STEM inspires engaged learning

STEM Institute provides college-level learning experience for middle school students 

By Mary Hirtreiter

Campaign Themes:

“We want our middle school students to understand that attending college — whether K-State or another college — is within their grasp.” – Lori Goodson


During the heat of the summer, many people think the Kansas State University campus is dormant. But for some fifth through eighth graders in USD 383, it is their turn to bring the campus to life as they attend the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Institute.

The STEM Institute is held on K-State’s campus during June for students who have completed fifth through eighth grade. The classes are set up and the students themselves can pick four class topics they want to explore from a list of 25 topics. They go to each topic, or class, for a week and then move on to the next great thing to learn.

The camp began when USD 383 wanted to have a summer program for their students but had construction going on and no way to house all the students. The College of Education wanted a field experience opportunity for their summer class students, and the rest is history for this partnership.

“Now it has become a summer tradition with more than 320 middle school students coming to Bluemont Hall for the month of June,” said Lori Goodson, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education at K-State. “What started out as a USD 383 and K-State partnership has expanded to more of a regional service providing opportunities for middle school students from school districts across the state,” Lori said.

Now when it comes to picking the classes to teach, it all depends on student interest and engagement. “We survey the students to find out how they are feeling about the classes and what they learn from and engage with,” said Deb Nauerth, STEM Institute principal. “We try to keep those classes they find most engaging and that students really enjoy. We take their ideas and implement them into new classrooms and sessions every year.”

 The real excitement begins for the leaders of the camp when the students start rolling in on the buses. “There is so much energy and enthusiasm, as everyone is excited to begin their STEM journey for the day,” Goodson said.

Following the students around to their different classes, you can see how engaged the students are throughout the whole day. According to Makinzie Hogan, a fifth-grade teacher at Northview Elementary, the students in her session learn how to use solar energy during her class. “This shows the students how other countries that do not have the power that we do, use the sun as their source of power, and how we can really do the same to save the energy we have left.”

In every classroom, there are students engaged and attentive to what is happening in the room, but none as much as the robotics classroom, who are battling the robots they built. The students in one classroom have built the robots from the set of instructions, adding their own fun elements to the robots to better face their friends in the final tournament. “It is so cool to see the students so engaged and excited to learn something and build it together,” said Krista Everhart, a K-State senior.

The students of the College of Education also get a first-hand look of what life could be like in the classroom. As part of the core teaching skills class, the student-teachers are working hands-on with the students every day of camp.  “These college students used to just teach each other over the summer because there were no classes to watch and interact with,” said Duke Harmon, the technology coordinator. “Now with this camp, they get real experience with a great representation of what a real classroom could look like.”

Of course the camp is ever changing and growing due to the rising demand of the middle school students to have more and more. “We do not want to stand still — we want to keep expanding our opportunities for everyone involved because our world isn’t standing still,” Goodson said. “The camp continues to grow. Our attendance has climbed in the past few years, and we have added several more topics to the rotation to keep our offerings fresh.”

“Ideally, we would add to our arts-related classes so we can shift this camp to STEAM to meet the growing educational needs of our changing world and help all students find that this camp has something just for them,” Goodson said.

It also has a great impact on the middle school students, not just to peak their interest in STEM-related fields, but in post-secondary education. During the camp you can see many students imagining themselves going to college and seeing that it is completely attainable for them, especially the ones who probably never thought they could be one of those kids. “We want our middle school students to understand that attending college — whether K-State or another college — is within their grasp,” Nauerth said.

“My daughter is more interested in flight now, and more interested in being a vet, when she previously wanted to be a police officer,” said Meshell Thornley, a parent and a teacher at the STEM Institute. So I think this camp has opened her eyes to show her that she can do other things and excel at them all.”

This camp is sponsored by an anonymous donor, as well as USD 383 and K-State’s College of Education. However, donations to sponsor students and provide resources for the camp would make the STEM Institute available to more young people. For more information about the camp and how you can help make a difference, click here or contact Abel Frederic, senior director of development for the College of Education.

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