CHARLESTON, S.C. – Volunteerism, ingenuity and hard work overshadowed the pandemic blues in July to make Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic’s first-ever online STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) summer camps a virtual success.
Hundreds of school-age children across the nation participated remotely in NIWC Atlantic’s 8th annual Palmetto Cybersecurity Summer Camp in late July and the 9th annual Girls Day Out, which wrapped up August 1.
Both camps, which took the unprecedented step of going 100 percent virtual, saw strong participation levels that in some cases exceeded past events.
“Despite a pandemic, it was incredible to see so many organizations and volunteers pull together to transition these resources to a virtual environment this summer,” said Peter C. Reddy, NIWC Atlantic executive director. “Our Navy and our Nation really depend on these future leaders in the areas of cybersecurity, information technology and many facets of engineering. These type of events not only help to emphasize the importance of lifelong learning, they also serve as a pathway for many students interested in pursuing STEM careers.”
NIWC Atlantic has a long history of igniting community interest in STEM by collaborating with local academia, industry and other organizations to transform young Americans into students who are literate, competent and confident in STEM while also providing a pipeline for future talent.
STEM courses use creative, hands-on experiments that are both fun and engaging to attract children of all ages — mostly rising eighth- and ninth-graders in the case of Girls Day Out.
“Fewer than 15 percent of American engineers are women,” said Jenifer Pinckney, NIWC Atlantic engineer and Girls Day Out camp director. “But that statistic will change, as more and more girls choose STEM careers because, in part, they at some point had the opportunity to interact, admire and identify with successful women in STEM careers.”
During the camps, dozens of volunteers helped facilitate and moderate more than 20 classes in everything from robotics, building a gaming computer and video storytelling to lessons in soft skills, such as networking and public speaking.
The STEM team noted that going from a traditional, in-person format to a virtual one was not without its challenges.
“In a short amount of time, we needed to ensure we implemented the right technology, understood that technology and then explained it well enough to the instructors, parents and students,” said Zachary Storti, a NIWC Atlantic cybersecurity analyst and camp director of the Palmetto Cybersecurity Summer Camp. “Because of the many volunteers behind the scenes and instructors who provided very thought-out and comprehensive materials for students to easily digest, the camps were absolutely a hit.”
Tonya M. Davis, a network systems management instructor at Trident Technical College, said she took great pleasure in encouraging laughter and fun online as she and two other volunteers from the college introduced campers to python programming, troubleshooting and board configuration during her web development class called “Who Wants Some Raspberry Pi?!”
“This year, more than ever, it was important to still have (STEM) camps for the kids,” Davis said. “These kids have been through so much and haven’t been able to interact with people or their friends as much as they normally would.”
In addition to Trident Technical College, camps were supported by a long list of both private and public partners that included College of Charleston, Medical University of South Carolina, Bosch, Tallo, Nucor Steel Berkeley, Santee Cooper, T-Mobile, Boeing and the Naval Health Clinic.
South Carolina school districts in Charleston, Berkeley and Colleton counties also played indispensable roles, as did two STEM camp instructors from the Portsmouth Public Schools District in Portsmouth, Virginia, who presented virtual courses featuring demonstrations and instructions in launching water rockets.
Camp organizers also helped children obtain “digital badging” for course completions by teaming up with the web-based platform Tallo, a networking and resume service that links school-age children to scholarship, college and job opportunities.
Jaiden, a 12-year-old aspiring engineer, said he attended the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Scavenger Hunt and the Web Development class because of his interest in one day becoming a software developer.
“I loved the camp,” he said. “I really enjoyed learning about and exploring STEM.”
Savannah, a sixth grader who has attended STEM events for years, said learning all about college was actually one of her favorite topics during one of the Girls Day Out courses. She said she appreciated the student volunteers who told her things like: “You will need a planner!”
“I noticed that students asked questions, shared screenshots and interacted (so well) with presenters,” said Antoinette Green, a career specialist with the Charleston County School District who volunteered her time to help organizers with countless administrative functions.
John Patrick Shell, a veteran teacher in the Charleston County School District, helped STEM camp leaders with planning, strategizing and technology assistance during live sessions.
“Participants were challenged with specialized tasks to improve their logical thinking and computer skills, (such as) virtually programming a robot to complete specific missions, which was an incredible feat itself,” Shell said. “The exposure to virtual programming for students really takes a great deal of planning and execution and was quite successful for a first-time event.”
Girls Day Out students received a mobile app to access course content and other information. The new app was developed by a team of new professionals and summer interns led by Marcus Schoultz, a NIWC Atlantic software engineer who taught the cybersecurity camp’s Web Development class and is currently developing other apps for STEM-related activities.
Meanwhile, Todd Remmel, NIWC Atlantic senior geospatial analyst and GIS lead for STEM, also developed an app that used industry-leading geospatial technologies, including an operations dashboard, which he used to teach a class he called GIS Scavenger Hunt during the Girls Day Out camp.
Aside from the two main summer camps it hosted, NIWC Atlantic also supported a summer program sponsored by state and federal transportation authorities and hosted by Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. It was the first time that the command participated in the six-week program that ran through the end of July and is focused on underserved and underrepresented student communities.
Kelly Thompson, NIWC Atlantic STEM outreach operations manager, said on top of all the summer camps, the STEM team also created virtual job shadowing videos for students interested in cybersecurity fields as well as virtual career fair videos featuring various speakers in order to distribute electronically to local schools.
In the end, command STEM leaders said the level of enthusiasm during this year’s STEM camps and activities made it abundantly clear the hard work paid off.
“Honestly, from very little notice to no real past experience, the feat of organizing our first-ever virtual camp felt a little intimidating at first,” said Tonya Hamann, STEM outreach coordinator. “However, we were tremendously pleased with the outcomes, including the immediate positive feedback we have received from parents. And considering most of our help came from behind-the-scenes volunteers, including many educators, this year’s event was unquestionably a collaborative and community-based success story.”
Capt. Wesley Sanders, NIWC Atlantic commanding officer, took time during the camps to thank the students, volunteers, sponsors and parents who helped make the virtual STEM events this summer a booming success.
“These students are truly our future,” he said, “and our Nation’s ability to maintain a competitive world presence in science and technology depends on the generation that will one day work in these career fields.”
NIWC Atlantic’s STEM team said more fun and learning are coming in September, with a virtual FIRST Lego League kickoff at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston on September 15 and the Washington, D.C.-based biennial USA Science & Engineering Festival between September 16 and 23.