

Partners across the region, including public school districts and libraries on both sides of the Ohio River and local nonprofits like iSPACE, have joined the initiative. Most already had summer programs in place but are working to make them available to a broader audience. To help, the collaborative has provided funding, including eight mini-grants, to a variety of programs this year.

That funding – made possible by a National STEM Funders Network grant as well as a network of program sponsors like P&G and Duke Energy – is giving students who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to attend pricey, summer classes and day-camps low- and even no-cost options. And that’s good news for kids from families struggling to make ends meet, said Erpenbeck Elementary School teacher Kyle Holloway.

Holloway leads the Summer STEAM Academy at Erpenbeck, which received grant funding this year through Summer of STEM. His weeklong, full-day camps were open to third- through sixth-graders from across the region this month and featured hands-on lessons with circuits, 3-D design and robotics. Students even left at the end of the week with their own robots.

Erpenbeck made an effort to get more girls involved in the camp this summer, he said, and the grant kept costs down to help further increase accessibility.

Similar weeklong summer camps would typically cost parents more than $200 for each child, he said. This summer at Erpenbeck, with the grant offsetting the cost, each student paid around $30.

“Our Summer STEAM Academy is really an extension of what our kids are doing all year long in our STEAM lab, and it was exciting for us to be able to share it for the first time with students from outside Boone County,” Holloway said. “When you do this kind of work, you’re engaging everyone. … For some of the students, it opened up a whole new world.”

Cincinnati-based nonprofit iSPACE is using funds to bring similar STEM programming to students at four Cincinnati Public Schools this summer. The organization is also partnering with UpSpring and Hamilton County Parks at Sharon Woods on July 7 to engage homeless children with a day of rocketry, nature walks and outdoor play.

Third- through fifth-grade students at Pleasant Hill Academy were exposed to robotics this month through its IGNITE Engineering program.

“It was a huge success,” Tim Walker, the school’s community resource coordinator, said of the iSPACE program. “It was hands-on and engaging from start to finish, and really challenged our kids.”

Offering those fun challenges, which help students develop 21st century skills, is what Summer of STEM is all about. The partner organizations offer a wide range of programs, but each shares that mission.

Fourth- and fifth-graders at William Howard Taft Elementary have tended a garden this month. Woodward Career Technical High School is hosting a Summer STEM Bicycle Club. Girls Scouts of Western Ohio are engaging local girls this summer with an outdoor science lab. And that’s just a few of the offerings.

To help make it easier for parents and kids to find exactly what they’re looking for this summer (and beyond), the collaborative also partnered with ArtsWave to create – a “one-stop-shop” website that brings together arts and STEM programs available for youth in Greater Cincinnati.

Designed for parents and educators, the site is searchable by grade level, date, discipline, provider and type of activity. Summer of STEM activities (and others throughout the year) can be found with just a couple clicks.
The pairing of art and STEM education is a natural one, according to Holloway. STEAM (STEM plus the arts) instruction is a perfect fit for summer programs, he said.

“During summer camps, we have flexibility. We can expose students to really advanced and sophisticated work,” Holloway said. “Kids from all different backgrounds, who are interested in different disciplines and aspects of a project, all work together; and it challenges everyone. In the end, they learn all of it.”