There is no shortage of programs in the Silicon Valley that focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM, as it is commonly called.
On a recent Wednesday morning, approximately 30 high school students gathered in a Foothill College classroom. The room was abuzz with the sound of robots being tested in a cardboard maze and quadcopters being repaired. Students waited with bated breath to see if their robots were fully functional, and as the hours passed, loud cheers overtook the room as they succeeded.
This is just one scene from a brand-new summer program. This summer, Foothill is teaching math and science-related material to local high school students by offering free STEM camps.
The camps’ primary objective is to give women and underrepresented minorities a chance to immerse themselves in STEM while enhancing any interest that the students already have in these subjects.
“The goal here is to encourage more and more women and girls to come and get degrees in STEM-related fields and show them that they can do it and have fun at it,” said Oxana Pantchenko, a principal investigator for the camps and a faculty member in Foothill’s engineering department.
This program, which is in its first year, consists of four cohorts, or sessions: Energy and Power, Robotics, Math Challenge and Water.
The Robotics and Math Challenge sessions ran simultaneously, and just wrapped up on July 18. The Water session began July 22. Students could participate in as few or as many sessions as they wanted.
Pantchenko said that approximately 30 students are in each session. About a third of the students have chosen to participate in more than one session. The students come from different grade levels and have varying skillsets, which, said Pantchenko, was one of the initial challenges instructors faced.
Avoiding math-heavy concepts has been one solution to that dilemma, she said.
Rising Los Altos High School sophomore Kelly Strangl said that this teaching method makes her want to recommend these STEM camps to other high school students.
“Even if you’re not the best at math and science, you learn a lot,” Strangl said. “A lot of it is just problem solving.”
The set-up of the Robotics session was fairly simple. Every morning, students came in for a light breakfast and then got to work on their projects.
Toward the end of the two-week session, the students worked in teams to complete their grand challenge, which was to design, build and program a robot to navigate a maze.
Peter Murray, the Dean of Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering (PSME) at Foothill, said that the whole idea behind the camps was to make them different from high school.
“We don’t give them a lab manual and tell them they have one hour to do it,” Murray said. “We basically give them a whole bunch of parts, tell them, ‘here is the challenge’ and they have to sit there and discuss how to do it, so it’s not prescribed.
“So what we try to do is first of all, to be able to think by themselves, then to work as a group … and then realize that it might take several days to do a problem.”
This practical approach to STEM appealed to many of the students. Wilcox High School graduate Clemente Alejandro said that his favorite part of the program was the hands-on experience, while his former Wilcox classmate and rising senior Sonia Romo said that it was a new way to learn math and science-related material.
“Instead of just having a notebook and always studying and doing problems, it’s different because you get to actually plan something out and then see how it works instead of normal classes, where you learn the material, you get tested on it and then you forget about it,” Romo said.
One of the camp instructors, Sarah Parikh, who also works for Foothill’s PSME department, oversaw the students in the Robotics session as they worked on their grand challenge. The cardboard maze was set up on the floor on the far side of the classroom, and student teams took turns testing their robots and fixing any bugs they found in their programs.
Teams had two choices: They could program their robots to navigate either the specific maze they were given, or to navigate any possible maze.
“It’s a simple challenge but it can be taken to whatever level the team’s ready to go to,” Parikh said. It showed the flexibility students had with their work, she said.
Because the STEM camps are free for participants, they required external funding. Murray said that the total cost of providing the camps was approximately $60,000, but donations from the Los Altos Rotary and Palo Alto Rotary Club, as well as private donations from Honmai Goodman and Joseph W. Goodman of Los Altos, helped cover this hefty sum.
Murray and Parikh said they hope to expand the camps next year, based on student feedback. Ultimately, they want to be able to continue providing students with the opportunity to explore STEM-related fields in an open learning environment.
“This is summer camp, so ultimately it’s fun — that’s the point,” Parikh said. “And hopefully, it’s a little bit of learning things as well.”