One of my proudest accomplishments in Peace Corps has been establishing a STEM-themed summer camp for Georgian youth. And it all started over a year ago…
Once upon a time on the eve of DREAM Camp 2016, other Peace Corps Volunteers and I went out to dinner in town. I had asked them how DREAM Camp got started and they told me the idea that it is started around November during In-Service Training of 2015. I did not know starting a camp can be “easily” attainable. For some reason, the idea of establishing my own camp captivated me. An idea as quick as lightning struck, I wanted an all-girls science camp. Even though I was only one month into service, I noticed Georgian youth are not engaged in STEM much. Sure, they take chemistry classes in school but most of it is based on theory with no practical training. Why would anyway want to pursue a STEM career if all the fun is taken out of it while it is being introduced?
I went home that day and just researched fun, engaging, educational experiments that I could conduct in Georgia. I came across NASA’s website and noticed a few things. I began researching organizations that I could partner with to host this camp. Most importantly, I started thinking of other Peace Corps Volunteers I could engage with that have a strong STEM background. I know that one of my friends, Amanda, is a chemical engineer. She had worked for about a decade as one before Peace Corps. I gave her a phone call. She was in. I have “Technology” experience with working for IT companies before Peace Corps, but I was a human resources professional by trade and not an engineer. She would bring the “E” part of STEM.
The next week or so, we started talking about how the camp would look like. I gave her a call one night and I proclaimed, “I know what I want to call the camp, it will be ‘METS’.” Over the phone, along with another friend, Ainsley, they said, “It sounds cheesy.” They weren’t into it. I tried convincing them that “METS” was perfect because it meant, “Me too” in Georgian and it was STEM backwards.
Lo and behold, the very next day, my former sitemate and friend, Jill, shared another Peace Corps Volunteer’s Facebook post with me. Would you like to guess what that post was? It was a camp that BJ started and it was called “METS.” Yes, the very name I had come up with. Also, it was a science camp. How could I come with this idea and someone else had implemented it? Blessing in disguise? Great minds think alike? I needed to know more. So, I messaged him and later that night, we had a long phone meeting.
He was happy that I shared the same passion. BJ was an engineer and a lawyer. Therefore, he had expertise in implementing a STEM-themed camp (read about the original camp here). I was excited how many of our ideas were the same! He, too, also looked at the NASA website. It turns out that his camp was only at his site. It was just a day camp and not an over-nighter like the other Peace Corps supported camps. No one was able to help him implement his and he thought that his day camp would not be sustained when he left. He was happy that he could pass it on and I was happy that I didn’t have to start completely from scratch. It made sense that moving forward, I would work with BJ to take it over for the following year. At that time, I had also told him that Amanda was in and she wanted to work with me on this. From that moment forward, we had three Peace Corps volunteers dedicated to starting a week-long, overnight STEM-themed camp.
However, I do want to point out that BJ had a slightly different vision that I originally did. Initially, I wanted an all-girls STEM Camp. BJ delivered a co-ed camp and thought that it was more important to have both genders. I was hesitant at first. Retrospectively, I think it is because I had my American lenses in which our American society inactively discourages females to participate in STEM-related activities. However, in Georgia, both genders are desperately needed in STEM professional fields. Secondly, the school system here awards compliances and discourages loud behaviors. At first, I did not see this. But now, after a year of service, I agree with BJ wholeheartedly. As a true feminist, I want equality for both genders. Since boys are not excepted to do as well in school as girls, they deserve to be just as encouraged to attend our STEM-themed camp. Although this article is not about Georgia, I feel that a lot that was written in here could describe the Georgian school system if you want to read more about gender equality in schools.
To help ensure that the group work would be divided equally, BJ implemented “engineering roles” that was inspired by NASA. He separated the students into groups of four and each student had a specific role that would rotate each day. Each of the four roles (Project Engineer, Test Engineer, Developmental Engineer, and Facilities Engineer) would help ensure that no kid would get too excited and do all the work. Since the roles rotate, each student had a chance to be each type of engineer by the end of camp. We decided that keeping the camp co-ed and keeping the roles should continue for the next camp.
We also decided that it would be best to have two separate summer camps. BJ was in the cohort ahead of Amanda and me. Therefore, his service was ending in June/July of 2017. The first camp would be held in June so that BJ could “teach us the ropes” before he completed his service. The second camp would be in July or August so that Amanda and I could teach the new Peace Corps Volunteers how to do the camp. Creating a timeline was a great first step on how to launch his initial project into a full-fledged overnight camp. However, we still had more work to do.
For the next few months, Amanda, BJ, and I worked hard to secure a partnering organization to do a camp with. In Peace Corps, sustainability is key as I mentioned earlier in this post. Therefore, we wanted to work with Georgian partners to launch the camp. BJ had started a working relationship with San Diego State University in Tbilisi. Therefore, we wanted to continue that relationship with San Diego State University at the minimum. The students at San Diego State University would be our camp counselors and the partnering organization would help run the camp logistically.
Our first camp was held in June, in Telavi, a city in Eastern Georgia. We had 24 students ranging from 13-17 years old. We also had 6 counselors- five from San Diego State University and one from our partnering organization, Students for Energy Efficiency. The camp was funded through Small Projects Assistance (SPA) by USAID. The kids were very active and truly enjoyed working on all the experiments that we did.
Sessions were first divided into two parts. The first part was the lecture in which they learned safety and the scientific theories behind the experiment. The second part of the lecture is when they tested the theories through practical experiments.
Needless to say, the children were much more excited to complete the experiments than to listen to the lectures. Their eyes would just lit up anytime we were about to start conducting the experiments.
At the end of the June camp, one of the community member’s daughter stopped by to check-out the camp. To welcome her, one of our campers should her the model bridge she built from different types of noodles and a hot glue gun. It was amazing to see our camper describe all the scientific theoretical concepts and how they relate to our everyday lives. She basically summarized the entire camp to our guest. That was an amazing moment to witness because it was a glimpse into how successful our camp was.
At the end of August, Amanda and I along with three other G17 Peace Corps Volunteers hosted the second METS Camp in Kobuleti. It was filled with meaningful discussions about how to pursue STEM careers as adults. Even though I am not an engineer, I was able to provide career insight to those wanting to pursue computer science and computer engineering. I had worked in IT companies and have personally recruited computer engineers. The students truly appreciated listening to some real-world experience.
In a world where politicians do not believe in climate change, we need more STEM education than ever in our lives. I hope that both camps I helped conduct inspire at least one child to pursue a degree in STEM. So many of our world problems could be solved using Science, Technology, Engineering or Math 🙂